Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance Conservation Tourism Series Webinar 1 Q&A

The Conservation Tourism Webinar Series organised by Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance kicked off on Friday 27 August, to explore the topic of ‘wildlife and nature conservation, as it applies to the future sustainability of Sri Lanka’s tourism industry’.

The webinar attracted a record number of virtual attendees and featured an eminent panel of speakers including Dr Sumith Pilapitiya – Former Director General of Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Srilal Miththapala – Past President of The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) and Toby Sinclair – Director of &Beyond Asia. The session was introduced by Co Chair of the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance, Malik J Fernando, and moderated by Niranga Gunaratna, Director of Communications at Shangri-La Colombo & Shangri-La Hambantota.

Over the course of an hour, the speakers touched on important elements such as what sets Sri Lanka apart as a tourist destination and the economic value of Sri Lanka’s nature and wildlife to the visitor economy. The webinar also went on to discuss major challenges faced by Sri Lanka’s nature and wildlife and the consequences to local tourism. The speakers expounded how the tourism industry could bring about conservation outcomes that would also be beneficial to their own bottom line. Watch the full webinar here.

Below are a selection of questions raised by the online audience and the answers provided by the speakers.

Question: Can you point out some short term action items operators can work on, to move towards a more environmentally friendly operation, which aims to conserve nature & wildlife while enjoying the tourism benefits flowing from them?

Dr Sumith Pilapitiya: Tourism operators should provide a basic training for the safari jeep drivers that they hire and spell out the experience that you desire for your guests;

Tourism operators should use and employ disciplined safari jeep drivers, who respect the rules of the park and do not harass wildlife; get feedback from the guests of the driver’s behavior and discipline the drivers by not providing them with business if they are misbehaving.

Srilal Miththapala:

short term:

  • Introduce plastic-free alternatives within the business
  • Educate staff on plastic pollution and encourage them to adopt a plastic-free lifestyle
  • Grow your own food on the table and introduce a “garden to table” kitchen concept
  • Recycle / find a new use for any unwanted items
  • Plant trees and plant for pollinators too
  • Maintain a bird feeder/ keep water out for animals
  • Avoid blocking wildlife routes, especially elephant migratory paths
  • Long term:

  • Engage with local communities on nature and wildlife protection activities
  • Conduct awareness campaigns for young children in surrounding communities
  • Build sustainably
  • Introduce a carbon-offset program
  • Invest in conservation programs at local and national levels by supporting projects conducted by various conservation organizations
  • Question: What are the benefits of a “High Value/Low Impact” visitor model and do you think the Sri Lankan tourism industry could implement something like that, without impacting any operators negatively?

    Srilal Miththapala & Toby Sinclair: The downside of mass-tourism is ugly and unsustainable. In contrast High Value Low Impact tourism is the way forward, especially for countries like Sri Lanka which has a unique offering within a fairly limited space.
    The benefits of High Value Low Impact model are many:

  • Helps mitigate the potentially harmful impacts of over visitation
  • A great tool for community engagement opportunities
  • Creates room to provide the visitor with an authentic and unique experience
  • Is sustainable
  • Allows operators to invest in a “give-back” system where they can support conservation of the ecosystems upon which their business depends on.
  • Allows operators to invest in a “give-back” system where they can support conservation of the ecosystems upon which their business depends.
  • Toby Sinclair: But this is not always politically palatable as many politicians equate mass tourism with the creation of employment, and thus electoral success. But Low Impact tourism can create 2-4 times the number of jobs per guest than mass Low Yield tourism.

    Dr Sumith Pilapitiya: We should have a tiered model of Protected Areas (PAs). We should identify:

    1. a few PAs for “high value, low impact” wildlife tourism, with very high quality nature interpretation services – which should be provided by the private sector not Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and low tourism numbers
    2. We should have several PAs for “medium value, medium impact” where the prices are not too high and there are reasonable limits on visitor numbers
    3. We should have a couple of “mass tourism” PAs in which large numbers of visitors/vehicles are permitted but better regulated. I would propose such a model initially.

    But as time goes on and the operators also realise the benefits of (1) and (2), we move to gradually eliminate (3) by bringing in better regulations and limits on numbers.

    Question: Do you think that the tourism industry can be plastic free in the near future?

    Toby Sinclair: The answer is yes. Many operators are already plastic free. There are many plastic-free alternatives in the market that are now economical and easy to find so it is up to the operator to understand the importance of going plastic-free in terms of the environmental benefits but also the international traveller trends in seeking more responsible travel and experiences. But this can’t be managed without imaginative support from the government in the form of balanced incentives and penalties. The industry also needs to come up with ideas.
    The biggest problem in the immediate post-covid world is going to be the disposal of masks and cleaning wipes etc which are mostly made of synthetic material sourced from fossil fuels. As we know landfill sites are not a good option. The Tourism Industry can lead the country in this. Hotels don’t need to buy vegetables, fruit, rice, sugar etc in plastic bags. They can buy in bulk and tell the suppliers to use reusable bags. Likewise, we need to look at kitchen waste, recycling of water, insulation of buildings etc. And roadside restaurants and shacks are equally part of the domestic travel business, and a major source of waste.

    Question: What are the five best practices from around the world of private sector tourism actors collaborating to conserve wildlife?

    Toby Sinclair: No two regions are alike but we can make some generalisations. Sri Lanka, Nepal, and India share some management systems because their Forestry and Wildlife Managers have mostly been trained in India (at the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun, or the Wildlife Institute of India). India made some progress following Public Interest Litigation in the courts and imposed limits on visitation to parks (this explanation probably needs to be expanded). Nepal, with the help of New Zealand, has a very good management system in place in Sagarmatha NP (Everest). Likewise how the trekking routes are managed in the Annapurna Conservation Area. Sri Lanka can learn from these.

    I find the common suggestion of “why can’t we manage our parks like they do in Africa/” shortsighted. The various Land Use Policies, different national laws, and human density in Africa are very different to Asia. But we can take some ideas and project them on the much smaller Sri Lankan landscape. We can look at successful rewilding projects such as the Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa where an abandoned pineapple farm has been turned into a very successful protected area brimming with wildlife. The Reserve has been added over the years with land being added in partnership with local communities who earn from it. The PA now covers c.260 Km2. This is all paid for by High Value, Low Impact responsible tourism. In other countries in Africa different but equally successful projects exist. The way Rwanda is restocking its National Parks by reintroducing lions and white rhinos from Phinda could give us some valuable lessons. Small animal projects are equally important. The protection and reintroduction of pangolins (the world’s most traded wild animal) to safe areas is another project we can learn from.

    In South and Central America there are small science-led projects in remote areas that are successful and specialise in working with the local community.

    Question: From a practical standpoint, given how the government makes decisions, how far away are we from having a tiered National Park system which controls visitation?

    Dr Sumith Pilapitiya: If the Government is left to make that decision, it will never happen. The only chance of it happening is if the tourism industry demands it.

    Question: Would you agree that improving the level of educational qualifications of licensed drivers and trackers in conservation or wildlife management would positively impact the quality and responsibility of services offered?

    Srilal Miththapala: Yes for sure, yes. Drivers and trackers must be given adequate training and the industry must also self-regulate to raise the bar in the visitor experience. Sri Lanka Tourism and the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) are two of the main stakeholders in Sri Lanka’s visitor experience, they need to work together better to improve the standards and meet global best-practice standards.

    Question: What has Sri Lanka done in the past (before the Covid period or up to 2019) with regards to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Ecosystem Services in order to sustain/protect the SL Tourism industry (both directly and indirectly).

    Srilal Miththapala: Most of the SDG are being addressed at grass root level – water and energy conservation; sustainable consumption, recycling, etc is being implemented in many establishments.

    Question: Can there be a ‘certification’ from Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) or a relevant authority for accommodation service providers who promote sustainable tourism in order for us to be recognised for our initiatives . International Certification such as Travel life is quite expensive for SME’s and a local certification would be very welcome

    Dr Sumith Pilapitiya: SLTDA/ Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) could provide this and also permit only certified safari jeep drivers to enter national parks.

    Srilal Miththapala: SLTDA launched a pilot project a few years ago and some 25 establishments were certified. Unfortunately the current pandemic has put everything on the back burner right now.

    Toby Sinclair: Certification is always tricky and often controversial. In an ideal world it should be anonymous and independent. While SLTDA or Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) can draw up guidelines and properties can begin with self-certification, this eventually needs to be managed independently. More along the lines of Michelin Restaurant certification.

    Question: How ready do you feel Sri Lanka is for an overall sustainable destination certification program covering individual operators and sites as well as the entire destination overall?

    Toby Sinclair: We should begin the discussions NOW. There is no point in delaying “until we are ready”. We need to make certain minimum standards applicable to all levels of the industry ASAP.