'Zero Dollar Tourism': Is Sri Lanka Ready To Stiff The Scammers? 

‘Zero-Dollar Tourism’, is a scam that has already affected the tourism industries of several South East Asian countries. It is a tour that costs nothing but the airfare, with little business dividends for tourist providers. And the worst news - it is likely to be the next big challenge the tourism industry in Sri Lanka faces.

The logistics are simple - travel agencies pay for tourists’ accommodation and meals on the condition they follow the agencies’ schedules and shop only at the stores they are taken to.  The tourists are taken to shopping malls and gifts shops owned by friends and associates of the travel company operators, through whom the tour companies, get kickbacks.

The result is a bitter experience for the tourists - mostly Chinese - who are often coerced, forced and bullied into buying items from these shops at exorbitant prices. Investigations also  reveal that the real investors behind these shops are also from China and that operations on the ground are handled through proxies.

It goes without saying that the actions of these scammers resemble that of a mafia. How it affects the industry is that it leaves local businesses and firms out of the tourism market and allows just a small group of unscrupulous businesses to reap massive benefits while evading taxes and diverting revenue streams due to the state.   

Thailand, a country that draws a large number of Chinese tourists yearly, has already declared war on what has been termed ‘Zero Dollar Tourism’.  The Thai government, in 2016, took a bold stand against the scammers, saying Zero Dollar tour operators were tarnishing the country’s image, and ordered the Tourism Police to shut them down.

Three companies operating these ‘Zero Dollar’ tours were immediately shut by the Thai police who also seized 2,155 buses used to conduct the tours. Arrest warrants were also issued for the people involved in the tours, sending a strong message to the industry, that the government meant business when it said it would draw the line with ‘Zero Dollar’ tourism.

After Thailand began crackdown on Zero Dollar tour operators, Vietnam became these scammers' latest operation hub and safe haven. However their expectations were short-lived, when, following several media reports and revelations on the matter, the Vietnamese authorities closed down 15 stores last year as a punitive measure.

With Sri Lanka announcing ambitious plans to attract more tourists from China, the fear that ‘Zero Dollar’ operators will attempt to sneak in and set up operations here cannot be ruled out. And while there is no official confirmation or statistics on Zero Dollar Tourism in Sri Lanka, it is important to put necessary checks and balances in place to protect  our tourism industry from this growing risk.

One area the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) is working on right now is on its registration drive, which will bring all tourism related service providers in the country - from hotels and restaurants and tour guides - into the regulatory framework of the SLTDA, as stipulated by the Tourism Act of Sri Lanka.

It has been challenging however, to move a relatively large industry with multiple stakeholders under a single regulatory umbrella. Although the SLTDA has simplified the regulatory procedures to a great extent, a relatively large segment of the tourism industry is yet to be brought into the system. This is where other stakeholders should align with the SLTDA and throw their weight behind its regulatory process.

If ‘Zero Dollar Tourism’ takes hold of Sri Lanka, it will be a stumbling block to the growth of local industries. Although Sri Lanka has the right systems in place to nip this trend in the bud, compliance seems to be in short supply. All tourism industry stakeholders, including tourists, have a role to play in pushing tourism related businesses towards compliance.

Another important body in the battle against ‘Zero Dollar Tourism’ is the Tourist Police Division, operating under Sri Lanka’s Department of Police. There has to be a concerted effort from all parties to strengthen the Tourist Police, allowing it to take proactive action against this scam in the Sri Lankan market.

It is abundantly clear, that if the Tourist Police Division is made to grapple with infrastructure or human capital issues,  it cannot wage an effective battle against a this new ‘Zero Dollar’ scam that has the potential to destabilise Sri Lanka Tourism and deal a deadly blow to annual tourism revenue generated in the country.

Despite buoyance over growing tourism numbers throughout this year, it is important for everyone to understand the gravity of this looming threat and adopt protective measures in time, with due diligence. If there’s one way Sri Lanka can stiff  the ‘Zero Dollar Tourism’ scam, it would be through nothing but our collective awareness.

Rasika Jayakody