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The Conservation Tourism webinar series organised by Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance was held last month, to explore the topic of ‘Wildlife and Nature Conservation, as it applies to the Future Sustainability of Sri Lanka’s Tourism Industry’.

The webinar attracted a record number of virtual attendees and featured an eminent panel of speakers. The session was introduced by Co-Chair of the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance, Malik J Fernando, and moderated by Niranga Gunaratna, Director of Communications at Shangri-La Colombo & Shangri-La Hambantota.

The speakers touched on important elements such as what sets Sri Lanka apart as a tourist destination and the economic value of Sri Lanka’s nature and wildlife to the visitor economy. It was clearly established that our biodiversity was the main attraction for tourists. The webinar went on to discuss major challenges faced by Sri Lanka’s nature and wildlife and the consequences to local tourism. The speakers expounded how the tourism industry could bring about conservation outcomes, that would also be beneficial to their own bottom line.

Srilal Miththapala, Past President of The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) emphasized that wildlife is a critical component of Sri Lanka’s tourism industry and that in 2018, out of the 2.2 million tourists who visited Sri Lanka, 50% had visited Sri Lanka’s wildlife parks. He also spoke of how he tried to “awaken” people to the value of Sri Lanka’s wildlife by assigning economic value to this natural resource, especially for wild elephants. Sadly, Sri Lanka whilst being one of the best countries to see them in the wild, is also the country with the worst human-elephant conflict (HEC) in the world. On average over 300 elephants are killed in Sri Lanka annually due to HEC.

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Toby Sinclair, Director of &Beyond Asia has over 40 years’ experience in Sri Lanka and with his international lens on tourism, he stated how a couple of decades ago Sri Lanka was certainly the best place to see leopards and elephants in the wild but because the country has chosen “quantity over quality”, the quality of those experiences has declined over time. “Driving in Yala has become like driving down Galle Road at 5 o’clock in the evening,” he said. Mismanagement of our wildlife resources, lack of training for wildlife park guides and jeep drivers and not improving the standard of the visitor experience are keeping Sri Lanka from becoming a successful wildlife tourism destination. “The potential of Sri Lanka is enormous. I am optimistic but I am very concerned that we are going to kill the golden-goose”.

Dr Sumith Pilapitiya, Former Director General of Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) highlighted that “Sri Lanka has the ‘potential’ to be the best wildlife tourism destination outside Africa”, however despite being blessed with every natural resource, it is unlikely that we will reach that potential, as the country lacks strategic direction. Rather we are destroying that potential by destroying our nature and wildlife. He went on to say that the private tourism sector should be doing much more, to work with the government in order to strategically develop the sector by protecting its natural resources, rather than sit complacent while they focus on reaping the benefits of Sri Lanka’s unique biodiversity today. “If Sri Lanka is to reach its potential as the best wildlife tourism destination outside of Africa, the private tourism sector has to play a significant role to make that happen”.

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