24th September 2000
By Kesara Ratnatunga
Travellers stretched out on tropical beaches soaking up the sun and enjoying being pampered in plush comfort was the image the word 'tourism' evoked. Although this is not a generalisation too far from reality, the trends of tourism and travel have been changing- over the years. With the attention of the global community increasingly focusing on environmental issues, conservation of cultures and the natural planet, the concept of ecotourism has come to the forefront.
Ecotourism has been misunderstood worldwide as a product, but it is more a philosophy which takes into account the environmental conservation of tourist locations and the welfare of the people. "Ecotourism is defined as, responsible travel to natural and cultural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well- being of local people," said Mr. Chandra de Silva, president of the Ecotourism Society of Sri Lanka (ESSL), in his welcome speech at the society's inaugural lecture.
The lecture itself was delivered by the founder and president of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), Ms. Megan Eplar Wood. She is a world authourity on ecotourism and has travelled widely educating people all over the globe.
In her talk she elaborated on the progress other tourist destinations have made with regard to ecotourism and the market trends which are leaning towards this new concept.
Her view is that environmental tourism will grow faster than 'sand and sun' tourism. (i.e. statistics show, 60% of all tourists to South Africa go there to see its natural attractions). Of the many examples she cited, ecotourism development in South American countries such as Puerto Rico were prominently featured.
Among the many advantages of ecotourism, one is that the adverse impact on the environment and culture will be minimal. Furthermore, the local residents will be largescale beneficiaries. They get a training in various skills such as interpreting, creating high-quality artefacts and they also become stakeholders in the ecotourist ventures. Experts believe that ecotourism is an excellent option for rural development.
Market research has indicated that ecotourists belong to a more intellectual social bracket, forming a niche market. They are travellers who come for a more in-depth interaction and for first-hand experience with nature and the local culture.
This means that the ecotourism industry must in turn cater to their needs of a high quality 'learning experience'. As a result those in the ecotourism industry must be educated and well versed with their area of expertise. For this it would be necessary to access human resources at graduate level.
Economically speaking this market comprises more upmarket individuals who are willing to pay higher prices.
This means that the industry would be able to generate as much or even more revenue with fewer, but (eco-conscious) travellers visiting the island. Thus the adverse impact on local environment and culture would be greatly reduced.
"Sri Lanka as a nation has never targeted the organised ecotourism market," states Ms. Eplar Wood in her report titled the Ecotourism Potential of Sri Lanka. However she says, "I think Sri Lanka has great potential." Because of the diversity and beauty of Sri Lanka's natural resources as well as the awe-inspiring cities, monuments, temples and vast irrigation networks of the ancient civilisations, this country posesses a rich vein of attractions with which to entice the ecotourist. She also observes in her report that part of the infrastructure required to make ecotourism viable in Sri Lanka is already in place, although a few more key specialised skills are required to make the system operational.
"One of the main problems," says Mr. de Silva, "is that the mass tourism industry is trying to capture this market." He stresses that if this were to happen it would ruin the ecotourism niche market in Sri Lanka for the simple reason that the mass tourism industry focuses on quantity rather than quality. "We need quality people for the ecotourism industry," he says.
The ESSL's principal objectives focus on the sustainable development of ecotourism in Sri Lanka on a planned and scientific basis.
The society has formulated a programme of lectures, exhibitions and workshops to achieve this end targeting three main groups: the travel industry, the general public and the student population.
The Sri Lankan situation seems to be on course for a change with the concepts of ecotourism being introduced into local tourism, but "It might take about two years for ecotourism to come in," says Mr. de Silva.
The ESSL founded in March 1999 seems to be the first step in this direction. Ms. Eplar Wood conducted a workshop organised by the ESSL for 50 participants from the private and public sectors on "Developing Sri Lanka as an Ecotourism Destination" from September 19 - 23.
The huge potential of Sri Lanka to access the ecotourism market has already gained the attention of the authorities concerned. All it needs now is a little more time, planning, hard work and most importantly intellectual capital.
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