As we all are aware, Sri Lanka is currently going through a dire economic crisis with our foreign currency reserves are now depleted to a point where we are now finding it extra difficult to gather enough dollars to import bare essentials. As a result, many imported goods in the markets such as fruits have been labelled ‘non-essential’, making their price sky rocket overnight. Much of the dollars we can gather now is directed towards purchasing fuel which is vital for the industrial, energy, and transport sectors of the country.

As things stand at a crucial juncture, is there a way for us to ease the dollar shortage in any way? When considering the avenues from which foreign currency is brought ashore, apparel industry and tourism are the ones that come to mind almost immediately. While our apparel industry is still managing despite the ongoing economic crisis, the same cannot be said about the tourism industry. First it was the travel restrictions brought by COVID-19 that dealt a killer blow to our tourism but now, another threat has emerged in the form of economic and political instability. Many countries are advising against visiting Sri Lanka due to the uncertain times we are currently passing, raising concerns over the safety of the travellers.

However, there is only one way out of this mess and that is to convince the outside world that we are a country worth visiting.

Eco-tourism is the way

Sri Lanka being an island nation near the Equator, is blessed with sandy beaches, marine mammals, wildlife, tropical forests, and a rich cultural heritage; all of which are essential in promoting tourism. However, the latest trend in the world tourism is eco-tourism rather than culture history or heritage tourism.

In this regard, Sri Lanka does possess great potential but to make most of this potential, policy makers and experts must pull in their weight and make vital and sustainable decisions, opined Environmentalist, Director of Species Conservation Centre, and the mammals Group Instructor at Young Zoologists Association (YZA) Pubudu Weerarathna. He made these comments during a recent online webinar, organised by the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) in commemoration of World Environment Day which fell on last 5 June.

“Sri Lanka is a biodiversity hotspot. On a global scale our ecosystems bear similarities to the Western Grace of India which is highly popular among eco-tourists. Our low-country tropical rainforests, dry zone forests, and hill country mountain forests are rich in biodiversity that has great potential of attracting tourists. However, in doing so, we must be careful to not let biopiracy occur,” Weerarathna warned.

According to Weerarathna one way of promoting eco-tourism is to think a little bit outside the box. “Those who are in tourism industry should consider rare, exotic or unheard of destinations as well. We are used to playing it safe and stick to only the usual attractions of Sri Lanka but the country has so much potential beyond those ever-popular tourist destinations. Tour planners should make use of this rich diversity we have to attract more tourists to unique locations.”

Promoting citizen science

Weerarathna said that doing so can have a ripple effect of benefits. For example, if eco-tourism was promoted in a rural area where tourism wasn’t popular before, not only the country’s economy or the tour planner but also that whole community can benefit from it. However, it is vital to make the whole practice a sustainable one that guarantees the ecosystem isn’t harmed in any way and is well-conserved. “It is vital to promote citizen science where locals from the area are involved in conservation. These people are the ones who know the environment the best and it is important to give them some academic knowledge to help them better-understand the importance of the ecosystem. “They can be promoted as guides and protectors in the tourism industry. This can create a lot of job opportunities and help conserve sensitive ecosystems,” Weerarathna said.

Increasing population

The ever-increasing population rate is causing issues world over and Sri Lanka is no exception. Recently, the Minister of Environment also made a comment regarding allowing people to enter forests and reap fruits of it due to the economic crisis and the imminent food shortage. While this might sound like the humane thing to do on surface level, Weerarathna is of the opinion that this in no way is a sustainable solution. “Sustainable solution isn’t allowing people to enter forests to pluck fruits. This can in fact, lead to a myriad of other environmental issues. We already saw this happening in the past when dairy farmers were allowed to enter national parks to find fodder. It led to so many other issues such as logging, poaching, gem mining, and other illegal activities inside forests. We need a sustainable solution.”

According to Weerarathna, one such solution can be the proper utilisation of abandoned farmlands. “We need a proper land policy. In Sri Lanka there are hundreds and thousands of hectares of abandoned lands which were used to be cultivated lands in the past. These lands should be made use of again by promoting farming. The solution isn’t allowing farmers of rural areas to clear forests for his chena cultivation which will eventually lead to human-elephant conflict (HEC) because the farmer has unknowingly has cleared an elephant corridor, but to have a proper land policy where all the uncultivated and abandoned farmland should again be used in cultivation.”

Unsustainable development affecting tourism

Under the name of development lots of infrastructure projects were undertaken. Harbours, stadiums, conference halls, zoos, and whatnot were built in the most remote areas of the country but the politicians never paid attention to spreading knowledge among the public on sustainable practices.

As of late, we witnessed building of jogging tracks, bike tracks, and open food courts in lowland marshy areas in semi-urban parts of the country. While the outcome is easy on the eye, Weerarathna opines that these are by no means sustainable. “If we have managed our lowlands properly we could well have avoided flash floods that occur annually during monsoon seasons,” he said.

He also raised concerns over the leasing of our islands to foreign countries. While the act might be a lucrative one in terms of generating foreign revenue, Weeraratha pointed out that the islands in question are far more valuable to us in eco-tourism than just leasing it out. “These islands are rich in avifauna which can be used in eco-tourism. Also, we should be concerned about what will happen to flora and fauna living in those islands once after we lease them out,” he pointed out.

In conclusion, Weerarathna pointed out that the majority of eco-tourism related concerns could be solved and the sustainable promotion of eco-tourism could be carried out if proper decisions are taken by the authorities. At the end of the day, it all boils down to timely and proper decision making. “Elephants are a true tourist magnet we have; there are few districts where elephants are mostly found and these districts are responsible for generating large amounts of dollars via eco-tourism. However, these districts also record the highest rates of HEC as well as lowest rates of income. Ideally, if the districts generate foreign revenue that much, the residents of those districts too should benefit from it. However, due to poor planning, ill-advised decision making, unsustainable tourism, and lack of knowledge on subject matter, the people of those areas are deprived of reaping benefits of tourism. They see elephants as an enemy when in reality; the large mammal can be use for their gain,” Weerarathna said.

In conclusion, Weerarathna was of the opinion that the eco-tourism is an avenue with much potential that can help Sri Lanka come out of the economic crisis we are currently in, but was adamant that bold and unpopular decisions has to be taken in order to do so.

By Sanuj Hathurusinghe