de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2008). How Big Birds Build Niche Markets. LMD. March 2008. Page 130.Volume 14, Issue 08. ISSN 1391-135X.
The evolution of the birding tour business in Sri Lanka.
How industries are shaped by a few key people
Organising the CEO’s birding holiday does not seem a great start to a career. But this is exactly what I asked the newest recruit in my team to do, last December when I decided to spend a few days birding in Fraser’s Hill in Malaysia. What’s more I told everyone about it. An abuse of power joked my colleague Sanjiva Gautamadasa the Head of Marketing. But this was real training. Serious stuff. How can you run a business in a niche market without knowing how your customers find you?
Malaysia is a paradox. In some ways it is light years ahead of Sri Lanka. Especially when you look at the media coverage it buys for its tourism. But on a visit less than two years ago I thought that Sri Lankan tourism was actually ahead of it in the niche market of specialist wildlife travel. There was a dearth of wildlife tour operators and they did not publicise themselves well. I was curious to see if things had changed. This time there was a practical need to find out the state of play, my birding holiday.
My new recruit set to work. God was not available to ask, so she did the next best thing. She asked Google to find her birding tour operators in Malaysia. You do this for Sri Lanka and you are spoilt for choice in finding a local tour operator. Malaysia drew a blank. I dived into my library and returned with a copy of The Birds of Fraser’s Hill by Morten Strange. It could not be simpler. It listed Kingfisher Tours run by Dennis Yong, a well known name in Malaysia for leading birding tours. Well just one company, but that would do. We tried the obvious ways to locate the web site and drew a blank. A few days later in Malaysia I spoke to Dennis having obtained his phone number from David Bowden a British journalist who lives in Malaysia. There was a simple reason why we could not find the web site of the busiest birding tour operator in Malaysia. He did not have a website. Eh? What going on in this country with the world’s tallest building and cyber cities in the pipeline. The British were as active in natural history exploration in Malaysia as they were in Sri Lanka. Arguably, they were more active in Malaysia. One would have expected the wildlife travel industry in Malaysia to be more sophisticated, more competitive and more tech savvy than in Sri Lanka. But why is it that Sri Lanka is ahead?
I suspect the answer lies with Thilo Hoffmann one of the greatest conservationists in Sri Lanka and the person who saved Sinharaja forest from destruction. For many years he was the Chairman of the Ceylon Bird Club, the most exclusive club in Sri Lanka if not in Asia! Membership is by an examination of ornithological competence and it gets tougher each year. Thilo would have been a natural point of contact for visiting birders and tour operators to get in touch for information. As it so happened, Baurs had a travel arm and was also a major player in tourism a couple of decades ago. Any queries on birdwatching could be passed on to the travel arm. Thilo Hoffmann from what I gather did not quite get involved in the relatively insignificant commercial side of the birding tours. But he acted as an important catalyst for the birding business. He also created some of the most important personalities in the professional birding business in Sri Lanka. Perry, a now legendary character in professional birding circles, who ran the birding business like a feudal lord. The other was a young electrical engineer who wrote to Thilo about having seen a bird in a place it was not supposed to be according to the books. Thilo took the electrical engineer under his wing and he developed into one of the best ornithological tour leaders in Asia. The man was Deepal Warakagodo who in 2001 discovered the Serendib Scops Owl or Otus thilohoffmanni named in honour of Thilo Hoffmann. Baurs also groomed a number of naturalist chauffeur guides including Abay and also began to use Upali Ekanayake, then a lecturer at Peradeniya as an expert guide for the larger groups.
The birding industry in Sri Lanka was established on the expertise of these four Baurs alumni, Thilo Hoffmann, ‘Perry’ Viswalingam, Deepal Warakagoda and Upali Ekanayake. Deepal and Upali provided the all important ingredient of field craft and Perry provided the professionalism of tour management. Thilo as chairman of both the Ceylon Bird Club and of Baurs was the patron saint. The foundation had been laid. As the nineties drew to close, Chandra de Silva of Ranweli Hotel became the high priest of EcoTourism and succeeded in exciting the entire industry about its prospects. By 2001, the big boys had piled in. Aitken Spence, Conaissance, John Keels, Jetwing, etc set up specialist subsidiaries to focus on nature and adventure tourism. These and other companies in tour operations and hotels found an unlikely ally, an academic. Professor Sarath Kotagama from the University of Colombo saw the potential of the private sector being a positive influence for the environmental cause and lent his support. Websites, glossy brochures and attendance at overseas fairs cost millions of rupees. The big companies invested that kind of money to win the business. The birding industry was no longer powered by a handful of good men from Baurs and it entered a new phase of growth. It is now in its third phase as alumni of companies such as Baurs and Jetwing and assistants of researchers have gone on to start their own companies. Sri Lanka now probably has the most sophisticated birding tour operator industry of any Asian country. There are lessons to be learnt. But hard to duplicate. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs shaped the PC industry because their work is what they love doing. Its the same with the birding companies. The successful companies are run with a people who are passionate about their product. Passion is a scarce commodity. This is why despite the big boys getting into niche markets the small companies strong on passion will remain a dominant influence.

Accountant & Banker turned wildlife populariser, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne lobbies for progress. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.