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Is Ecotourism Practiced in Natural Areas?

‘Ecotourism’, according to standard definitions, belongs in the sustainable tourism category. Not only is the concept of ‘Ecotourism’ now a buzz word, it is also a widely practiced concept around the world with managers of natural areas increasingly involved in the practice of ecotourism.
The following key principles should be entailed in ‘Ecotourism’ as defined by the Sri Lanka Tourist Board (2003):

• Environmentally-sound development with no degradation of the resource, preferably with long term benefits (economic or otherwise) to the resource
• Benefits to local communities and people, through such means as participation in decision-making, employment, management, ownership, education, self-reliance and fulfilment or strengthening culture
• Economic benefits to industry participants and
• Education and interpretation to provide participatory, enlightening and respectful experiences

The framework came to be amended in 2008 as the National Development Tourism Act and while the Sri Lanka Tourist Boards’ Ecotourism Strategy (2003), National Wildlife Policy and the National Forest Policy are supportive of these principles.
According to the scholars, the definition of ‘Ecotourism’ is “responsibility to travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the wellbeing of local people”. As such, the Ecotourism potential consists of three major components: responsible to travel to natural areas; conservation of the environment; and sustenance of the well-being of the local people. Sustainability of Ecotourism requires that all three criteria be met by protected area managers.
At present the nature tourism or so called ‘Ecotourism’ is practiced mainly at national parks, and some of forest reserves in Sri Lanka. According to our studies it is questionable that the Ecotourism Operators have practiced the Ecotourism principles mentioned in the definition.
The status of ‘Ecotourism’ practices at Pitawala Pathana in Matale was assessed with the support of Chandana Senevirathne. Taking into consideration the three criteria for Ecotourism outlined above, responsible travel to natural areas, contribution to environmental conservation and sustenance of the well-being of the local people, it could be argued that the level of Ecotourism operations at Pitawala Pathana was not at a satisfactory level. The overall level of Ecotourism operations at Pitawala Pathana are at 52.54% which reveals a 47.46% deficit with optimum sustainability levels. There is an obvious need to improve the ‘sustenance of the well-being of the local community’ aspect where that value at present is 21.30%.
The challenges/barriers to success in Ecotourism Operations can be discussed under two aspects, under-utilisation of the Ecotourism potential at natural areas and the dearth of opportunities at present to develop Ecotourism concessions in order to get local community involvement in Ecotourism development.
The National Forest Policy of Sri Lanka lays down the policy directions for forest management including tourism in protected areas (National Forest Policy, 1995). There are adequate provisions in the policy for collaborative management of protected areas with the local community and the Forest Department and for benefit sharing. One of its objectives is ‘to enhance the contribution of forestry to the welfare of the rural population and strengthen the national economy with special attention paid to equity in economic development’.
However, the absence or deficiency in good communication channels is a challenge to Ecotourism development in forest reserves. These communication gaps are evident not only between the Government and Private Sector but also between various Government Institutions with each government institution working alone within their own territory. The paper argues for the need to address this woeful situation, including a suggestion for the Forest Department to host the Ecotourism Forums annually and for Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority to form a Multi-sectoral Task Force on Ecotourism.
Substantive changes are also needed in legislation, policies and regulations. Perhaps the most fundamental change is one of attitude towards each other. The lessons learnt section describes the roles of public and private sector in ecotourism. It is also a fact that the relationship between the Forest Department and local communities is often characterised by hostility, due to disputes over boundaries, encroachments, illegal use of resources and a general lack of understanding between the two parties.
This has been the pattern in many parts of the world so that park agencies are now required by law to include local communities in their planning activities. In the case of Sri Lanka, the main legislation is the Forest Ordinance although provisions for such collaboration are not clearly mentioned in it. But directions are given in the National Forest Policy.
The National Forest Policy of Sri Lanka (1995) also requires that local people be consulted in the process of decision-making, active participation in implementation and in receiving direct benefits from the management of protected areas. The direct benefits could accrue to them through the promotion of visitor services and Ecotourism at forest reserves. All activities within forest reserves administered by the Forest Department are legally bound by the Forest Ordinance. The Ordinance poses no legal impediments to the development of recreation concessions within the forest reserves as long as they have obtained prior clearance from the Department. Given the strong regulatory powers accorded the Forest Department by the Ordinance, there is strong legislative support for control of the activities of concessionaires were they to overstep the bounds of what is legally permissible.
Hence, a semi-structured questionnaire was administered for the purpose of obtaining the views of the local communities on Ecotourism development and sustaining the well-being of the local community. Through the PRA techniques, the local community’s perceptions on Ecotourism and sustainability were elicited under the aspects of accommodation, sale of crafts/local products, cycle renting, sale of local food and provision of guide services. The study was also able to identify the challenges facing such involvement of the community.
The community group for providing local food items
All members of the local community interviewed were in favour of Ecotourism initiatives to attract more visitors to the area. They stated that their income would increase from the provision of local food items to visitors, such as fruits, jaggery, honey and spices. However, the arrival of visitors to the area is seasonal which would lead to fluctuations in business prospects that could in turn pose a barrier for Ecotourism development at Pitawala Pathana. Seasonal ecotourism could also create competition within the community as regards business ventures. Though Ecotourism encourages the production and sale of quality traditional arts and crafts, some visitors may not appreciate or place much emphasis on quality items, which may in turn lead to the sale of low quality items at low prices. This would again drive a wedge between members of the community due to business rivalries.
The community group for Providing accommodation
All members of the local community interviewed stated that they favour Ecotourism initiatives and would like to attract more visitors to the area. They stated that they would provide accommodation to visitors to generate extra income. However, a majority of the tourists do not consider Pitawala Pathana as their trip destination, considering it instead as a transit point, selecting Wasgomuwa National Park or Mahiyanganaya as their overnight accommodation stops. Further, local and foreign tourists visit the area only seasonally so that there are no visitors at all during some periods of the year. This would pose a challenge to those willing to provide overnight accommodation to augment personal income through Ecotourism. However, during some periods there are no visitors. This would pose a barrier to augment local community income through sustainable initiatives.
The community group for providing professional guide services
All members of the local community interviewed were in favour of Ecotourism initiatives to attract to more visitors to the area. They stated that they could do so by providing guide services for a fee. An impediment to this aspiration is the practice of visitors who resort to online aids to find location and route, which preclude the need for guide services. Even were there to be a demand, it would be seasonal because, during some periods of the year, it is very difficult to travel to some locations in Pitawala Pathana.
The community group for providing handicrafts
The members of the local community interviewed like to attract more visitors to the area. They stated that they would supply handicrafts to the visitors to earn an income. However, the production cost for such endeavours is high and it may be difficult to find raw materials from the area, which would pose a challenge to such endeavours.
The community group for maintenance of clean restroom facilities
All members of the local community interviewed were in favour of initiatives to attract more visitors to the area and stated that they will be able to maintain clean restroom facilities for visitor to generate additional income. However, given the seasonal nature of travel to the area, there would be some periods of the year that would see no visitors which would make the income from the service fluctuate, denying the members of the community a steady income. Therefore, other infrastructure facilities and tourism schemes would need to be established to ensure a continuous stream of visitors throughout the year.

By
Prof. Wasantha Rathnayake
Professor in Environmental Management
Sabaragamuwa University
of Sri Lanka

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