‘Conservation and ecotourism is essential, not niche’
a year ago
Malik J. Fernando on post-pandemic tourism
Tourism, like so many other industries, has taken a thorough beating with the pandemic. Over the last two-and-a-half years, the hits have just kept on coming. First, with the Easter attacks and the resulting lack of confidence in Sri Lanka from the international community, and then with the pandemic itself. Our most recent Covid-19 outbreak placed us on the UK’s red list of places to travel to. On 22 September, amid declining infection rates and deaths, we were finally taken off the red list, and over the next few months, we can hope to see more foreign travellers visiting our shores than we have in the last year. 27 September marked World Tourism Day, a day designated by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) to celebrate tourism all around the world. As its theme for 2021, World Tourism Day chose to focus on “Tourism for Inclusive Growth” as the global tourism industry slowly bounces back amidst the lingering perils of the pandemic. Considering that the pandemic has had a massive social and economic impact on both developed and developing economies, “Tourism for Inclusive Growth” recognises the fact that the restart of tourism should be inclusive, and enjoyed widely and fairly by all. In the Sri Lankan context, our island is currently looking at sustainable tourism, with the most important component of sustainable tourism being the social aspect, which is where inclusivity comes into play, followed by conservation and ecotourism. For tourism, inclusivity, sustainability, and conservation go hand in hand to create a profitable and viable industry for Sri Lanka’s long-term benefit and development. In August, the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance, a coalition of tourism stakeholders from the private sector, launched the “Conservation Tourism Webinar Series”, with its inaugural session discussing “Wildlife and Nature Conservation, as it applies to the Future Sustainability of Sri Lanka’s Tourism Industry”, a timely topic, given Sri Lanka’s upcoming efforts to position itself as an unsung destination that blends inclusivity, sustainability, and biodiversity into one powerful travel offering.
[caption id="attachment_165026" align="alignright" width="313"] Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance Co-Chair and Resplendent Ceylon Managing Director Malik J. Fernando[/caption]
Brunch chatted with Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance Co-Chair and luxury hotel group Resplendent Ceylon Managing Director Malik J. Fernando for his thoughts on inclusive tourism, the future, and the role conservation and ecotourism should play in that future. A tourism retrospectiveSharing his thoughts on tourism in 2020 and 2021, Fernando shared that given Sri Lanka’s recent vaccination drives and the relaxation on travel – and especially Sri Lanka being removed from the red list by countries like the UK (a major source market in the winter season for travel to Sri Lanka) – he has a far more optimistic outlook on tourism for 2021 than he did just a couple of months ago, saying: “The general pickup in confidence globally means that 2022 will be a good year, and hopefully, we’ll start seeing some good business from November or December of this year onwards.” Another positive move encouraging foreign travellers to visit Sri Lanka and thereby boosting tourism, Fernando explained, was the Government’s recent decision to reduce and relax on-arrival guidelines and restrictions on fully vaccinated foreign travellers visiting Sri Lanka, noting that the previous protocol of a PCR prior to departure, followed by a PCR on arrival, then quarantine, was cumbersome and a major deterrent to travellers considering Sri Lanka as a destination. “The fact that we’re going to be relaxing some of these pretty onerous regulations, I think, will be able to boost tourism, and is the right thing to do, because most people in Sri Lanka are vaccinated, and most inbound travellers are vaccinated, so, given that most people who will be travelling to Sri Lanka will be vaccinated, it is sensible to relax these regulations which serve as a major deterrent to bookings at the moment. Many other destinations are more straightforward and travellers don’t want to face uncertainty,” Fernando said, adding that the Government’s decision to relax these regulations adds to his sense of optimism for the future. With tourism being one of Sri Lanka’s key economic drivers and largest employers, Fernando shared that it is vital to look at travellers and what they want. With the pandemic, and moving past the pandemic, Fernando noted that most travellers are going to be looking at travel and tourism afresh, and local wellbeing and connectivity, along with thriving and protected biodiversity, are going to play a much bigger role in how tourism adds value post-pandemic, tying back into the theme of inclusive growth where the wellbeing of everyone, from the locals at the bottom of the pyramid to the big hotel groups or travel agents, will need to be catered to for travellers to feel Sri Lankan tourism has a unique value to offer. Developing sustainable and inclusive tourism for the future“Going forward, tourism will need to develop more sustainably,” Fernando said, adding: “(Development should be) looking at nature and biodiversity, and also at some of the things being done that are detracting from the value our natural resources have to offer. Our biodiversity is under threat. Take the elephant gathering in Minneriya, for instance. It is under great threat and being heavily impacted because of irrigation development. When we say inclusive, we need to mean incorporating the human element of tourism as well as our biodiversity, where we grow not at the expense of sustainability, but by preserving the value of the asset for future generations.” Fernando also shared that biodiversity is vital to Sri Lankan tourism growing and staying relevant, stressing that travellers don’t visit Sri Lanka for sport or adventure or nightlife or purely for our beaches (while our beaches are indeed famous, Fernando has found that most travellers now spend their time inland, trekking through our forests, on safaris, and so on), they travel to Sri Lanka for its biodiversity. “Conservation tourism or ecotourism shouldn’t be an option or niche market anymore,” Fernando said, noting that the rate of destruction of our biodiversity is alarming and that conserving our wildlife and our natural habitats – from our forests to our mountains and wetlands, and from leopards to elephants to whales – is actually critical to the wellbeing of our tourism product. “It is simply no longer an option. It is something that is mandatory if we are to develop long-term strengths and benefits from tourism. If conserving our nature and wildlife doesn’t go hand in hand with tourism, we will lose some of our key selling points and have a much poorer tourism product. The pandemic, though very painful, is temporary and we will come out of it, but biodiversity destruction is permanent.” Resplendent Ceylon and post-pandemic tourismWith Sri Lanka slowly limping towards a post-pandemic future, Fernando shared some of his hopes for the Resplendent Ceylon group of luxury hotels, explaining that like with all tourism businesses, the last 18 months have seen many of Resplendent Ceylon’s pre-pandemic plans being put on hold. “Resplendent Ceylon’s vision of creating a very unique circuit around the country, though paused for two years, will resume from next year,” Fernando said, adding that for for 2022, he hopes to complete the design of a unique treehouse resort in Dambulla, giving Resplendent Ceylon its first location within the cultural triangle, which is expected to open in 2023, along with plans for other locations that are still in their early stages.On Sri Lankan tourism’s future post-pandemic, Fernando said: “We firmly believe that Sri Lanka has a continent’s worth of attractions to offer within a small island. It needs to be correctly positioned, marketed, and promoted, which it has not been all these years, which is why people overseas don’t know about Sri Lanka or have the wrong impression. With global campaigns being kicked off in 2022, finally, all tourism stakeholders and operations will see the benefits of increased demand. Everyone will benefit and the pie will become larger.”