By Kanchana Wickramasinghe
Tucked away amidst a tea plantation and bordering the Deniyaya side of the Sinharaja rainforest is a unique ecotourism venture that could hold valuable lessons on the future of forest-based ecotourism in Sri Lanka.
The ‘Rainforest Eco Lodge’, owned by a unique consortium of respected Sri Lankan corporates such as MAS, Dilmah and Aitken Spence, has been able to bring a new appreciation to the value and preservation of the Sinharaja Rainforest - both locally and globally – while ensuring that the highest principles of sustainable ecotourism are maintained. Ecotourism based on natural forests has been receiving much attention recently and in Sri Lanka, natural forests such as Sinharaja are a key tourist attraction.
Ecotourism, when planned and implemented based on its sustainable principles, can generate a number of economic and non-economic benefits. So, what is Sri Lanka’s status in terms of forest-based ecotourism and how can we maximize the benefits that ecotourism can offer?
Eco-tourism and forests
Ecotourism, by definition is a ‘sustainable’ concept. Accordingly, the concept of ecotourism encompasses consideration for the well-being of local communities, conservation of the environment, socio-cultural integrity of the areas and environmental education to generate awareness and the inculcation of attitude and encouragement towards environmental conservation among the visitors, as well as the host communities.
Although the global ecotourism market is growing at a rapid rate, ecotourism in Sri Lanka is still at its infancy, particularly forest-based ecotourism. Forest-based ecotourism is a non-consumptive, market-based approach to forest utilization and can be used to portray the economic benefits of forest conservation.
In Sri Lanka, the principles of forest-based ecotourism are especially applicable because it possesses an enormous potential: together with the Western Ghats in India, it is listed as one of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots possessing a natural advantage that can be utilized for the development of forest-based ecotourism.
What hinders the potential?
Lack of awareness and understanding of the true concept of ecotourism among the relevant stakeholders remains a major obstacle. Due to this, various agencies involved in forest-based ecotourism have different definitions of ecotourism.
Ecotourism, in most cases, is viewed as synonymous with conventional nature tourism. Nature tourism involves travel to natural places but it does not necessarily include aspects such as benefits to local communities, positive contributions to natural environment, etc. that are pivotal for ecotourism.
Understanding of the sustainability concepts of ecotourism is vital in order to offer true ecotourism products and to gain ‘win-win’ benefits, in terms of conservation and economic gains.
In addition, there is no coordinated effort among the relevant government stakeholders of ecotourism. The forest resource managing agencies have not given enough emphasis to the favourable benefits of ecotourism, particularly on the contribution it can make towards conservation. From the tourism sector also, there is no national level initiative to promote ecotourism.
Since forest-based ecotourism has both environment and tourism components in it, coordinated activities are necessary for the development of forest-based ecotourism. However, at present, the environment and tourism agencies are operating within their boundaries, with minimal or no coordination.
The natural forest resources of the country are legally owned and managed by two state agencies, namely, the Forest Department (FD) and Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC). The agencies do not possess the required resources and skills to manage forest-based ecotourism. As a result, the role of the private sector has become pivotal, as they have the required skills, investment capability, links with tourism networks, as well as previous experience in tourism, which is a considerable advantage when promoting forest-based ecotourism. However, bringing together these two categories of stakeholders is a challenging task.
Some of the businesses that attach the moniker ‘eco’ to their names do not comply with the sustainable concepts of ecotourism. This leads to the creation of a mismatch between the demanded products and the actual products offered and consequently the ‘ecotourists’ are likely to lose confidence in the Sri Lankan ecotourism industry. This might also lead to the deterioration of the country’s image as a future destination for ecotourism.
Moreover, the present legislative framework is not comprehensive enough to provide legal regulations for forest-based ecotourism. Since forest-based ecotourism takes place in fragile natural environments and socio-cultural set-ups, a legal framework should be in place to assure sustainability. Present environment and tourism policies are not adequate to address the issues of the possible negative environmental and socio-cultural impacts of forest-based ecotourism.
What needs to be done?
There is a need to establish a well-coordinated mechanism among the tourist agencies and environment agencies. At a ministerial level, this could be facilitated through an Inter-Ministerial Committee to identify the existing conflicts among tourism policies and initiatives within environment policies.
This has to be followed-up by assignment of clear roles for relevant stakeholders. Formulation of required rules and guidelines, setting required standards, effective law enforcement, monitoring and facilitation and marketing, can be undertaken by the state agencies.
The private sector will have to play an important role in managing the businesses as entrepreneurs. NGOs can play the role of assisting local communities engage in forest-based ecotourism, and facilitate the achievement of community benefits. The role of provincial councils is also important in the effective allocation of resources for the development of forest-based ecotourism, at local level.
At the same time, private sector participation in forest-based ecotourism should be enhanced. Partnering with the private sector is a pre-requisite in forest-based ecotourism, since the resource managing agencies (FD and DWLC) do not have experience in managing tourism. Private entrepreneurs can engage in ecotourism, under the rules and regulations imposed by the state, in order to avoid possible negative consequences. Private-public partnerships can play an important role with regard to this.
Finally, the establishment of a certification programme for forest-based ecotourism is essential in order to avoid the ‘fake’ ecotourism businesses. It will help to ensure that existing businesses are adhering to true ecotourism principles and genuine forest-based ecotourism products are offered and thereby, secure Sri Lanka’s potential as a future ecotourism destination.
(Kanchana Wickramasinghe is a Research Officer at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka. To comment on this article, visit the ‘Talking Economics’ blog - www.ips.lk/talkingeconomics)
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