de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). Fostering Wildlife Tourism. LMD. April 2006. Page 182. Volume 12, Issue 09. ISSN 1391-135X.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne invites controversy by advocating private airstrips inside national parks to develop wildlife tourism

In my previous month’s article in LMD, I proposed that the state agencies entrusted with conservation such as the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) and the Forest Department (FD) be given a twin mandate. Firstly, for the traditional role of custodian of the nation’s bio-diversity. Secondly to be revenue oriented and to use our parks and reserves to prop up the country’s ailing balance sheet. The second role would see a strong visitor focus with state of the art visitor centers which in addition to a quality experience would also be generating revenues from merchandise products and services.

Given that the DWLC has failed to even simplify the issue of tickets, it is hard to see them dispensing Cappuccinos and Fudge Brownies and studying monthly profit and loss accounts to measure their performance against revenue budgets. One simple solution would be to follow the Malaysian model and hand over the visitor management to the private sector. Over fifteen years ago, from London, I phoned the Malaysian National Parks Authority to book a trek on Kota Kinabalu National Park. Within half an hour they had faxed me back a confirmation on my overnight bookings on the mountain huts. This efficiency was because the visitor management had been delegated to the private sector.

For years, people have lobbied the DWLC to issue books of tickets that can be pre-purchased. We currently have an archaic system of forms being filled out laboriously for entry of visitors which only reinforces one message to wildlife tourists. Besides the best chance in Asia for Leopard, Sri Lanka is also one of the best examples in Asia to witness stupidity. Almost every national park administrator in the world has learnt simple ways of issuing tickets to visitors. But not in Sri Lanka. The administrative shortfalls of the DWLC is not meant as a personal criticism to the staff of the DWLC, many of whom are dedicated. It is a reflection of the decline the department has suffered over two decades of neglect. If we can’t learn from developed economies in Asia, Europe and the USA, lets look at other under-developed countries. In Kenya for example, at certain reserves such as in the Masai Mara, a private agency collects the gate receipts. They go to the extent of having an employee visiting the lodges to collect the money. The ultimate in customer focus. The ticket collector comes to the customer. At some parks, visitors can even use a pre-paid magnetic card. Suggesting our parks also allow tour operators and clients to pre-purchase tickets is not an outlandish request.

In my earlier article I suggested that if the state agencies are given a mandate to generate revenues, they would need a Director for Marketing and Business Managers for key parks and reserves. One of the tasks of a business manager of the DWLC and FD would be to develop promotional literature. At the moment we have very little to take for an industry, professional or consumer fair or to give the media to promote our national parks and reserves. A Marketing Director would also actively lobby the media for coverage. He would need a budget to invite printed media and television media personnel. We are in an ironic position where at present, foreign television crews who are so useful, would actually feel un-welcome. In another article I had outlined how we deprive ourselves of the enormous audience we can reach world-wide through foreign television crews. One simple way to harness their global reach, is to simply allow foreign television crews, who require no special privileges to purchase film permits at the point of entry. The requirement for arranging permits in advance robs the country of opportunities to promote itself.

The FD and DWLC can also look at other ways of raising money. For example we still don’t have a good rainforest lodge adjoining a rainforest. Perhaps the DWLC and FD can offer leases of land in designated tourism zones, subject to tight environmental guidelines, for tourist lodges at the mid to high end. As in the Maldives, these could be subject to a ‘bed tax’ or the successful companies can pay a percentage of net profit before tax, as a lease franchise. If the FD were given a revenue target for its reserves, a business manager would soon identify sites such as Sinharaja as being those with the highest potential for generating revenues. It would be a logical step to award by tender, franchises for developing eco-lodges either inside or adjoining the reserve.

A Business Development Director will have a lot to do and a lot of scope for generating yield from this huge portfolio of weakly performing assets. The DWLC may look at awarding concessions inside the Yala Protected Area and inside Wilpattu National Park for high end, high yield tourism. The Game Lodges situated inside may be serviced by private air strips built inside the park for them. Given that the Yala Protected Area complex accounts for nearly 1,500 square kilometers, one can hardly argue that the areas are too small to adopt a Kenyan model. Less than 10% of the area of the Yala Protected Area complex is visited. Who is protecting the other 90%? Establishing Ranger Posts is one option, the alternative is to set up Game Lodges on the less visited borders, staffed by people who earn their livelihood from wildlife.

Proposing private air strips in Wilpattu or Yala will mean that you will be roasted alive, warned one person in the media to me. But if we are to move away from the quaint Sri Lanka habit of wanting to keep Sri Lanka poor and backward, we will need to inject some fresh thinking. We may need to consider radical alternatives such as high end tourists flying into private air strips inside our parks and reserves and generating handsome returns and creating employment. Sri Lanka needs the money. The profit share earned by the DWLC and FD can be ploughed back into research and conservation of those parks. There are other practical issues for developing wildlife tourism. These will have to await another month’s issue.

Wildlife celebrity Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is a well known lobbyist on wildlife & tourism issues. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.