de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2005). The Evolution of Hotels. LMD. November 2005. Page 160. Volume 12, Issue 04, ISSN 1391-135X.
Outlining a strategy for Sri Lankan hotels- one that will add value to the bottom line.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne outlines a strategy for Sri Lankan hotels to evolve as visitor centers

A government through its agencies has two main roles to play. Firstly to govern the land through the maintenance of law and order. Secondly to provide a framework in which the country can develop and prosper. The two are interconnected as whilst enforcing the prevailing laws, a nation may amend or repeal old laws or introduce new laws to deal with new threats to its security or to facilitate development.

The role of a government department or agency is at times explicitly that of a ‘enforcer’ of law and order, or a service provider, or both. Organs of a government which deal with the administration of national parks and reserves is a good example of a government institution which has a dual role of being an enforcer of the law as well as being a service supplier.

In Sri Lanka, for various reasons the state agencies that manage our parks and reserves have been slow to grow into the role of being a service provider. The same applies to the custodians of our historical or archeological heritage. In contrast, with many of the developed economies, the custodians of culture and nature have evolved into institutions where a greater part of their man power and other resources is devoted to being a service provider. Their service provider’s role has a number of key threads. Firstly to provide adequate visitor amenities such as parking, toilets, baby changing facilities, food and water. Secondly, to educate and entertain visitors. This is achieved by a combination of interactive exhibits, videos and printed literature. Thirdly to promote sites of visitor interest and encourage tourism. A part of the promotion is also to foster a long term interest in the cultural or natural heritage of the country.

All of the above activities are wrapped up in a business plan to make the sites and the agencies, self financing as much as possible. There is a growing realization that the burden on central government can be reduced if the sites of attraction to visitors can generate revenues through gate receipts and other sales be it cappuccinos and fudge brownies or T-shirts and other merchandise.

Given that we may not see the state agencies in Sri Lanka coming up to speed with their developed economy counterparts, a vacuum is created which can be filled by hotels in Sri Lanka. This is not a philanthropic exercise, but one which makes business sense to promote their properties. Many of the country’s finest hotels are set out with large acreages of garden, some often adjoining a lake or other wilderness area. This lends them ideally suited to serve as both a hotel and as a visitor center for special interest travelers.

Let me outline a few ideas, for a hotel set adjacent to an important cultural site or wilderness area. Some of these ideas are already in operation to one degree or another at some hotels.

Lets start with a simple example. Almost ever nature reserve in Europe and the USA will have a wildlife notice board displayed prominently at the point of entry. Notice boards serve several purposes. Firstly they raise awareness. For example, in September I had dinner at a hotel in the cultural triangle. A group of travel agents spoke to me, one of them was interested in returning to Sri Lanka to see wildlife. If the hotel had a Wildlife Newsboard, attention could have been drawn to the fact that The Gathering (of Elephants) was taking place at Minneriya. One of the biggest eco-tourism events in the world was taking place and yet the hotel was failing to communicate this to the tour operators, travel agents and media who were passing through the hotel. A hotel close to a cultural site can also use a Newsboard to highlight any special events that are taking place. Perhaps an annual festival or perhaps the times at which the daily ‘pooja’ takes place. The Newsboards should ideally be part of a wider framework of interpretation which includes the services of a resident naturalist, a dedicated room for providing interpretation, a network of guided walks and excursions. Lets take an imaginary walk though the ‘service flow”.

Joe and his wife Mary and their two children have arrived at a hotel in the Cultural Triangle area, in the north central province. The hotel has large grounds, bordering a lake, with over a hundred birds recorded in the premises. This description fits almost all of the good hotels in the Anuradhapura-Polonnaruwa-Habarana-Dambulla-Sigiriya area. Whilst Joe and Mary are checking in for their five night stay, they read the Wildlife Newsboard placed near the reception. “Oh look John” says Mary. “Apparently three hundred wild elephants are gathering now, in one of the most spectacular eco-tourism events in the world”. Obviously they must go and see it. The friendly receptionist says the resident naturalist will be happy to take them on a game drive and points out that each room has a booklet detailing excursions. There is enough to fill a month. Guided nature walks on the hotel premises, game drives further afield to national parks such as Minneriya, Kaudulla, Wilpattu. Guided or self guided tours to some of the most impressive ancient cities of the world such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. The book even lists some special experiences such as taking tea at a local village or signature dining beside the lake bordering the hotel.

In the room, they find the excursion booklet is complemented by a suite of books. One on the national parks & reserves gives a good overview of the key parks and reserves. They decide that a day trip to Wilpattu is also worth it. Another book on the key cultural sites of Sri Lanka vets their appetite for a visit to the Golden Caves of Dambulla and the magnificent fortress palace of Sigiriya. Ritigala seems like a mix of culture and nature. The kids can take the guided cycling tour with the naturalists whilst the adults take a treatment at the Spa. The room also has photographic guides to the commoner birds, butterflies, mammals and flowering trees around the hotel. As they are keen on wildlife, they decide they may as well buy a copy from the bookshop prior to one of the guided walks they plan to take.

Having settled down, the receptionist arranges for the resident naturalist to give them a brief introduction at the visitor center. They watch a ten minute video overview on the key cultural attractions and wildlife sites. They decide that they should take excursions to Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Ritigala. The children may like to go primate watching as well. Perhaps on one of the nights they can go and look for Loris with the naturalist whilst the adults take one of the signature dining experiences. The hotel’s visitor center is stocked with a choice of videos and books. They borrow a few to do some reading up. They are beginning to wish that they had given themselves more than five nights at the hotel.

There is no reason why the imaginary walk through above cannot be a daily occurrence at many of our hotels around the island. It is true that many of our tourists are on pre-arranged round trips. But the usefulness of facilities in a visitor center style is not invalidated. Some elements such as interesting presentations in the evening by the resident naturalist can also be included in the itinerary of tour groups. Some hotels already have guided walks with the resident naturalist as part of a tour group’s program at the hotel. They can do more. Hotels can provide a platform for researchers, they can create habitats for butterflies, create wetlands, construct bird watching hides, set up a schools education program: the list is limitless.

The real bonus of having a full spectrum of interpretation from a mini-library of books to a dedicated visitor center is that the hotel begins to raise awareness amongst the tour operators and media who would otherwise have simply flitted through on a hectic pre-arranged round trip. How many tour operators and media people passed through the Cultural Triangle in August and September in the last few years and never heard about The Gathering?

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.