International Ecotourism Monthly
Year 4, Issue 41, Oct. 2002
The ECOCLUB Interview
This month ECOCLUB.com has the honour of interviewing Mr. Chandra de Silva, President of the Ecotourism Society of Sri Lanka (ESSL) and a Founder of the award-winning Ranweli Holiday Village in Sri Lanka. Mr de Silva is also a Member of the Advisory Board of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), Vermont, USA.
ECOCLUB.com: In your capacity as President of the Ecotourism Society of Sri Lanka (ESSL) we would like to ask you how does ESSL officially define Ecotourism, and what is commonly understood to be ecotourism by most Sri Lankans?
Chandra de Silva: Ecotourism Society of Sri Lanka (ESSL) was formed in March 1999. A definition appropriate for Sri Lanka was one of the first things agreed upon after much discussion. It was decided that one of the earliest definitions coined by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) is a concise and a succinct definition containing the essence of the concept viz.
i. Responsible travel to natural areas.
ii. That conserves the environment and
iii. Sustains the well being of the local people.
However, as Sri Lanka despite its small size (62500 Sq. Kilometres) in addition to the rich biodiversity and a natural world heritage site and recognised as a hotspot has a very ancient rich cultural component including 6 world heritage sites. Therefore we expanded the definition to include culture. The definition ESSL uses is:
"RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL TO NATURAL AND CULTURAL AREAS WHICH CONSERVES THE ENVIRONMENT AND SUSTAINS THE WELL BEING OF THE LOCAL PEOPLE".
Recently consequent to the Quebec Summit the World Tourism Organization has recommended that a definition which is appropriate to each country should be adopted encompassing the core components of ecotourism. Most Sri Lankans understand ecotourism as nature tourism without the key components - conservation and well being of the local people. However, due to awareness created by ESSL this is changing.
You are the owner-operator of Ranweli Holiday Village, an award winning Eco-resort. What made you enter ecotourism in the first place?
A: I am the C.E.O and a founder director of Ranweli Holiday Village with an equity investment. Ranweli was constructed way back in 1975 as a beach resort jointly by me and two close friends. One was a leading architect. The primary reason for this investment was generous tax holidays offered to the tourist industry as Sri Lanka was looking for avenues of earning foreign exchange and employment, like many developing countries.
However, around 1993 a friend who was working for The National Geographic Society in Washington advised me that I could transform the property from a beach resort to an ecotourism facility, as Ranweli with its location in a coastal estuary with rich mangrove resource and a variety of plants and shrubs in our 23 acre peninsula could be developed as an ideal ecotourism facility. He introduced me to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES).
I read newsletters and books from TIES as well as other sources including UNEP & WTO. My research confirmed that Ranweli Holiday Village has the resources of a eco-facility. Fortunately, from the inception we had the vision to use local material from the village which was producing bricks and tiles from cottage level industries. As I was convinced that Ranweli had the concept in its architecture and natural resources to transform the property from a beach resort to an Ecotourism facility, I started product development.
As I wanted to proceed on the right path with professionalism, I attended an Ecotourism Workshop on Applied Strategic Planning and Project Development at the Institute of Tourism Studies, George Washington University, Washington D.C. At this workshop I met Ms. Megan Epler Wood, instructor of the workshop and President of TIES, who stimulated my interest in Ecotourism. In 1998 I was invited as a Member of the Advisory Board of the International Ecotourism Society (TIES) based in Vermont, USA.
What were the main problems you faced when setting up Ranweli ? What were the solutions ?
A: One of the main problems was to convince the staff including the Senior Management staff of Ranweli that transforming Ranweli to an Ecotourism facility is in our long term interest as this segment of sustainable tourism is growing. The problem was that it was not an easy task for employees who have been trained to run a straight forward beach resort to understand the concept of a knowledge based facility. I informed them at regular meetings of the challenges of transforming and servicing an educated clientele as Ecotourism guest profile is in sharp contrast to the beach tourism clients - looking for knowledge based holidays as they are well educated, and interested in conservation and assisting local people.
A special committee - "Green Committee" was formed which included the top management and representatives from each department at all levels. A Room Boy and Gardener are in this committee as I firmly believed that unless staff at all levels become partners in my endeavours, I will not be successful.
As the first step an Eco Facility Department was formed with an Ornithologist, a Botanist and a Zoologist and engaged them in a resource analysis in the property and its environs. Fortunately the Department of Zoology and Botany of the Colombo University assists us with the scientific inputs. The Vice President of ESSL Prof. Sarath Kotagama, Professor of Environmental Science spear headed the resource analysis and assisted me to write interpretation programs on Flora & Fauna, Habitat Tours etc.
Now the entire staff have accepted the philosophy of operating the resort as an Ecotourism facility. The recent recognition of Ranweli Holiday Village by the World Tourism Organization (WTO) as one of the top 55 "Good Practices" Enterprises in Ecotourism around the world has made them proud participants of my vision to make Ranweli an internationally accepted Eco Facility.
What are the main problems that Ecotourism Professionals are facing in Sri Lanka today ?
A: There are only a very few ecotourism entrepreneurs in the island. They have constructed a few facilities but lack professional management on the principles of ecotourism due to lack of awareness. The infrastructure both tangible and intangible are not yet in place. There is a serious dearth of professional interpreters. ESSL hopes these will be sorted out with time as we have just come to know this product after being entrenched in mass tourism for over three (3) decades
What are the main projects that ESSL is currently involved in?
A: Three council members of ESSL were invited to speak at a workshop on Ecotourism conducted by the Sri Lanka Tourist Board on the 24th of September 2002. The keynote address was given by a program officer from the WTO and I was requested to speak on 'Ecotourism prospects in Sri Lanka'.
ESSL was also invited by the Sri Lanka Tourist Board to assist in the preparation of guidelines for ecolodges and eco products. This will be completed by the end of October 2002 and submitted to the Board for wider publicity among all stakeholders for creating awareness and public debate. After finalisation, the Ministry of Tourism will publish the guidelines as an official document.
Does ESSL monitor the adherence of its members to ecotourism principles and practices and how ?
A: ESSL is at present not a monitoring body. Further monitoring is still premature The Sri Lanka Tourist Board will monitor whether the guidelines aforementioned are observed. ESSL has offered technical support in this regard.
What is your view on the need for Ecolodge Certification, with particular reference to Sri Lanka ?
A: I am in favour of not only certification of Ecolodges but eco products as well. e.g. Bird watching. The latter is difficult as it is subjective but could be achieved by making the use of trained interpreters mandatory. I was invited as a member of Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council commissioned by the Rainforest Alliance. This organisation is working towards a Global accreditation body for sustainable tourism certifiers.
There has been some criticism that some eco-venues such as turtle egg hatching programs in Sri Lanka are more interested in attracting tourists than in animal welfare. What is your view ?
A: I agree with you that some eco-venues such as turtle egg hatching are commercially oriented. This is not only a Sri Lankan problem, but a global problem. We are against this and ESSL will strongly come out against those who engage in commercialising such activities at the expense of conservation (animal welfare).
Is luxury in your view compatible with an ecolodge ?
A: Luxury is not compatible with an ecolodge. The word is comfort with local flavour with décor from quality artifacts and handicrafts from craftsman who have carried out their profession through generations. Use of their artefacts in an aesthetic way as décor will create 'class' and avoid opulence from imported products, which are not compatible with the cultural ethos of the country. Further, this will open a marketing opportunity to our artisans and also improve the quality of their products. Research demonstrates that ecotourists select facilities constructed with local material and traditional building methods, with a local flavour with basic comforts and good standards of hygiene.
Peace talks have just begun in Sri Lanka and everyone hopes for the best after years of violence. Do you think that ecotourism can play a role in Sri Lanka in healing the wounds and how ?
A: Nearly a quarter of the country in the North and some parts of the East were not visited by tourists. These areas where rich, natural and exotic man-made sites are found have large numbers of refugees. ESSL is of the opinion that ecotourism could be used as a tool for rural development.
Cynics say that ecotourism develops in countries that have failed to develop mass tourism. Is that the case in Sri Lanka, or is there a deeper reason, does for example Buddhist tradition play a part ?
A: I do not agree with this proposition. I have not come across any material expressing this point of view. An exception could be a country with special resources such as Galapagos where hard core naturalists (ecotourists) visit. These are expensive products not marketable to mass tourism which are on low budget and not knowledge based but with a high 'play component'.
I also wish to comment, it is easier to develop ecotourism in destinations where mass tourism has not yet penetrated, provided there is rich biodiversity and or attractive cultural assets such as heritage sites. Otherwise there is a danger of mass tourism absorbing the niche tourism segment (nature & culture) of ecotourism.
Sri Lanka is fortunate in a way though entrenched in mass tourism with star class hotels in the south and west coast. They are in the so called 'environment bubble' confined to the facilities with marginal contact with the local community. However, visits to natural and cultural sites for a few days is called an "add-on" is provided to these guests. We call this a 'photo journey' as they do not visit these sites for deeper knowledge but to get out of the boredom of lying on the beach.
Buddhist traditions are fully compatible with ecotourism as conservation and love for all forms of life is the core of Buddhist philosophy. Sri Lanka has the first sanctuary in the World - 250 B.C. - Mihintale. The oldest historically documented tree - Ficus Religiosa - a branch of the original tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment was brought to Sri Lanka over 2000 years ago by Sangamitta daughter of Emperor Asoka of India who started the order for Buddhist nuns. These among other religious sites are still venerated by millions of Buddhists from all over the World. Buddhist traditions and practices have protected these sites from degradation caused by mass tourism. Declaration of these sites as protected areas has also helped.
We have read the "Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism" and we also saw the 'Blueprint" at the Johannesburg Summit. Do you think that these two conferences will have a long lasting effect or that the World will soon forget faced with greater worries ?
A: Quebec Declaration is useful as it could be considered the first internationally accepted document on Ecotourism with a wide stakeholder participation. This will undergo further refinement with time with the special needs and resources of each country. The world will certainly be faced with greater problems if countries make ecotourism a mega business and absorb it to the main stream of mass tourism. This will compromise the principles of conservation and welfare of the local community, and destroy the very resources on which ecotourism depends. Johannesburg Summit sets out a list of commitments for sustainable development. There is a big question whether these good intentions will be implemented.
Is there anything else you would like to say ?
A: In conclusion I wish to say that 'green washing' is going on around the globe in the name of ecotourism as the word ecotourism is a good marketing tool. This is the importance of ecolabelling.
ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much.
Readers wishing to learn more about the Ecotourism Society of Sri Lanka (ESSL) are invited to see the following appendices: