Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne argues that it is time for Sri Lanka to think big and plan big in its ambitions to promote itself as a leading adventure destination in Asia
Sri Lanka has an abundance of riches, conspicuous for its under utilization. We have a bio-diversity which is amongst the richest in the world, but international awareness is poor outside a small core of hard core naturalists and birders. We have some of the largest and most awesome brick monuments of the ancient world. But you are unlikely to see them featured in a coffee table book on sale at the bookshops of the Louvre or British Museum. We have traditional practices of religion, farming and fishing which have changed so little, a time traveler would think he was still in the 3rd century BC. Our landscape moulded around a mountainous core fringed with beaches, offers a kaleidoscope of picturesque scenery with dwindling rain forests competing for space with paddy fields.
What can link all of these components together to create a national asset for recreation, aesthetic appreciation and to generate financial revenue? The answer is a national network of trekking trails. There is a moral argument for one. Every Sri Lankan should have the freedom to explore the lie of the land using footpaths in the same manner as their American or European counterparts who have such designated national trails. There is a more compelling argument. Money. A network of trails can be utilized both by locals as well as foreign tourists. A significant component of the revenue could come from foreign eco-tourists and trekkers who are accustomed trekking on foreign holidays.
Why a national network? Only a designated national network will allow the travel and tourism trade to market Sri Lanka as a trekking destination. The competition is stiff and examples abound from around the world. Take for example the UK, which one would not typically associate as a trekking destination. They have a national network of trails such as the Pilgrim’s Way, Offa’s Dyke Path, Pennine Way, the North Downs Way, the South Down’s Way etc. Some of these trails run for hundreds of miles on ancient footpaths with rights of way across private land. Undoubtedly, Britain has benefited form a vociferous walker’s lobby such as the Ramblers Association which fight any infringements on public rights of way. On the European continent, the Alps are promoted heavily as a destination for walkers and trekkers. The distinction between walkers and trekkers is somewhat gray, but the latter generally attempt harder terrain and are prepared to walk and stay overnight in tents or basic accommodation. Across the pond in the USA, they have the grand daddy of all long distance footpaths. The Appalachian Trail forms over 2,200 miles of continuous footpath.
What all of these national trails have in common is that they are well documented with a standard trekking or walking regime with designated stops. This is particularly so in the developed countries which have the trails way-marked with marker posts. In the less developed countries some ‘must do’ treks have also developed amongst the trekking fraternity. The attraction of undertaking a Himalayan trek or an Andean trek is obvious. The snow clad mountain scenery is awesome. The more adventurous will attempt a trail that has been blazed by mountaineers so that they can share some of the romance and adventure of the pioneering mountaineers. Thousands trek every year on the Everest Base Camp trail whilst those on a tighter schedule or wanting an easier trek will walk on the Pokhara Circuit. Some trails have become a magnet because of an archaeological association. The Camino Inca or Inca Trail in Peru is perhaps the best known of these. Where large tracts of mountainous terrain exist as in South America and the Himalayas in Asia, long distance footpaths have remained intact as a necessity. In Europe and North America the trails have been kept open by a lobby of outdoor enthusiasts.
Sri Lanka too had an ancient network of footpaths. Roland Silva in an unpublished manuscript describes several such trails. One of the longest is the Dutugemunu Trail which stretches from Tissamaharama, though Kataragama, Buttala, Mahiyangana to Anuradhapura. With the advent of road building by the European colonizers the importance of these faded with the bulk of the transport of goods and people switching to the new roads. Still, even in the late 1970’s, footpaths connecting villages, sometimes traversing jungle were kept open by usage. With the advent of private buses in the 1980’s, some of them fell into disuse and are currently being swallowed by jungle. Then there is the Indian Route from Mantai the ancient port to Anuradhapura, the Pilgrim Route from Anuradhapura to Adam’s Peak and so on. It would be an exciting project to re-open some of these ancient routes. However, at present this would not be practicable as some sections of these routes are close to areas of conflict. A further constraint is that as some of the trails are through elephant country, it would limit the safety of trekkers.
Is a national network essential? The answer would be yes although there are countries which are attracting trekkers without a national network. In Thailand for example, hill tribe treks are popular. Borneo attracts trekkers who wish to summit Kota Kinabalau the tallest peak in South East Asia and Tanzania attracts trekkers who wish to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, the roof of Africa. Sri Lanka too is already attracting trekkers who participate in short treks offered by tour operators. In many cases, even if the trek is offered by a large travel operator, the ground arrangements are handled by a small local operator. The advantage of a national network is that it first and foremost positions Sri Lanka as a soft adventure destination. Treks can be offered by different companies for the whole trail or segments of it. this way the publicity and the advertising will be focused and reinforce the message of Sri Lanka as a trekking destination.
How would a national network be structured? Initially, the best strategy would be to focus on developing one or at most three treks. Creating a 14 day trail from the lowlands to summit Adam’s Peak would be a good example. Another trek could use some of the bridle paths created by the British to create a Highland Trail from Nuwara Eliya, though Hakgala and Ohiya to Balangoda. A Vedda Trail could be centered around Mahiyangana and a Cultural Trek could link the outskirts of Kandy with Dambulla, taking a route through paddy fields. There would be two key logistical issues to be overcome. The first would be to join existing footpaths to form a continuous trail which avoids the main road. This may require in many cases for new ‘links’ to be developed in some cases requiring the permission of the land owners. This makes it imperative that the trail is a part of a national initiative with representation by both the government and the private sector. The second logistical hurdle would be to provide food and accommodation. This would have to be provided by selected villages on route. This is the practice whether it is in Asia, South America or in the west. In Nepal, it may be a case of a village in simple wattle and daub hut providing accommodation in a dormitory. In Britain, a village pub would fulfill this. When creating a network from scratch, considerable amount of time, will need to be spent on educating people on what is required for trekkers. The need for good hygiene and sanitation will need to be instilled. The most important point to get across would be that trekkers would be happy to sleep in even a dormitory provided the rooms and toilets are clean and the environment is kept free of unsightly litter. The villages which would benefit from a trail would also have to be bought into the idea that it is in their interest to keep the trails free of litter and to discourage people from depositing unsightly litter.
Who would create a trail network? The project could be steered by a committee representing government agencies such as the Sri Lanka Tourist Board as well as personnel from the Forest Department and the Department of Wildlife Conservation and Department of Archaeology. There would be a considerable body of expertise which could also be tapped from personnel from departments such as the Irrigation Department whose staff also spend much time in the field in remote areas. However, it is unlikely that such a concept would get off the ground without paid employees to implement such a project. Able and fit persons, will have to be recruited and trained in what is required. Beside staff costs, to succeed the project will require the publication of trail guides, the use of trail marker posts (at least at significant junctions on the trail) and educational presentations to people. The committee guiding it may need to intervene at senior levels to ensure rights of way are negotiated. The committee will also have to provide guidance to ensure the trail does not have negative effects such as accelerating the degradation of forest reserves or upsetting local sensitivities. It would not be an easy task and one way forward would be a project of the USAID funded Eco-tourism cluster.
Who would own the trail? No one and everyone. As a national network, the trail would be the common property of everyone with no single ownership. The providers of food and accommodation would be the most obvious beneficiaries of a genuine grass roots participation in eco-tourism.
What are the other uses of a national network? The walking trails will also be used by birdwatchers, photographers and other users of the countryside. Provided a conflict of interests can be avoided, the same national network may support other adventure activities like mountain biking.
And the future? Who knows, perhaps one day ‘doing the Sacred Peak Trail in Sri Lanka’ may carry the same kudos as walking the Camino Inca (Inca Trail). One day we may have foreign visitors who are visiting Sri Lanka, specifically to walk and trek through its ancient tanks, archaeological ruins, forests and paddy fields.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is an Executive Director of Jetwing Eco Holidays (jetwingeco@sri.lanka.net) which specializes in eco and adventure travel. At the age of 19, he embarked on a solo trek to Everest Base Camp from Lamosangu. His independent treks have taken him to the Peruvian Andes, Mount Kilimanjaro and Kota Kinabalu and his favorite place of all, Sinharaja. He is the lead author of A Birdwatchers Guide to Sri Lanka published by the Oriental Bird Club and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka published by New Holland.