Is Sri Lanka a Sustainable Travel Destination?
So… over the course of the last week, I went for an event organized on ‘biodiversity and sustainable tourism’ in Sri Lanka. I also met up with some international tour operators that are looking to get involved in sustainable tourism here. It’s really great that the conversation is now starting about what is Sustainable Travel, and how to do it. But it’s clear that there are some misconceptions and confusions about what it is verses what its not. It’s not just a different version of ecotourism.
Ecotourism is basically all forms of nature-based tourism, with a focus on being environmentally friendly. That means interventions that might for instance try to reduce the amount of laundry done, or switching away from plastic water bottles. These efforts are environmentally friendly, but do not translate into sustainable interventions.
Sustainable tourism, has a long term perspective and at its heart understands that if tourism is to continue and grow, the environment and the culture that draws people, need to be healthy. This is not really the case though, is it… the environment is polluted, and the culture diluted. Today, when you go down to the beach, it’s surprising if you don’t see trash on the beach and in the water. Sri Lanka is ranked #5 in the world last year for dumping plastic in the sea. That’s a ridiculously significant figure, when you consider that so much of our tourism is drawn to our beaches. Sun, Sand, Surf and er.. Trash? Not very attractive, is it? Take the example of Thailand that ‘indefinitely’ closed their super popular island of Koh Toa, due to all the environmental problems and waste management issues caused by tourism. This is avoidable if we understand that there is a limit to what the environment can handle, and manage it accordingly.
A Case in Sustainability: Yala National Park
Ex-DG of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Dr. Pilapitiya talked about the situation of Yala National Park at the event. Almost 95% of you reading this in the country would have been to Yala. There is no need for me to describe to you what a sad experience it is and here are some facts he presented. He talked about how research is showing that 52% of baby elephants under 2 yrs are dying because their mothers don’t have enough milk. How there are road kills inside a national park that’s meant to protect the very animals it’s killing. How the sighting of animals, in most peoples’ experience, has decreased gradually over the last couple of decades. He told us how there are 700 registered jeeps to enter the park. Evening rush hour traffic in the park is worse than the traffic on Galle road. And lets not forget the human-elephant conflict in the region. Sure, we still see leopards, and once in a while maybe a dead leopard on the road as well. It’s not a brilliant experience
it’s actually an incredibly sad one. People are not having a meaningful experience about our wildlife or Yala. And very soon, the discerning traveller is going to start putting up those reviews on Trip Advisor and other social media sites, and things are going to plummet.
So you ask, what are we doing about improving this experience? Well, it seems the DWC are truly understaffed, and have been made more inconsequential with the political removal of Dr. Pilapitiya and the only good (Yala) Park Warden we’ve seen in a long time. There are more and more hotel’s coming up in the area, with Yala being the key attraction. Some of them are really expensive luxury hotels like Cinnamon, Jetwing, Amaya, Shangrila, Yala Safari Lodge, Uga Chena huts, Laya Safari, and even luxury Camping/ Glamping sites, etc.
Together these hotels can have such an influence on the quality of the experience that visitors have. So what are they doing to conserve the resource on which their business is based? Some of them do token CSR/ eco-friendly interventions, support some research work, etc. Anantara Hotels, Tangalle talked at the event about how they are supporting some awareness, research and conservation work on turtles near their site. Cinnamon Nature Trails, from a quick look at their website, also seems to undertake similar research work as well…. How far reaching is the impact of these interventions on the environment and local people? That’s what you call ecofriendly, and not what you call sustainable travel.
What Does Sustainable Tourism Entail?
To a certain extent Jetwing Hotels has the right idea. On their property, they are doing a lot to reduce the impact of large numbers of visitors on the local environment. They undertake energy conservation, water conservation, wastewater management, solid waste management, air quality management, reduction of chemical pollution, use of environmentally friendly materials and environmentally friendly purchasing etc. And it seems to be comprehensively done. They have an environmental policy and an energy policy. In addition they have Youth Development Programme that works with local communities. All in all, a star class effort, and well on the way to supporting sustainable travel.
Where Jetwing needs to progress to now – is to look at the environment at a landscape level. To look at the health of the environment at a broader level, than just on their site. The current interventions reduce the impact of large numbers of visitors on the local environment, e.g there’s less waste generated, there’s less water demanded from local water sources in this dryzone environment, there’s less chemicals being released into the land and water from house-cleaning and laundry, etc. It’s a commendable effort, on site, on their property. However, what are the efforts being made to make sure Yala national park, the thing that’s attracting the visitors is in top condition? That the animals are healthy and there aren’t malnourished elephants? That its able to keep delivering beautiful sightings of wildlife in it’s natural environment.
I understand that this is not so simple. Its incredibly complex and a little beyond the personal scope of control of a single service provider. There are so many stakeholders involved, from local communities, private sector, government counterparts, politicians, and then the environment itself. There are so many different ingredients in the control of different people that goes into making this soup. And you’re not in control of the making of it. So its complicated to do, and its easier to just focus on your own plot of land and what you can do within it. However, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need to be dealt with. The travel industry that depends on Yala, has much to gain in the next coming decades, if Yala continues to deliver great sightings and meaningful experiences to travelers. The travel industry has a vested interest in making this happen and the economic leverage to make this happen. It might be the carrot the politicians will pay attention to.
Why is the Jetwing example more aligned to the sustainable travel concept, compared to the others? Supporting research is great, but doesn’t cut it. That’s coz the influence of the economy and visitors is growing at a much faster rate, than research can help us understand, and by the time research findings tells us something, the context has changed and we might have done considerable damage and gone beyond the point of regressing those effects. The impact of research is generally too little and too late to support conservation efforts. Conservation oriented research embedded into management efforts is much more effective in ensuring that which it studies, also survives ☺. Jetwing on the other hand seems to understand that they are bringing in large numbers of people, and the impact of so many people on the environment needs to be managed and neutralized. So they have designed their systems holistically with a long-term vision.
Can Sri Lanka Become A Sustainable Travel Destination?
Sri Lanka is still riding that novelty wave. It’s sort of the new destination on the South Asia – South-East Asia circuit. People want to come and experience it. They want to say they’ve been here, at the latest spot. However, very soon, once the novelty wears out, how are we going to compare with other destinations? In 2017 we didn’t make the Lonely Planet top 10 Asian destinations, though Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Vietnam, Thailand continue to remain on the list. Nor did we make the Trip Advisor Top 25 destinations. Flash in the pan? One news article about a ‘haka-pathas’ case going viral, may kill the industry.
We have so much potential, untapped potential everyone says. Can we start to manage our environmental capital, proactively? Can we plan for the long haul? Or are we just trying to capitalize on how much we can earn today? Can we follow the Jetwing example and better ourselves? Can we use some of the income generated by these natural resources, and invest it back into the environment thereby improving the quality of the experience for everyone on a long-term scale?
Personally, we have a lot to gain from embracing the Sustainable Tourism concept. A healthy, beautiful, vibrant environment is a commodity in high demand and in short supply, and people will flock to those places to experience it. It can give the country a prosperous future, where it’s environment is lush and clean and therefore its people are healthy and happy. Because we are in a way late to the game, we now have the opportunity to plan how this industry develops in this century, and make it better than what’s offered elsewhere… so it benefits everyone.
What do you think? If you’re a service provider already working on Sustainable Tourism, I’d love to hear what your doing! Please drop me a note and I’ll be in touch.
Source : Island