Sri Lanka has long been known as a beach destination, but the island offers considerably more, and industry leaders are encouraging the development of alternative destinations to appeal to a wide variety of interests. These include adventure and experiential travel and wellness tourism, as well as travel to areas that were previously off-limits to foreign visitors because of civil conflict. “Every region in Sri Lanka has a story to tell,” Sanath Ukwatte, president of the Hotels Association of Sri Lanka, told OBG. Developing new destinations and activities while ensuring sustainable and inclusive growth helps to avoid two typical tourism industry challenges: tourists circuiting a limited number of increasingly crowded sights, and local communities being left out of the economic windfall that can arrive in the wake of discovering a new tourism hotspot.
Cooperation Is Key
The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) has outlined its commitment to ensuring a balanced relationship between hosts and guests in destinations, and to improving popular tourist spots in a way that benefits the local community and indigenous people. Included in this are efforts to disseminate and improve essential hospitality skills in the industry, and to form a coherent national policy.
Recognising that such a large undertaking can only be achieved with the cooperation of government, local communities and businesses, the SLTDA has partnered with the Australian government’s Market Development Facility (MDF). The public bodies plan to collaborate on a series of projects that target diversifying the Sri Lankan tourism sector with the development of a network of “micro-destinations”. An important aspect of the programme is to seek out businesses that are rooted in the community but can widen engagement with the national tourism industry, and to include those people who might not otherwise benefit from tourism.
The first initiative run by the MDF and SLTDA is a pilot project based in Unawatuna, a popular tourist destination on the southern coast. It involves a feasibility study of setting up a night market and developing a sustainable business model for employment generation and economic empowerment for the area’s vendors. A key focus of the programme is engaging members of the local service industry, including those in remote and former conflict-affected areas of the north and east who may possess different skill sets and education levels. To heighten awareness of overlooked areas of the country, Cinnamon Hotels is taking part in the project by sponsoring a tour for travel bloggers around the Northern and Eastern Provinces. These have lagged behind other, better-known areas in terms of tourism traffic and destination marketing, despite their considerable potential.
Another project partner is Pepper Life, an experiential tourism company that is also working to diversify and expand tourism into emerging destinations like the Eastern Province. In these areas, activities including guided tours and village lunches engage local communities and provide more income-generating opportunities, in addition to honing skills development.
Experience & Adventure
In the Eastern Province town of Panama, near Arugam Bay, MDF has partnered with wildlife safari operators at Kumana National Park, as well as organised homestays and established beach campsites. They aim to capitalise on tourists’ desire to have an authentic Sri Lankan experience, and the homestays and campsites add to the area’s tourism accommodation and infrastructure offering. Another emerging segment with substantial growth potential is adventure tourism. Edge Adventure Outfitters, a sports company that offers a variety of activities including white water rafting, kayaking, hiking, abseiling and camping, is looking to expand its presence in Sri Lanka and introduce new offerings such as river canyoning, sea kayaking and river safari expeditions. The expectation is that this will increase investment in outdoor adventure tourism and direct tourist traffic to unexplored areas, benefitting communities in those regions.
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