“Visit, enjoy, protect” will be the theme of a new (or already begun) campaign by Sri Lanka Tourism (SLT) to promote a more sustainable and eco-friendly tourism product, it was disclosed in Colomb0 last week. These comments from SLT officials emerged at a discussion titled “Making Tourism viable, sustainable and inclusive’ organised by the Colombo-based [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

‘Visit, enjoy, protect” – new manthra as SL battles tourism numbers versus sustainability


Elephants at Pinnawela. Sri Lanka may restrict visitors to yala to avoid overcrowding

“Visit, enjoy, protect” will be the theme of a new (or already begun) campaign by Sri Lanka Tourism (SLT) to promote a more sustainable and eco-friendly tourism product, it was disclosed in Colomb0 last week.

These comments from SLT officials emerged at a discussion titled “Making Tourism viable, sustainable and inclusive’ organised by the Colombo-based Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA).

Speakers and panellists at the event included Tourism Minister John Amaratunga, Canadian High Commissioner Shelley Whiting, SLT Chairman Paddy Withana, CEPA Chairperson Murtaza Esufally, Krishan Balendra (President, Leisure Industry Group – JKH), Malraj Kiriella (Director General, SLT Development Authority), Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne (General Secretary, Sarvodaya), Dr. Suranga Silva (Senior tourism lecturer, Dept. of Economics, University of Colombo) and Dr. Udan Fernando (Executive Director, CEPA).

In her remarks, Ms. Whiting reflected on her many travels across Sri Lanka in the past four years that she has served here; spoke about the beauty and culture of the country including a ‘clamping’ holiday, and offered some words of advice. Glamping is described by Wikepedia as a form of camping involving accommodation and facilities more luxurious than those associated with traditional camping.

Having travelled in the Railway’s 2nd class reserved compartments, she said these facilities need to be upgraded while also saying overcrowding at the Yala Wildlife Park was a challenge to the authorities.

Mr. Withana spoke about increasing the number of homestay units to 500 as one of the goals towards sustainable tourism and providing visitors with an authentic, real-village life experience,

“We need a more trickle down of the tourism benefits to the people. We need to look at how serious tourism benefits the people. Last year the tourism spend per day was US$166 (much higher than any competitors in the region). Now what percentage of that amount percolated to the bottom, is what we need to find out,” he said.

Minister Amaratunga said this year has been declared by the Government as the “Year of Poverty Alleviation” and the key focus would be on tourism to achieve this 0bjective as this is the biggest driver of the economy.

Noting that the service charge in hotels for staff is as high as Rs.40,000 per person per month, he said this was a golden opportunity for young people from rural areas to work in the leisure industry.

While acknowledging the positive trend of many Sri Lankans returning from abroad as the wages here are equivalent to what they get overseas, the Minister said it was difficult (for unexplained reasons) to attract youth for hotel training courses as a precursor to getting a permanent job, an issue that was eluded to in the panel discussion that followed Mr. Amaratunga’s remarks.

He said tourism needs to be both sustainable and inclusive and was heading to become the country’s largest foreign exchange earner.   But he also cautioned against haphazard development and stressed the need to ensure that the environment was also not hampered by the growing influx of tourists. “This has happened in South East Asia and we need to be conscious of this if we are going after numbers (in terms of arrivals),” he said.

During the panel discussion, JKH’s Balendra said they monitor closely water, energy use and the carbon footprint while all the group hotels are expected to provide 10 internships to young villagers.

Alluding to the risks and unsustainable development, Mr. Balendra said that 4 million or more tourists is achievable but “we need to be cautious of haphazard construction and need prosper zoning for development. We also need to decide as to whether our market is mass or top end or both,” he said.   He said countries like Cambodia attracts 5 million but all low spenders and most hotels were selling at $$30-40 a room (compared to over $100 in Sri Lanka). “We need to attract the right (hospitality) brands. Big names attract high spenders,” he added.

On recruitment dilemmas, Mr. Balendra said that there is a general perception that people, particularly women, don’t like to work in hotels which he was also at a loss to understand.

SLTDA DG Kiriella said that instead of focus on Yala/Wilpattu wildlife parks as the main sources of visit causing overcrowding and over-visitation, Sri Lanka needs to divert the traffic to other sights and sounds – many in the country. “We may restrict entry wildlife parks to avoid overcrowding,” he added.

University of Colombo tourism teacher Dr. Silva stressed the importance of research in an industry that is evolving by the day.

For example, he pointed out that research (by his students) has revealed that only 9 per cent of the industry workforce is made up of women. “We need to understand why people are not coming into the industry, why only 9 per cent are women, why husbands don’t want their wives and/or daughters to work in hotels but allow to work in West Asia as domestics,” he said, raising an interesting point and the need to find answers and eventually solutions to provide a more gender-balanced workforce.

He also said today’s young Chinese visitor would in future be an elderly person but still keen on travel and as such Sri Lanka needs to be prepared for an influx of elderly tourists, particularly from China, and accordingly have the necessary infrastructure and facilities in place.

Responding to a question on food security – as to whether Sri Lanka has sufficient production to feed the local population in addition to 2 million-going-upto-4 million tourists, Dr. Silva agreed that this has not been properly addressed by the authorities and said research needs to be done in this area.

Sarvodaya’s Dr. Ariyaratne spoke on a concept of ‘voluntourism’, a concept where the country’s largest grassroots organisation has been able to accommodate dozens of young foreigners willing to spend time in the village and help out in social development and empowerment.

He said Sarvodaya is also acutely aware of the need to ensure that such projects don’t tamper with the villager’s traditional way of life, cultural norms, behaviour and habits. One of the most positive aspects of the programme was that young foreign visitors were more energised at the end of their assignment than the benefits accrued by the village in terms of learning and development. “Many visitors have told me that it was a great spiritual exercise and benefit for them,” he said.

On youngsters joining the trade, Dr. Ariyaratne said their experience was different in that in the North the training courses Sarvodaya organises on tourism have been very successful and attracted many women. “It might be interesting to research and analyse why Northern women are attracted to the tourism industry and why southern women are not,” he said turning to Dr. Silva, said to be one of Sri Lanka’s main researchers in tourism.    -(Feizal)   

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