28 January, 2022


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

By Rasika Jayakody

Rasika Jayakody

‘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.

*The Writer is a Consultant to The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority

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Latest comments

  • 4

    I do not talk about this zero dollar torurisim trick …
    But tell me why Sri Lanka cannot develop tourism industry yet.?
    Sri Lanka has got a huge pontentiality to develop tourism.
    All what it need is to have a good political leadership or call it a highly skilled tourism Minister with good knowledge on tourism .
    Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with its natural beauty…
    Each province has got some good tourist spot …
    Sri Lanka needs to build tourists attraction spots and activities ..
    For instance; beauty of up country has not been developed yet to attract more tourist .
    What about cable cars between mountains in up country side ?
    What about water games in beechsides ?
    What about natural Safri in yala and other forest ..
    People do not like zoo now but people like to see animals in natural setting .
    Sri Lanka needs to build its road in cities so that people could avoid traffic.
    For instance; Sri Lankan two big cities Colombo and Kandy badly need ring roads around them to ease traffic ..
    Colombo traffic and bus stops need update and replacement ..
    They should create park and ride system or they need to relocate some bus stops in Colombo city ..
    People who go to South should have their bus stations in somewhere in Moratuwa side ..
    People who go to Kandy should take bus from some where Kalania bridge side ..
    Like wise other areas people should have their buses from convenient paces .
    Why should all people come to Petta to get bus to go long distance .
    It does not make any sense to crowd people into inner city to take bus .
    All our transport system encourage torisirts to come to.SL.
    Sri Lanka needs to create agricual farms and botanical gardens to attract more tourists.
    Like that of Kew gardens and glass garden in UK..
    The idea of port city and development of Colombo beach sites are good idea..
    But we should consider ecological effects too..
    Sri Lanka needs to build ecologically friendly roads …
    Please do not give your project to China they are good people but they damage our ecology..
    So; Sri Lankan development policy makers they should consider both development and ecology.
    Development at the expense of ecology is no good for future generations of Sri Lanka …

    • 4

      Do not worry about Zero Dollar Tourism in SL. We are already neck deep in CHINESE ZERO DOLLAR INVESTMENT SCAMS. Port City, Hambantota Port, Mattala Airport, Desserted Conference Centers etc to name a few. Implemented in collaboration with the LOCAL POLITICAL MAFIA. Who receive massive kickbacks from dubious Chinese firms.

  • 8

    In the North East there is Zero Benefit tourism.
    The locals have zero benefit.
    The Army and the Navy control everything and they pocket the money .

  • 2

    So there we go go. Businessmen have no scruples. May be these principles and their proxies float their mothers, sisters and daughters too as merchandise for tourists. I bet there are proxies amongst the current set of green politicians under their promotion of foreign businesses in SLK or selling national assets to foreigners!

  • 4

    In the North East it is called Rapist Army Tourism.

    They check the tourist and bar them going to North. Murdered Khuram and his Russian girlfriend Victoria Alexandrovna in South is biggest Odyssey.

    Even start of this year Ashley Judd many time requested permission to while she was in Colombo. But Proud Yahapalanaya refused to allow her going there. She is a UN goodwill Ambassador too.

  • 3

    Its China, China, China and China. Last week, a Kenyan parliamentarian called for action to curb Chinese influence in Kenya and his anger was palpable. At least, in this case the tourists are Chinese, the shops are also OWNED by Chinese and they happily cheat!! When will this be removed from us?

  • 1

    If you visit Burma as a tourist, you have to pay a minimum visa fee, based on the duration of your stay. If you want to stay ten days, they calculate at US$ 100/ per day for ten days and purchase a voucher for that amount. If your stay is longer, you pay the difference as you leave the airport at departure. In Sri Lanka, all and any who step into the lounge is counted as a “tourist” and noted for the numbers by the Tourist Board. No benefit, only cost to us.

    • 2

      Sri Lanka charges USD 35 for a 30 day Visa. Is the USD 100 /per day for Myanmar correct ?

      • 0

        I went to Myanmar some years ago and as I recall, we had to first give the number of days we wished to stay there. They required us to pay, for each an amount based on the number of days, nd as I remember, it was USD 100/ per day. They gave us in return several “vouchers” ranging in equality USD 1/ to 100/ and we could use these to pay for our board, lodging and purchases. Of course, if we spent more than the total value of the funds exchanged, that was OK with them. If we had additional Burmese currency as we embarked, we were told we could change those back to USD, but the minimum was already accounted for. In other words, no free rides. It is mandatory to spend a minimum each day as a visitor to Burma.

  • 3

    A hidden aspect of tourism in some countries is the availability of prostitutes – male and female.
    In Sri Lanka there are the ‘beach boys’, and, local small brothels where tourists who are inclined are directed by room boys/waiters in tourist hotels.
    Local ‘gigolos’ infest the beaches and swimming pools, picking up willing lady tourists.
    In the Phillipines there are ‘resident’ “companions” in each hotel
    In Thailand, touts offering services of ‘comfort women’ infest the areas around most hotels.

  • 1

    ,A true wakeup call .

    Yes this is true ,I was offered this deal while overseas.

    There is a team monitoring, anyways very grateful for the article ,this is 100% true.

    We need a young dynamic Tourism Minister and my option is Hon. Navin Dissanayake.

    And a lot of support from the CID .

    It must be crushed immediately, otherwise the Country’s reputation and image will be further damaged .

    As it is we have a lot of issues that have ruined this business , Tourism is the life blood of our economy.

    There are dangerous signs of the state slowly slipping into the hands of foreign mafias and soon organized crimes will take over if quick action is not taken.

    Most Sri Lankans are taking matters too easy , they really don’t understand the major catastrophe that the end result could bring , organized crimes are even more dangerous than terrorism .

    To know what it is like ,one should talk to people from Countries that are governed by proxies of Mafias (Organized Crime cartels)
    Once they get the grip on, you will never be free .

    With the kind of money they have, they can buy certain people who will be willing to do anything for money in tons ,Country means nothing for such goons .

    • 0

      “lot of support from the CID” Ha..ha…
      What support you need from CID? A clueless guy getting excited on nothing..

  • 3

    Sri Lanka does not need to worry about “Zero dollar tourism”; it needs to worry about “Million dollar tourism”. The industry is in a pathetic state with the Ministries and SLTDA not knowing whether they are coming or going. Countries in the region are growing their tourism remarkably fast while Sri Lanka is lagging behind. The problem is with Strategies and Policies at national level that are far outdated. Sri Lanka has also priced themselves out of the market compared with many countries in the region.

  • 0

    @Steve ,yes especially the pricing you are correct.

    But we need not worry about how countries in our region market their tourism

    We have a lot of culture to boast about and need to concentrate on it a lot ,and there is a huge potential. for Buddhism tourism and vedic , we should promote real Ayurvedic treatments ,meditations ,Yoga ,traditional festive activities, promote traditional food of all Sri Lankans .

    Then the beach , the boat rides , city tours , not even the crust of our Cultural tourism has been scratched ,

    We had a huge flow of tourism from. the west during late Madam Sirimovo ,even with a more closed door governance of rigid Socialism.

    Today the state of affairs is because of unfair system that has been prevailing since of late ,only time there was some fair play was during Madam Chandrika’s ,according to my experience ,I never had the need to bow my head to any politician then ,I had work in Rupavahini ,ITN ,Air Lanka ,(Now I could not even get a registration in Air Lanka) , then the Customs ,and State printing corp , the Tender procedures were very transparent. And very fair.

    All that is gone , now most places you can not even approach ,there is a certain group who blocks honest contractors and unblocks crooks .

    This government both UNP and SLFP needs revamping with new and young blood with Zero prejudice and integrity .

    Otherwise we have to wait and see what Mr.Mjahinda is willing to change in his extremism and how he is willing to. undo his wrongs of the past, is he willing for self criticism ? Is he willing to let all Sri Lankan enjoy equality ! ? Starting from availability of all three languages , to religious freedom (but sermons of all religions monitored to combat hate with rigid punishment,) freedom of Speech ,protection of activists and Press .,everyone free to import ,export and indulge in legal business , hand high the drug lords and murders ?
    These just a very few requirements for any government await.

  • 4

    Our Sri Lankan’s all of them, be they – laymen, politicians, officials, professional, businessmen etc – have some huge complex, and fat pig headedness, and they show as if knew and masters of everything under the sun but pathetic, know none, nothing, nil, zero. Man, now days, in Europe- the French, Swiss, British, Italians etc- the hoteliers, shop keepers and all the tourism related businesses are not looking for American millionaires or the Arab shieks but for the Chinese and Indians. They are the big spenders and come in big numbers, in hoards. Last year over 2 million of them from India came to Paris, our immediate neighbors how many of them came to Sri Lanka. 1.8 million Chinese came to Rome. The Italian police had big issues owing to lack of Chinese language when Chinese tourists were attacked by pick pockets and petty crimes. To solve these issues the Italians brought down Chinese policemen to work along with the Italians policemen in the streets of Rome, If this happens in SL, oh they would made such a bro all saying they have given the country to Chinese. Thailand and Indonesia made it visa free for the Chinese for they are the highest numbers of visitors, and Malaysia too followed suit. The Genting Casinos in Malaysia all 24 hours of day get buses loads of Chinese tourists. Japan received over 2 million tourists from Muslims countries especially from Malaysia and Indonesia. Korea too received 1.4 million of them from these countries. Both of them are promoting Hala tourism in a big way to attract more and more visitors from Islamic countries. Myanmar and Vietnam are getting huge number of visitors from all the neighboring countries. By looking at all these what tourism our people are talking about. They think only the Europeans, American and Australians are the tourists not the rest of the world.

  • 2

    Dear Steve .
    Many people in Sri Lanka got high post in many minsitirirs without basic qualifications .
    How could they think about tourism development.
    After all 50% of Mps do not have GCSE ..

  • 0

    We can and must learn from other countries as to what happens when tourism is pedalled as a money spinner. Recall the plight of Egypt. The direction in which Bali, Phuket are going.
    In our case the ‘Zero Dollar Tourism’ described by Rasika Jayakody is the start. This will gradually off-spins like drug tourism, sex-tourism. These may end up with blackmail. We will get Casinos leading to money-laundering.
    To cut a long story short: Tourism is not productive – no value added here. Instead we must encourage producing our own food – including milk, fish, meat etc. For example value may be added to eggs by producing local chicken feed.

    • 2


      “Instead we must encourage producing our own food – including milk, fish, meat etc”

      And during drought and floods and aftermath of those, we go and beg? We should not depend on one thing. Sri Lankans don’t have the capacity to top in the highly competitive travel and tourism markets for sure, and by the time we reach to a level, others would have reached somewhere we cannot reach them. As always, we can only be an option or alternate destination only, while having all that beauty a country has to offer. Today, Dubai is one of the top destinations without any natural attractions and without oil or gas money like their neighbors – Something to learn from.

      Challenges will be there, Govt has to be prepared and regulate. Specially, the Govt has to be ready to kill the crabs that pull back our collective progress. Before all that, the government has to have a plan to reach to a level in tourism.

  • 2

    I think Zero-Dollar tourism should not be banned, but visitors should be made aware of it and leave them to decide by both, originating countries and in SL. And put a price control at those malls plus introduce a Zero-Dollar tax.

    Who knows, it is an opportunity that will attract a budgeted visitor to revisit on a non-Zero-Dollar next time. More visitors means more chances we have to sell and resell. Let’s take it as another marketing campaign

  • 0

    As it is Sri Lankans are tarnishing the image with tourists being killed, raped and assaulted one side, on the other side, tourism standards are bring brought down by other small players.

    One example, if you browse hotels in SL, there are many putting their hotels as 4-star or 5-star, while in reality or in the picture they publish say that their hotels are not worth a single star.

    Govt has to spend a lot on regulating these things first to compete with the other counter-parts in the region. Then spend even more on these facilities and invite foreign investors. Tourism can not be tackled with the same way how Govt tackle rice and vegetable production to encourage local farmers.

  • 0

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  • 0

    @Isharath .(I think Zero dollsr Tourism must not be banned )

    What an insane suggestion .

    Are you suggesting Sri Lanka to step out of the International rules and regulations set by Tourism and give open license to a small group of Rouges to operate unethical and illegal Business ?

    Aviation and Tourism are governed by rigid rules by international organizations.
    I am qualified in it and I know what I am talking .

    Why is it that there is always a segment of Sri Lankans who dislike to play fair in business ?

    Some always prefer to take the illegal path ,even if it deny the rights of honest businesses and destroy the Country .

    Damn shame

    • 0

      Fahim Knight:

      Bro, for over 2 decades, I had been with Marriott, Starwood (before Marriott taking over) and IHG hotels. And over 10 years as Dir of Sales with Ritz-Carlton. You’re talking about what is in the books, and I am talking about rewriting the chapters that won’t fit the real world.

      There is nothing illegal in ‘Zero-Dollar Tour’, and in SL, it is still legal. We should not follow few countries that take decisions based on what is best for them and think that we follow international standards – that is stupidity.

      It is Thailand that leads others to ban Zero-Dollar tour for their selfish gain and discriminate tourists – Reason? Simple, they want “rich tourists”, not the budgeted ones to fill their country.

      You said, “International rules and regulations set by Tourism” – I am confused on this, but LOL.

  • 0

    What Isharath fails to conceive here is ,This is not just Monopoly,,,

    It’s a Scam ,which means ,fraud ,and to swindle.

    How can any person suggested to legalise fraud ?

    What is the matter with some of our peoples minds ? Omg .
    I give up

    • 0

      Fahim Knight:

      Bro, please don’t just do a few Google searches and come to conclusion. “Zero-Dollar tour itself is not scam or fraud. There are people who use the term, “Zero-Dollar tour and scam the innocents.

      I guess it is just a matter of time before a bigger player like Priceline starts doing this, so we will realize the values it has.

      Kind request: Before you get too upset or tension, learn the subject a bit more. And do not depend on CT articles alone – Good luck!

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