Getting communities involved in Sri Lanka’s nature tourism

Saturday, 27 September 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Kanchana Wickramasinghe – IPS “A lot of tourists are coming to see Yala. Only a few villagers are having small boutiques closer to the entrance. There are a few who are working as guides in the safari jeeps. Other than that we do not get any income through Yala tourism,” remarked a villager who lives in the periphery of Yala National Park, when he was asked about the benefits to his community of the increasing tourism in the area. Helping local communities gain more from tourism remains an elusive goal in many tourism areas across Sri Lanka, not just in Yala. It is increasingly being recognised that local communities should be a stronger part of a country’s tourism industry. Not only does it directly result in community empowerment, but it also ensures the sustainability of tourism businesses especially in natural environments and rural contexts. Involvement of communities in nature tourism Nature tourism can take various forms; ecotourism, agro tourism, etc. Meaningful participation of local communities in nature tourism is vital because they have been the guardians of the natural resources in the country, including forests, over the years. The local communities possess the knowledge and understanding about the natural environment and socio-cultural context, much better than an outsider – which is an important asset for nature tourism. However, in the case of Sri Lanka, meaningful involvement of communities in nature tourism activities has not been satisfactory so far, as highlighted in previous IPS publications. The same mistake should not be repeated in the emerging areas of nature tourism. A villager in Ranpathwala, Kurunegala, who was optimistic of tourism, said: “Our village is blessed with natural beauty. We would like to gain some income through tourism. Our involvement can make sure that there will be no impacts on the forest or villagers. But the whole issue is that it is difficult to find English-speaking young people to guide the tourists.” An entirely new business for some rural villages Tourism is an entirely new business for some rural villages in Sri Lanka. These communities do not have any experience in carrying out, or being a part of, tourism in their respective areas. Though they can be used as an important asset in the businesses, the lack of skills and knowledge holds back their effective involvement. Communities tend to be pessimistic of the role of tourism in their community context. The common belief that tourism can cause negative social implications in the rural villages is a barrier that hinders the active involvement of communities in tourism. Villagers in Illukkumbura, a village bordering the Knuckles forest range, assert that the behaviour of some of the tourists was a threat to their traditional socio-cultural set-up. These aspects should receive enough attention in tourism promotion, when targeting and marketing policies at higher levels. Efforts to sensitise tourists to local culture would also help address this, and should focus not only on foreign tourists, but domestic tourists as well. Lack of community involvement in planning stages The absence or lack of community involvement in the planning stages of tourism is also a major gap that needs attention. Most of the problems which can arise in the operational stages can be minimised by getting community inputs in the initial stages of the businesses. This also helps create a better sense of ownership. Sri Lanka can learn lessons from success stories in regard to meaningful community involvement in small scale tourism in different parts of the world. Ecotourism in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve in Costa Rica and in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala, India, are two examples where lessons can be drawn for Sri Lanka. In these two cases, establishing meaningful and strong links with the communities in decision making and implementation and also better sharing of benefits, were the reasons for their success. Tourism-related community development in nature tourism should not be limited to getting a few villagers to guide the tourists, as in the case of Yala. Of course, the pathways for community involvement may be different, depending on the location, socio-economic conditions of the households, target customers, etc., so a one-size-fits-all approach would not bring the desired outcomes. But more capacity building of communities and better community involvement at an early stage must become priorities in this process. New forms of tourism which are emerging in Sri Lanka can create more opportunities for communities to get involved and gain greater benefits. Innovative and careful planning will be a must in order to make sure that community benefits are meaningful and long-lasting. (Kanchana Wickremasinghe is a Research Officer at IPS. This article is available online at ‘Talking Economics’