de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). Wildlife Tourism’s True Potential. LMD. March 2006. Page 156. Volume 12, Issue 08. ISSN 1391-135X.
Proposal of a radical redevelopment of the island’s national parks and reserves.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne proposes a radical market orientation in managing the island’s national parks and reserves.

Sri Lanka’s National Parks and Reserves are a relatively un-tapped source for economic growth which can be harnessed relatively quickly and in a sustainable manner. To achieve national economic goals, the national parks and reserves should be given a twin focus. In parallel to the custodial role of biodiversity conservation, a strong market focus on economic activity is needed. This would mean that national parks and reserves have a new emphasis, a business focus, underpinned by three strands. These would be Marketing (development of printed literature, facilitating film crews, facilitating research etc), Customer Focus (streamlining entry, visitor facilities, visitor management, interpretation skills etc), and Business Development (merchandising, issuing franchises to operate in or near parks, offering private air strips in tourism zones, etc).

Imagine, Sri Lanka is a single business entity and you are appointed as CEO with a mandate to generate a significant increase in foreign exchange revenues in a time frame of 3-5 years. How would you go about this rather daunting task in a small country with one of the highest concentrations of poverty and with no obvious competitive advantages for industrialization.

As any marketing student knows, the first step would be to perform a SWOT analysis and identify the key strengths and opportunities. The development models of Malaysia and Singapore give a number of insights into how a country can be developed. However presented with a very short time frame, what aspect of Sri Lanka can be un-locked for fast economic growth? One area is wildlife tourism.

Why? If Sri Lanka has a truly unique competitive advantage, it is in nature tourism. Our biodiversity is literarily unique. Many of our plants and animals are found nowhere else in the world. Our biodiversity is amongst the richest in the world with our species diversity very high on a per one thousand square kilometer basis. Sri Lanka’s position as a biodiversity hyper hot spot allows it to rank amongst the best known biodiversity destinations such as Costa Rica, Malaysia, Madagascar, etc. What’s more, we are also the best place in the world for seeing Asian Elephant and the best in Asia for Leopard. The presence of large mammals confounds classic bio-geographic theory which predicts that small islands don’t have large animals. Two mammals with the necessary glamour factor to appeal to a popular audience, position us for the Big Game Safari market. We also have other large mammals such as Sloth Bear and endearing primates with their fascinating social lives.

Very few countries in the world will have our concentration of a myriad habitats and eco-systems from sand dunes, lagoons, grasslands, lowland rainforests, thorn scrub to cloud forests, in such a small area. Beyond doubt, Sri Lanka has the underlying product for wildlife tourism. Secondly, we have the know-how and capacity to service and deliver the product. Sri Lanka is well versed in tourism.

The international appetite to travel to areas of wilderness to enjoy the outdoors or wildlife is so great, that we should be able to attract 200,000 to 300,000 visitors for nature tourism alone. Given that wildlife tourism will provide a yield over double or treble that of the budget end package tour market, wildlife tourism could provide as much or more revenue than the existing tourism product. If presently tourism is the responsible for the biggest net retention of foreign exchange earnings, that quantum could possibly be even doubled.

This needless to say has to be done with the highest of environmental safeguards to protect and nurture our biodiversity. Rather than ransacking the countryside, tourism should be used as an instrument for conservation. Neglecting wilderness areas seldom protect them. They fall prey to gradual encroachment and degradation. Actively managing them as a valuable economic asset can raise their protection, environmental awareness and economic value.

At present, an astonishing 20% of our land area is set aside for national parks and reserves. This is good. But if these areas are non revenue generating assets, it is a luxury which a small, poverty ridden nation, with one of the highest population densities cannot afford. At present the Forest Department (FD) and the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) have the dubious distinction of being responsible for a big portfolio of non revenue generating assets on the country’s balance sheet. In corporate terms, such financial custodians will need to re-structured and given a new mandate. The FD and DWLC’s roles can be broken into two roles. One method, would be for a narrowing of the roles of the FD and DWLC. This would entail the enforcement and conservation role to be confined to these Departments (under the Ministry of Environment) and the role of Visitor Management, Marketing and winning business to make money for Sri Lanka Inc to be transferred to another agency. This would be radical, possibly un-popular and may even suffer from inter-agency rivalries.

Alternatively, the custodians of these assets can be given a business remit in parallel to their role of custodian and conserver. The FD and DWLC should be given revenue targets for each year. They should be encouraged to go out and win business for Sri Lanka. This will create a radical shift in perspective. The departments will need a Business Development Director and Marketing Director who will need to map out strategies to earn significant gate receipts from the parks and reserves. They will in turn appoint Business Managers for the key parks and reserves. We may see a Business Manager for Yala who visits the hotels in Tissa and the Tour Operator companies in Colombo asking for more ‘visitor nights’ at Yala. This will give the industry an opportunity to hurl flak at the DWLC for a near complete lack of service orientation. For example, how many national parks have useable toilets? At present expecting a modern day visitor center with an attractive shop with a good range of merchandise is unthinkable. We don’t even have a single decent café at our national parks and reserves. We are some way away from having Cappuccinos and Fudge Brownies served to visitors. But, the cappuccino culture epitomizes the search for yield, for extra dollars in the till. Right now opportunities to increase the visitor spend at our parks and reserves are met with neglect. Valuable revenue and employment generating opportunities are being lost. We also fail to show our country in a favorable light. In a sequel to this article, I will explore some of the practical issues.

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