British High Commissioner extols strategic direction of tourism in Sri Lanka

British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and Ambassador to Maldives James Dauris lauded the efforts rendered by the government of Sri Lanka to develop the island nation as a travel hub in Asia during his address at the dinner held by the Institute of Hospitality on Wednesday (29).

In his address High Commissioner Darius stated that the tourism sector has bolstered the community within Sri Lanka by providing ample employment an international exposure.

He further highlighted the strategic direction of the government stating that the country may become one of the world’s finest tourist destinations.

His address is provided below,

I’m honoured to have been invited to address you this evening.  The industries you lead and represent are ever more a corner-stone of the Sri Lankan economy and of the country’s economic planning.

Within a couple of miles of here billions of dollars are being invested in new hotel and leisure complexes.

Around the country hotels are being built, tea estate bungalows and heritage buildings are being renovated and given exciting new identities.  Jobs are being created and skills developed.  Tourist numbers are rising year on year and forecasts look encouraging.

[According to SLTA figures, more than 300,000 Sri Lankans are directly employed in Sri Lanka’s travel and tourism industry.   It earns the country over 3.5 billion US Dollars in foreign exchange earnings each year.  And the target is to double both revenue and employment by the year 2020, just three years from now.]

The Government recently launched it “Tourism Vision 2025”, to provide strategic direction to the tourism sector.  It envisions Sri Lanka recognised as the “world’s finest island for memorable, authentic and diverse experiences”.

(Minister, I hope you won’t mind if the UK continues to compete for that accolade!)   And at the heart of the vision lie concepts of sustainability.  “At its core”, the Minister said, “is a tourism philosophy that celebrates Sri Lankan heritage, environment, values and people”, one that is “socially inclusive and environmentally responsible and provide economic benefits to communities and the country”.

As I look at Sri Lanka and reflect on your country’s tourism potential and future needs, this emphasis on the environment and on management of your great cultural and natural sites makes good sense and is much needed.

It needs to be more than just the great sites, of course — it’s the management of the whole of the island that needs to be got right, to attract foreign visitors yes but, more than that, for people of Sri Lanka themselves.

I’ve been a life-long naturalist.  And for a naturalist Sri Lanka is a wonderful place to come to — for your coasts, hills, plains, mud-flats and seas.  For your wildlife: your animals, birds, butterflies and sea creatures.  For your plants: your flowers and trees.  You have 30 species of endemic birds, birds that are only found here and in no other country in the world, 50 species of endemic snake, probably hundreds of endemic species of plants.

You won’t need me to persuade you that Sri Lanka is a country blessed by Nature.  And that is why many visitors choose to come here.

The point I’m coming to is this: all these are precious, and they need protecting.  That Sri Lanka’s wildlife is under threat and many of its reserves under unsustainable pressures isn’t in doubt.  The illegal trade in wildlife is flourishing.   In the  past few days we’ve seen reports  of hundreds of kilos of pangolin scales  being captured by the police, and of tourists stopped at the airport trying  to leave  with dried sea horses by the thousand.

We read about extensive illegal logging in Wilpattu, encroachment on Sinharaja, and unauthorised building in park buffer zones.  Many of us will have  seen and experienced  the bedlam that  ensues when the gates to Yala National  Park open each morning and jeeps in their hundreds race in for the first leopard kill, or to kill the first leopard – it’s not always clear which.  We have all seen the rubbish that collects in drifts on Sri Lanka’s beautiful beaches.  The latest Tourism Strategic Plan candidly admits that Sri Lanka’s international image is suffering.

This year the focus of World Tourism Day was on sustainable tourism.  Sri Lanka needs its tourism to be sustainable.  You and your companies, your employees and the local communities you work with all need tourism to be sustainable.

For Sri Lanka to keep its special appeal, it needs and you need the environment to be properly cared for.

My point is this.  Your industries have a powerful voice, as they deserve to.  Your industries have a lot of influence, as they deserve to.  Can I encourage you to use this voice and this influence well?  You need to be there, standing up for good and sustainable conservation practices.

You can and need to be helping to make a difference: encouraging, supporting, sometimes pushing central and local government; supporting the work of conservation NGOs, the Forest Department and park authorities and helping them stand up against corruption and misuse of power.  Some of your companies are doing and sponsoring some wonderful conversation work, I know.

When I was at university I spent two summer holidays as a member of a scientific team producing a management plan for a cloud forest high in the Andes mountains in Ecuador.  Since then I’ve talked with many governments, and taken an interest in many conservation regimes around the world.

Some work well; some, though intentions are good, don’t.  I hope it’s useful to share three personal reflections about Sri Lanka’s approach with you.

The first is that I see that often your rules are good but they aren’t being or can’t be enforced.  Politicians don’t always help; too often they are part of the problem.

Financial self-interest and the need for votes get in the way of good conservation sense.  Businesses don’t always help either.  Take the problems being faced by Bolgoda Lake not far from here.  Planning laws get over-ridden, chemicals flow in from industry, effluents from hotels, pollution from saw mills.

Surrounding wetlands and mangrove swamps are destroyed.  There comes a point when ecosystems, even strong ecosystems, break.  Rules need to be enforced.

My second observation is that sometimes the rules are good, but the penalties for breaking them insufficient.  Take the worrying number of Chinese visitors caught leaving the country with endangered animals and plants.

[The papers recently reported on the case of someone caught trying to leave with almost two million rupees’ worth of dried sea horses.  They were fined a hundred and fifty dollars and allowed to continue their journey home.]  Penalties that really deter are needed to slow this flourishing trade.

And my third observation, that controls on visitor numbers in some national parks are much needed and should be an easy win.  There are plenty of good examples from around the world of how to make restrictions on numbers work.  Controlling vehicle behaviours and enforcing road and other park disciplines should be easy too.  Penalties for non-compliance need to be tough enough to be effective and they need to be enforced.

All of this works best when it rests on sound educational foundations.  Having people police their own behaviours is better all round than relying only on the police to do the policing.  How much better that people stop dropping rubbish because they care for the environment and take pride in how things look, than because they are frightened of getting caught.  How much better that they don’t cut down trees in a park because they appreciate why they are so important.

The Institute of Hospitality’s mission is to empower people across the industry, encouraging them to learn, train and develop, thereby raising standards.  The hospitality industry in Sri Lanka deserves to succeed.  Yours is a land of great beauty, extraordinary variety and winning smiles.  I believe that, through using your voice and your influence to support the conservation practices Sri Lanka needs to have in place today, you will help to ensure that your industry continues to prosper in generations to come.

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