Conference tourism
An unforgettable congress at Bentota beach
Adnan Rehmat
Media analyst and country director of Internews Network
South Asia; conflict; young scholars; the chance to speak with peers from several countries and to get to know the region better and maybe contribute to greater understanding of each other; and to make lots of new friends. And all of this is with a friendly sun, blue sky, turquoise sea and golden sand around you - what more could one ask for? All of this happened over the course of five days in May 2002 at the Taj Samudra Luxury Hotel at Bentota in Sri Lanka. I was one of two dozen participants from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives brought together by the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) for the "Workshop on Shaping the Future: A South Asian Dialogue."

 

 

Adnan Rehmat

South Asia; conflict; young scholars; the chance to speak with peers from several countries and to get to know the region better and maybe contribute to greater understanding of each other; and to make lots of new friends. And all of this is with a friendly sun, blue sky, turquoise sea and golden sand around you - what more could one ask for? All of this happened over the course of five days in May 2002 at the Taj Samudra Luxury Hotel at Bentota in Sri Lanka. I was one of two dozen participants from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives brought together by the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) for the "Workshop on Shaping the Future: A South Asian Dialogue."

I've attended more conferences and workshops than I care to count and in some amazing locales around the world but this was special -- primarily for its setting. Facing the Indian Ocean, a tropical lagoon and a major snaking river, Bentota is one of the most established beach resorts of Sri Lanka. It's known for its professional, high-end touristic infrastructure. Safe swimming conditions combined with fun water sports and exciting excursions in the immediate region made it one heck of a conference site. A meeting of minds in such surroundings of young scholars in their 30s from the South Asian region from academia, media and the development sector made it a special, unforgettable congress.

We were all lodged at the magnificent five star Taj Samudra right on the edge of the rolling Indian Ocean -- it was some years before the tsunami and when oceans had an unqualified lure and no one brooked a lurking fear of eternal waters turning angry for perplexing reasons. The ever-present gentle breeze swaying palm trees and a muffled roar of the waves could be seen and heard from the large conference room, its windows framed by Sri Lanka's ubiquitous golden orange king coconut trees. No wonder that even the passionate debates on what could constitute a practical way of transforming the complicated, myriad conflicts of South Asia into regional strengths were tempered by the runaway beauty of the surroundings.

The never dull debates of the participants in the conference hall from nine to five were inevitably followed by a radical transformation: suited warriors of the day changing into shorts and bikinis and giving themselves up to the ocean, all chummy and frivolous, suspending their arguments for the morrow. Then the boisterous, exotic dinner and late night strolls -- mostly in small groups but some in deliciously suspicious twosomes, along the beach and sometimes in secluded groves. Many deep friendships were made, some for life -- in defiance of the suspect wisdom of South Asian governments and their flawed policies. It was a conference that more than paid for its investment.

 

Enjoying walks around China Town in KL

I have been a regular traveller to Malaysia and primarily for work. Attending and delivering various training programmes in the capital Kuala Lumpur has been a great experience on all counts. It all started with a project that I was managing an anticorruption training project that entailed training of Asian government and civil society representatives.

We would arrive each time in the centre of KL and stay for many weeks interacting with Malaysians and other nationals. Being in Kuala Lumpur one cannot help marvel at the progress Malaysia has been made. The environs remind one of a developed country and the facilities are first rate. Above all, the inclusive society that works on a tenuous balance between different religions and ethnicities. Once cannot help think about Pakistan when walking around in modern Malaysia where a plural culture is safeguarded by the state despite a strict Islamic code for Muslims.

During my stays there I also explored the way Malaysian government works. It is plagued by corruption in the Police and there are high level deals that turn into scandals. But the government is cognizant of this social reality. An integrity strategy has been prepared and a high level integrity body monitors the progress. Resources have also been invested into Malaysian Anti-corruption Agency (MACA) to train government employees in being sensitive to audit, transparency and pubic accountability.

MACA is a nice campus with excellent facilities. Its head and deputy were Malaysians of Indian origin who also introduced me to some delicious South Indian culinary delights. From hot and spicy fish cooked in different types of gravy to a variety of dossas. The Malay staff gave me a good insight into the local culture and how the changing and progressing Malaysia brings change at the family and household levels. There are more choices, more opportunities and of course a greater emphasis on individualism that conflicts with the traditional family structure.

I still remember the walks around the public markets, China town and of course walking in lovely parks that are still preserved in the over developed cosmopolitan capital. Another institution where I attended meetings and trainings was the National Institute of Public Administration or INTAN in the Malay language.

If I were to go there again, I would board the plane at once. In fact I just missed the annual conference of the Network of Schools and Institutes of Public Administration and Governance (NAPSIPAG). I am an academic adviser for this network but I just could not make it this December. I was going to Kedah and I have missed another great conference venue next to a rainforest.

I am sure there will be an opportunity soon. Malaysia, truly Asia is a catchy phrase. But it has not been coined in a vacuum. It is indeed a fabulous place for all kinds of tourism.

The writer blogs at www.razarumi.com and edits Pak Tea House and Lahorenama e-zines

 

The hospitality of Nanao Ishikawa

At my stage (in conferences business for more than one decade) the fun side of attending conferences in an "unknown destination" usually fades away. We often say that attending conferences -- for public-relationing and fund-raising reasons now -- does not only make one "suffer" in Urdu but in English too.

There are usually two types of conference venues. Those that the organisers select to ensure maximum number of local participants (such as SDPI's annual conference). Usually such conferences are held in city keeping in view the accessibility and convenience of the participants. Secondly, the venues are purposely chosen to keep the delegates focused on business only. Such venues are more isolated, slightly away from the hustle bustle of main cities and are a bit exotic.

For me attending a conference anywhere in the world is always a similar experience. There is hardly any difference between various airports and their security checks. Similarly, most four to five star hotels of the world offer similar corporate services, and same style (often boring) continental food. Upon check-in, I always look for wireless internet in my room. If that is there, then the tourism bit is over since one cannot get out of the routine office work.

Having said so, there are certain places that one wishes to return for a holiday. Nanao Ishikawa in Japan is one such place that I look forward to go for a holiday -- may be after my retirement. To be precise, it was Kagaya Hotel in Ishikawa that offers one a lifetime experience of living as the Japanese royal family traditionally used to live. With no furniture in the room, no sofas, chairs, beds, no amenities of corporate world, yet extremely comfortable and luxurious. The hotel also has Japan's famous hot water spring filling its swimming pools. Traditional Japanese food and a personal assistant that keeps on waiting outside the room to escort the guest through various dinning halls and restaurants are other salient features of Kagaya Hotel. While Tokyo is like any other metropolitan, Japan's hospitality and natural scenery is the best in this region. That was the only place where I did not use internet in my room for almost 4 days and yet survived.

 

 

October in Bhutan ...

The first destination is Bhutan I went to attend a conference in October this year. Contrary to the common perception, one generally gets to see very little beyond the conference hall as the time in between the conference sessions is hardly enough to indulge in tourism. During the three days that I spent in Bhutan I got to see the pristine natural beauty of the place. Not only is it natural but also unspoiled. The government of Bhutan has put restrictions on mass-scale tourism. Only a limited number of tourists can visit the area so that their environment isn't spoilt. It was so peaceful, calm and serene that it tops my list of favourite conference spots. However, one can only spend two to three days at such a place unless you are fond of trekking or mountaineering. If you are this might just be your heaven on earth.

Qatar in the Middle East is another favourite. Qatar is a small Gulf emirate but unlike Dubai they have learnt a few lessons and they have not made ruthless urban concrete development as such. They have tried to blend the development with the general landscape and not super-imposed western architecture on desert landscape. The most interesting feature I noticed was the re-development of traditional historical souq (Arabic for Bazar) called Souq Waqif. This souq has been rebuilt keeping the character and flavour of the old architecture intact. Keeping in synch with the former historical development, old shops have been shifted to the souq which by the way also houses restaurants serving world's best cuisines.

The art and culture gallery not only showcases the Qatari culture but also brings out artists from across the world to exhibit their works -- within the same souq. This is what impressed me the most in Qatar.

Hawaii also deserves to be mentioned here. Its clean beaches and pure conditions is one spot that has now became a favourite conference destination for organisers and participants alike.

 

Mountain magazine resort

There are conferences and there are conferences. Some organisers lure participants with travel and daily allowances and fancy hotels at exotic locales. Others rely on goodwill and commitment. If it's the latter, it helps to be located in an exotic place anyway -- like Kathmandu. It also helps if the organisers are professional colleagues for whom you have the highest regard.

These last two factors contribute to my 'favourite' conference being one that took place in Kathmandu in early 1996. The man behind it was Kanak Mani Dixit, whom I had met at an earlier South Asia conference about water resources organised by Panos some years ago. Kanak had decided to turn his 'mountain magazine' Himal into a Southasian venture (there is a reason Himalers write 'Southasian' as one word -- for an explanation see the published magazine or www.himalmag. com).

So Kanak got together a few journalists from around Southasia to meet and brainstorm on this venture. He put Mitu Varma from New Delhi and myself up at the Third World Guest House in Pattan, one of the five ancient kingdoms around Kathmandu that are conserved as World Heritage sites.

Kanak and his brother Kunda (my editor at InterPress Service) lived with their families in houses just outside Pattan Doka (the main Pattan entrance or 'darwaza') in a large compound. It contained several buildings, all family property. They could have knocked these down and built a high-rise plaza to get rich quick as so many in Kathmandu were doing. But they have different values. Kanak's father, a respected writer, named Kanak's son, Elam, as in 'ilm', knowledge.

They had a printing press for their Nepali magazines and Himal in the old 'buggy house'. The magazines shared an office in a building at the entrance of the compound. The printing press was later moved out and the space converted into a watering hole for Kathmandu's artists, journalists and activists -- Dokaima, a caf, gallery and conference centre.

The Third World Guest House where Mitu and I shared a room was sparse, but clean and comfortable. We had a great view of the main Pattan square, overlooking an ancient temple. It was incredibly colourful and photogenic (still is). We would have a light breakfast then walk through Pattan to the Himal office for our meetings. The rooftop terrace was a great place for an evening reception one evening. The icing on the cake: the unforgettable hot air balloon ride over Kathmandu, landing near Bhaktapur, another ancient kingdom.


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