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ecotourism in sri lanka
Elephants, whales, dolphins, eagles and mangrove forests are just a few aspects of Sri Lankan nature that give rise to the increasing popularity and benefits of ecotourism in Sri Lanka.

Tourism in Sri Lanka

Tourism, in general, is rapidly increasing in Sri Lanka. The surge in number of tourists seeking Sri Lanka’s nature brought initial exploitation and misuse of nature by locals trying to capitalize on the quickly accelerating business. However, ecotourism in Sri Lanka and efforts from others inspire more protection and the growth of sustainable tourism.

While further improvement efforts are still needed, nature is now more recognized by Sri Lankan locals and government as a valuable resource that needs protection and intelligent management. Only this kind of treatment will continue bringing income and other benefits.

The number of tourists visiting Sri Lanka hovered around 200,000 to 500,000 per year for the past three decades. However, in 2011, that number raised to about 850,000 tourists, which reached beyond two million tourists in 2016. While the number of tourists visiting Sri Lanka has drastically increased in the past few years, the average length of stay has consistently remained the same since at least the 1970s – about 10 nights.

A Nation’s Economy

Those 11 days and 10 nights of tourists pouring their money into Sri Lanka’s economy combined with the drastic increase in number of tourists in the past few years has caused the tourism sector to become an important core of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Exchange (FE) earners. Ranking third in 2016 behind worker’s remittances at 29 percent and textiles/garments at 19 percent, tourism brought 14 percent of Sri Lanka’s FE earnings.

Undoubtedly, tourism is becoming an increasingly important and beneficial part of Sri Lanka’s economy that helps to reduce poverty and empower local communities. The surge in tourism presents economic benefits, stark challenges and sustainability issues as businesses seek to capitalize.

Elephants

For example, elephants are one of the major tourist draws, and they have been (and some still are) horribly abused by Sri Lankan locals trying to make a profit from tourists. Many tourists are not aware of the extreme suffering captive elephants undergo in the businesses offering elephant rides.

Some good news is that many local Sri Lankans, international animal protectors and ecotourists are trying to put an end to the suffering of elephants in Sri Lanka’s tourism industry while also providing alternative tourism income. There are now sanctuaries for elephants to rescue the creatures from abusive businesses and provide acreage and veterinary care for the rescued elephants to heal and retire.

The Sri Lanka Wildlife and Conservation Society (SLWCS) is a non-profit organization working to bring harmony between humans, elephants and nature in Sri Lanka. SLWCS focuses on sustainable economic development, conservation and field research. New Life Elephant Sanctuary (NLES) is a project of SLWCS, with goals of providing medical care and protected nature habitat for rescued elephants, educating people and transforming tourism into a co-existence format that doesn’t hurt the elephants.

Ecotourists are drawn to spending their money on visiting wildlife sanctuaries such as NLES rather than abusive businesses. As general tourism and ecotourism in Sri Lanka grows, so do organizations such as SLWCS, regulations and improvements in environmental management.

Mangroves

Mangrove ecosystems also provide an option for the development of sustainable ecotourism in Sri Lanka. Although Sri Lanka’s mangrove ecosystems were hit hard during the 2004 tsunami, local communities, experts and organizations work to restore them.

Mangroves provide locals with tourism income as they continue to heal from tsunami damage. The trees not only provide opportunity for sustainable tourism income, but they also offer a habitat for unique species and act as a buffer protection shield for inland Sri Lanka against tsunamis and other storms.

Exclusive Economic Zone and the DWC

In addition to nature that can be used as economic resources within the country, Sri Lanka also has sovereign rights to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) — an area that includes 510,000 square kilometers of ocean extending 200 nautical miles beyond its shore.

It is now illegal in Sri Lanka to go whale or dolphin watching without paying a park fee for a permit from the Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWC). Also, since 2013, fishing licenses are now required for any fishing activities, and registration certificates must be obtained for any boats intended as fishing vessels.

Prioritization of Both Tourism and Nature

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) also helps Sri Lankans deal sustainably with issues connected to its increasing numbers of tourists and urbanization. In September 2017, USAID granted $625,000 to organizations in Sri Lanka for proper waste management, including recycling and to “create livelihood and income generating opportunities such as composting and the sale of recyclable and reusable plastics.”

Overall, initially poor management of the surge of tourism and mishandling of nature in Sri Lanka led to eventual increase in protections for animals, conservation of land and more sustainable ways to share nature with tourists. While continued and expanded efforts are still needed, increasing conservation efforts from locals, assistance from USAID and eco-friendly choices of ecotourists are helping Sri Lankans realize longer-lasting economic benefits of their sustainable tourism and nature.

– Emme Leigh
Photo: Flickr