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Udawalawe National Park: Visitor preferences not considered in safari tour pricing

Udawalawe National Park: Visitor preferences not considered in safari tour pricing

20 Nov 2023 | BY Ruwan Laknath Jayakody

  • Amount charged varies sans scientific basis

In Sri Lanka, at present, different prices are charged by safari jeep owners from visitors for a safari tour sans consideration of visitor preferences, the vehicle condition, the number of visitors in the group, the travel time, and whether the tour group is local or foreign, with the amount charged varying without a scientific basis.

These findings were made in an original article on "Visitor preferences on different safari tour packages: A case study of the Udawalawe National Park'' which was authored by R.M.W. Rathnayake (attached to the Sabaragamuwa University's Management Studies Faculty) and published in the South Asian Journal of Tourism and Hospitality First Volume's Second Issue in August, 2021.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme - World Conservation Monitoring Centre and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's "Protected planet report", over 238,000 protected areas, including national parks, have been created worldwide for biodiversity conservation. In Sri Lanka, biodiversity conservation is mostly confined to national parks. Per an Australian study, H. Zeppel and S. Muloin's "Conservation benefits of interpretation of marine wildlife tours", a Trinidad study, and R. Ballantyne, J. Packer and L.A. Sutherland's "Visitors’ memories of wildlife tourism: Implications for the design of powerful interpretive experiences", wildlife tourism has the potential to affect the knowledge, attitudes and behaviours of visitors in areas with wildlife. 

C.L. Russell's "Ecotourism as experiential environmental education?" and a Swedish study believes that the experience of nature creates increased awareness and appreciation of wildlife-related resources. J.C. Skibins, R.B. Powell and J.C. Hallo's "Charisma and conservation: Charismatic mega-fauna’s influence on safari and zoo tourists’ pro-conservation behaviours" compared tourists on safari in Tanzania and visitors to United States zoos and found that visitor behaviours reflected the concern for wildlife conservation by giving money to buy habitat for a particular species and making policies to protect the wildlife.

Beyond mere watching

Wildlife watching is a form of non-consumptive tourism, which can be considered as a nature conservation educational activity if it is accompanied by a professional interpreter’s services. In a national park, different types of recreational services are to be found among which the wildlife safari is a type of recreational facility that comes with an attendant interpretive service where an interpreter or guide interprets the wildlife and natural history of the park. According to S. Ham's "Environmental interpretation: A practical guide for people with big ideas and small budgets", F. Tilden's "Interpreting our heritage" and G. Moscardo's "Making visitors mindful: Principles for creating quality sustainable visitor experiences through effective communication", in a wildlife safari with a live interpretive programme (i.e., with an attendant interpretive service), the interpreter can enhance visitor enjoyment by providing entertaining experiences or better orientation to the available sights, resources, and activities of the park.

In Sri Lanka, 26 national parks have been declared and wildlife safaris are the most common recreational service found in these parks. The existing wildlife safaris in the parks are elephant watching, bird watching, general wildlife viewing, leopard watching and whale watching. The Udawalawe National Park is a popular wildlife Park for elephant watching, bird watching and general wildlife viewing. In this Park, at present, visitors have no choice regarding the type of safari tour that they wish to go on as their preference for a particular kind of wildlife viewing is not taken into consideration. Although a guide is assigned at the Park to go by the preferences of the visitors, more often, the guide will lead the group based on his preference without considering the choice of the visitors in the safari vehicle. 

Furthermore, as wildlife viewing is an educational activity, it can only be accomplished if a good interpretational service is provided by a guide or an interpreter. Hence, visitor satisfaction is also dependent on the interpretational service provided at the national Park. Moreover, visitor preferences regarding wildlife viewing have to be met. In a safari service, visitors mainly consider the following options or alternatives, and among them are elephant watching or bird watching or general wildlife viewing, the distance to be travelled within the national park, the availability of a professional guide or nature interpreter in the safari vehicle, the open hood vehicle facility, having the facility of at least one stop for relaxation and the price of the safari tour, in addition to the ticketing price. 

But, the choices of visitors, if left to them, could vary, producing a large number, in turn making it difficult to identify the visitor demand for different attributes in a tour package. Hence, the relative demand for various attributes have to be identified so that, based on that, the main determinants of a safari tour can be established. 

The discrete choice method has been applied to reveal preference-related data to estimate the consumer preference for the different characteristics of quality-differentiated goods and services such as recreation sites (R.V. Haefen and D. Phaneuf's "Identifying demand parameters in the presence of unobservables: A combined revealed and stated preference approach" and M.N. Hassan and A. Najimi and T.H. Rashidi's "A two stage recreational destination choice study incorporating fuzzy logic in discrete choice modelling"). Discrete choice models are widely used in studies of recreation demand. The discrete choices are studied using different logit models as the toolkits. The mixed logit model has been applied in various recreational studies for making policy decisions. By examining visitor choices, M. Termansen, M. Zandersen and C. McClean's "Spatial substitution patterns in forest recreation", M. Termansen, C.J. McClean and F.S. Jensen's "Modelling and mapping spatial heterogeneity in forest recreation services" and C. Siderelis, R.L. Moore and J.H. Lee's "A mixed logistic model of visitors’ national park choices" identified how the park size and the distance of the trails affect choice patterns under different scenarios. The model has also been used to study the recreational behaviour of tourists. 

Rathnayake's study was carried out at the Udawalawe National Park. In this Park, tropical, dry, mixed, semi evergreen forest predominates and it is a prime habitat for large mammals including the Asian elephant, the leopard, the sloth bear, the golden jackal, the Water buffalo, the slender loris, the wild boar, the spotted deer, the barking deer, the sambar, the black naped hare and the fishing cat. In addition, avi-fauna including endemic birds, large reptiles like the mugger crocodile, the estuarine crocodile and the python are found. Wildlife safaris, camping and stays at wildlife bungalows are the main tourist activities in this Park. At present, it attracts more than 340,000 visitors annually and the majority of them come to enjoy ‘elephant watching’. It is said that around 70 Asian elephants can be seen on a safari tour conducted at this Park on any given day.

Visitor vs. choice

In developing choice sets for this study, each choice set consisted of six attributes, namely, the price for a safari vehicle or jeep; the wildlife viewing option – elephant watching only, bird watching only, and general wildlife viewing; the distance to be travelled in the Park for wildlife watching; the availability of a professional guide or interpreter in the vehicle for interpretation; the availability of the open hood facility in the safari vehicle; and the availability of the facility for at least one stop for visitors for relaxation. A total of 400 visitor groups were interviewed at the ticket issuing office located at the entrance to the Park within a six months’ period in 2019 covering weekdays, weekends, holidays and school vacations. The ticketing procedure normally takes between 10 and 30 minutes based on the visitor numbers to the Park. The visitor groups were also interviewed. The stratified random sampling method was applied and the person who seemed to be heading every fifth visitor group that came to the ticket counter was interviewed. The interviewee was shown 12 choice situations under three choice sets, which were developed after conducting a preliminary survey with visitors and having discussions with safari jeep owners, guides and interpreters and Wildlife Conservation Officers at the Park. Although 400 visitor groups were surveyed, only 398 interviews were considered for analysis in the study. The 398 interviews represent 4,776 cases for purposes of model estimation (398 multiplied by 12 treatments). A series of choice experiments with 12 alternative packages were administered to the visitors. The attributes included in the experiment were the price in Sri Lankan Rupees, alternative wildlife observations (i.e., the main focus on elephant watching, or bird watching, or general wildlife viewing), the availability of a professional nature interpreter in the safari jeep, the distance to be traveled within the Park under the safari package, the availability of the “open hood” facility in the vehicle, and making available at least “one stop” where the safari vehicle can be stopped for relaxation during the safari in the Park. The study investigated the probability of the visitors choosing an alternative if the company is well known, the probability of choosing an alternative in a choice situation, and the willingness to pay for each attribute.

In terms of gender, the majority of the respondents (i.e., those who led the group) was males representing 71% of the total. Most were found in the ‘35-45 years’ age category and were up to the ‘Advanced Level’ in terms of the educational category. While the majority was employed (87.45%), a smaller percentage was either retired or housewives. The mean monthly household income was Rs. 54,618.58, which is much higher than that of the officially announced poverty level for Sri Lanka. A high percentage of visitors had visited the Park at least once before the current visit (62.54%). A considerable percentage of interviewed visitors held jobs or positions in fields related to the environment or tourism (15.75%). As shown in R.M.W. Rathnayake's "Estimating the demand for turtle conservation at the Rekawa Sanctuary" and "Vehicle crowding versus consumer surplus: A case study at the Wasgamuwa National Park applying the hypothetical travel cost method approach", those who work in the environment or tourism related fields appear more willing to visit natural sites.

In terms of the acceptance level for the four safari tour packages, the highest acceptance level of 31.34% was recorded for the elephant watching safari tour while the lowest acceptance level was recorded for bird watching at 16.99%. The acceptance levels for tour packages for elephant and bird watching, and for general wildlife watching were recorded at 27.02% and 24.46%, respectively. Accordingly, the highest expressed interest by visitors to the said Park was for the elephant watching tour package and a combined elephant and bird watching tour package. On the other hand, only a few visitors were interested in the bird watching tour package.

The study proposed four packages ranging in price from Rs. 4,000 to Rs. 6,000. It was found that the majority was interested in the least expensive tour package valued at Rs. 4,000 (46.69%). There was no significant difference among the interviewees when it came to selecting a tour package from among those priced between Rs. 4,500, Rs. 5,000 and Rs. 6,000 (ranging from 16.48% to 19.24%). This suggests that 47.31% were considering the price as well as what was in the tour package when making their choice of a package.

The open hood vehicle has the largest standard deviation while the price for a safari vehicle has the smallest. 

The parameters “alternative” (alternative tour package), “distance” and “professional guide service” were positive and highly significant. This indicates that the visitor choice regarding an alternative safari tour package is mainly determined by the proposed safari tour, the distance to be travelled, and the availability of a professional guide within the safari vehicle. The parameters ‘price’, the ‘open hood safari vehicle' and, ‘at least one stop for use as a relaxation facility' are negative with regard to choosing an alternative safari tour package. This shows that visitors prefer “lower prices for a safari tour option”, an “open hood safari vehicle” and “stopping inside the Park for relaxation”. 

The overall demand, in terms of the willingness to pay for a safari tour package was estimated at Rs. 4,425.18 per visit, which means that the visitors were willing to pay that amount for a safari vehicle for watching wildlife at the Park. The highest willingness to pay value was recorded for the bird watching safari tour while the lowest willingness to pay was recorded for the elephant watching tour. Further, the results reveal that the visitors are willing to pay Rs. 4,522.30 for a safari tour that combines elephant and bird watching. For general wildlife watching, a willingness to pay a value of Rs. 4,227.14 was estimated.

In terms of the demand for the applied attributes, the highest willingness to pay for values are for the parameters ‘distance’ and ‘professional guide service’, which means that the selection of a particular tour package is mainly determined by the distance to be travelled inside the Park and the availability of a professional guide in the safari vehicle. The lower willingness to pay values was indicated for the availability of facilities such as the open hood vehicle and the one stop for relaxation facility.

Effect on revenue 

According to the records on visitor numbers for 2019, the said Park received 41,228 safari jeeps. The maximum revenue can be obtained from the “elephant watching” tour package and the combined elephant and bird watching tour package. The total revenue is estimated at Rs. 176.28 million. If a mean willingness to pay a value of Rs. 4,425.18 is applied, the revenue will be Rs. 182.75 million, which constitutes a 3.6% revenue increase for the Park. Accordingly, safari jeep owners can get their revenue increased by applying a flat rate for the safari tour package. On the other hand, visitor satisfaction too can be either increased or decreased by different values. Thus, the lowest satisfaction levels per year are recorded for elephant watching and general wildlife watching. If the mean willingness to pay a value of Rs. 4425.18 is implemented for the combined elephant and bird watching package and for the bird watching package, the satisfaction level would increase by Rs. 1.08 million and Rs. 1.15 million, respectively.

The overall decrease in the satisfaction level would be Rs. 6.12 million if the resultant willingness to pay a value was to be taken as the price of a safari tour package. This indicates that more facilities should be added and that the services should be improved if the safari tour packages are to be separately priced and implemented at the Park. However, at present, the price of a tour package is more than Rs. 4,500 in actual practice. Accordingly, if more facilities are added and the services improved as mentioned in the choice sets, it will not be an issue in the sense of visitor satisfaction. 

There is a big gap in the revenue between the estimated willingness to pay values for the elephant watching and general wildlife watching tour packages if the type of tour package is not considered. The revenue difference is minimal for elephant and bird watching packages under the estimated willingness to pay values with an estimated flat value of willingness to pay at Rs. 4425.18. Therefore, if the value of the tour package is priced at Rs. 4425.18, the majority of visitors will accept it as the safari vehicle price for wildlife watching at the Park.

In selecting choice sets, the visitors appear to be mainly dependent upon their past experience of wildlife viewing at the Park. This is because, among the safari tour packages, the differences between the willingness to pay values for packages were not significant except in the case of the elephant watching safari package. In terms of study related limitations, since the estimated value does not exhibit the scope of the choice set, the respondents are hence either unable to or find it difficult to understand the value of a safari tour package. Market failure has also been cited as a reason for the respondents failing to understand the value of a particular tour package. 


On average, the respondents preferred the elephant watching tour package under a price of Rs. 3933.70. If a tour package is not specified, their willingness to pay was Rs. 4,425.18. There was a significant difference in the demand for the attributes found in the tour packages. The majority was willing to pay more for the attributes of the distance to be travelled and the availability of a professional guide in the safari vehicle. There was less demand for the facility of an ‘open hood vehicle’ and the 'one stop relaxation service' in the tour package. In general, the open hood facility was mainly demanded by those groups interested in bird watching. 

These values are important in designing tour packages and for pricing the tour packages available at the Park. There is potential for offering four types of safari tour packages, such as elephant watching, elephant and bird watching, general wildlife watching, and bird watching. At present, different prices are charged from visitors for a safari tour by safari jeep owners without taking into consideration visitor preferences with the amount charged varying from Rs. 4,500 to Rs. 7,000 without a scientific basis for such price variations. 

The present study suggests possible ways for the park managers and safari jeep owners to design a price structure for the safari tours and hiring safari tour vehicles at the Park for the proper operation of safari tours. In addition, the study will be helpful in assigning guides based on the visitors’ choice of tour package as the guides are knowledgeable in different fields such as bird watching, elephant watching, and general wildlife watching. There is also a need for better nature related interpretation to meet visitor based requirements. Hence, the park management should take steps to train their guides so that they become professional guides who can provide specialised knowledge to the visitors in different wildlife viewing fields.

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