A total of 1,798,380 tourists arrived in Sri Lanka in 2015. Only 375,735 of them – about20% – visited the country’s wild life parks. There is clearly a big gap there and, as naturalists like Gehan de Silva Wijeratne have been pointing out for years, something needs to be done to get that percentage up.
While the beaches with their golden sand and turquoise waters are an obvious draw, and the imposing ruins of ancient Lanka as well as the picturesque mountainsides continue to pull backpackers and more affluent tourists alike, the country’s wealth of flora and fauna remain largely unexploited in terms of tourism promotion. The little promotion that does happen, a closer look will reveal, is either inadequate or substandard to the point that it could actually hurt the country’s image.
Wildlife tourism expert and Past President of the Hotels Association of Sri Lanka Srilal Miththapala has a plan – or at least an idea on top of which a plan can be built with the participation of all stakeholders – to turn things around.
At a public lecture organized by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce earlier this week under the topic ‘The Importance of Sri Lanka’s Wildlife Attractions,’ Miththapala spelt out of his vision.
Sri Lanka is recognized as one of the 31 biodiversity hotspots in the world. That a little island nation like Sri Lanka has been featured in such a list is, as pointed out by Miththapala, is not only a rare honor but an opportunity to get those numbers up. Unfortunately, while Sri Lanka is world renowned for many salient things, this unique factor hardly ever gets a mention.
“There are, among others, 3,000 plants, 80 mammals, 180 reptiles – 101of whom are endemic – that can be found in Sri Lanka. This is a wide variety for such a small country. The species diversity here is amazing,” said Miththapala.
Tourism in Sri Lanka took a dip towards the latter parts of the country’s protracted civil war. Though the country has been a top destination for a long time, the travel trade was mired in crisis after crisis thanks to various epidemics and bombs going off on street corners. But almost immediately after the war ended in May 2009, tourism in Sri Lanka took a turn for the better.
“All other industries took a longer time to come out of the war, but we recovered immediately,” said Miththapala, referring to his chosen profession. “It has seen an upward trend since. Arrivals have reached almost two million now, and Sri Lanka is in a unique position in that our occupancy levels are not due to lowering rates. Arrivals are increasing and so is the rate.”
Sri Lanka’s big four
While that’s great news, there is definite room for growth. And that is where wildlife tourism comes in. Miththapala agrees. Referring to the above- mentioned species diversity in the country, he said: “These are wonderful things that we should be shouting from the rooftops. We have the largest land mammal on earth and the largest animal that ever lived on earth. We have one of the largest predators, the leopard. And one of the more elusive animals – the sloth bear. We have four unique mammals in Sri Lanka. Why can’t we promote this as Sri Lanka’s big four?”
About 10% of the world’s elephant population reside in Sri Lanka. Miththapala laments that these are important statistics that are almost never highlighted when the country is pitched to the world of travel.
“Independent, hard-nosed naturalists who have travelled all over the world… they realize this is a wonderful place,” he said, pointing out that in addition to the largest land animal, Sri Lanka is also home to the smallest: the pygmy shrew.
Echoing sentiments previously expressed by his colleague Gehan de Silva Wijeratne– and published in Daily FT – Miththapala said that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world where you can see blue whales, bottle nosed dolphins, wild elephants and leopards on a single weekend.
“These are fantastic and unique things that we can promote as attractions in Sri Lanka. Blue whales come to Mirissa because there’s a lot of krill and plankton there. These are the stories we have to tell,” he said.
Tell interesting stories
He also noted the need to tell interesting stories – for example, Sumedha, the elephant that comes to the bunt of the Udawalawe lake to feed – rather than just saying “come to Sri Lanka; we have elephants”.
Referring to the controversial Pinnawala elephant orphanage, Miththapala said that, while there are shortcomings, it can be a helpful asset in terms of tourism.
“There were 362,000 visitors to Pinnawala last year, with Rs. 766 million in earnings. Although there are shortcomings, it is the world’s first elephant orphanage. It is also said to have the largest captive herd. It should’ve been the world’s primary research Centre for elephants. Unfortunately, it has fallen by the way side. Hopefully it can be revived. Where on earth do you get 86 orphaned elephants in one space?” he said. There is, however, an overcrowding issue in Pinnawala. The elephant transit home at Udawawale offers an interesting contrast.
“It’s a reasonable success story. There 40 calves being rehabilitated. The idea is that you don’t interact with them too much. They live most of the time outside in the grassland and come only for their milk. And once they’re old enough, they’re released in batches into national parks, usually to Udawalawe itself,” explained Miththapala.
Yala and Wilpattu
Yala, though more popular than ever (over half a million visitors), has lately been a bone of contention among tour operators and wildlife activists. Overcrowding is a serious issue in Yala, with countless safari jeeps flocking to the reserve to spot leopards.
Miththapala believes there is a need to take focus away from Yala and turn at least some of the tourists to other parks – particularly Wilpattu, which has seen a dearth in park visits in recent years.
“Yala is rocketing in terms of revenue, Udawalawe is going up, but Wilpattu has been going up and down unfortunately. Yala is overcrowded, so we need to push people to Wilpattu,” he said.
He called on tour operators to refer clients to other parks when they’re inquired about leopards
“Don’t focus on Yala. Say ‘would you like to take this route and go to Wilpattu?’ Push Yala out and bring in Wilpattu. It is the largest park, so you have to drive a lot to be to see a leopard if you’re lucky. But do shift the focus from Yala. That is in our hands. The hoteliers, the tour operators,” he said.
One of the biggest problems in Yala is a tendency by drivers to somehow show the guests a leopard. Their desire to give the client a unique experience, said Miththapala, coupled with tactics of overpromising have contributed to this issue. The solution, he reiterated, is to give the leopards a backseat and promote the park as a space to see other big game.
In terms of revenue, when you look at the visitor numbers, in 2015 the Sri Lankan visitors visiting all the parks outnumber foreigners 1:3. The foreigners, however, contribute more than 25% of revenue.
“We need to give the foreigners a value-for-money experience. In 2015 we had 1.8 million arrivals, out of which only 20% visited the parks. Wildlife and nature tourism does play an important role in Sri Lanka tourism. There’s a lot more room to grow. We’ll never become a Kenya, but there is room for growth,” said Miththapala.
The tourism industry – particularly tour operators and hoteliers – can do a lot to change things around, rather than waiting for the Department of Wildlife to step in. Miththapala advocates ethical tourism, discouraging hotels from offering elephant rides and the like to increasingly environmentally-conscience tourists.
“We must self-regulate, or we’ll never get anywhere,” he said.
“Wildlife and nature is our most valuable natural asset. We’re all of us blessed to be born in this wonderful country, if not for anything else, just for this beautiful natural asset that we have. It is the responsibility of all of us, tourism people, environmentalists, ordinary citizens, to somehow do their bit, in little organized clusters to help protect it from degradation. As Ghandi said, the greatness of a nation and its progress can be judged by the way its animals and environment are treated,” he added.
Srilal Miththapala is a regular eTN contributor from Sri Lanka.
Author: Himal Kotelawala, Images: Lasantha Kumara