How wildlife tourism can support the Sri Lankan economy post-tsunami
by Antero Topp, editor Alula (1) and Simon Boyes, Ornitholidays (2)
(1) The early winter in Finland is very dark and the birdlife is poor. Therefore the Kon-Tiki Tours birdwatching group had been long looking forward to visiting Sri Lanka and seeing many of the endemic birds. The atmosphere was one of excitement during the flight to Frankfurt where we had to change planes for Colombo. At Frankfurt we started to hear news about the earthquake, followed a few hours later by the first information about the tsunami which had hit Sri Lanka. I asked the group members if they wished to cancel the trip and return to Finland. But everybody wanted to continue to Colombo.
When we arrived in Colombo, one day after the tsunami we were surprised that life seemed to be quite normal in the capital city. We were also a little bit relieved by this. However, during the next day we started to receive more and more messages from Finland as to how terrible the situation really was in certain parts of Sri Lanka and especially in Indonesia. A few members from our group wanted to return to Finland. We had a meeting and we discussed the ethical issues and some of us wondered whether it was wrong to watch birds when tens of thousands of people had lost their life or been injured. We also had to take into consideration the fact that by leaving, we may cause more problems for many local people who earn their living from tourism. We were not in danger in any way and all the services worked very well. We had no reason to go near any of the devastated areas and there was no reason to fear anything.
Our ground agent, Jetwing Eco Holidays also confirmed that the local communities on our itinerary would rather have us stay than leave. Nevertheless, five members of the group decided to return to Finland. The rest of the group continued the trip according to the revised itinerary and they were really happy to have done so. We met a lot of local people who were very happy to see visitors staying in their country. They were very grateful that we had stayed on. They thanked us for staying and helping to keep employed everyone from the man who operated the ferry across the Kelani River to the room boys and the restaurant waiters. We enjoyed the trip as much as it was possible under such circumstances. We believe, in the end, that staying on in Sri Lanka gave a positive message.
(2) From 8th to 22nd January 2005, I had the pleasure of leading a bird watching tour for Ornitholidays, a specialist birding tour operator in the UK. Of course we were apprehensive: should we have come to Sri Lanka at all, so soon after the tsunami disaster? Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne and his team at Jetwing Eco Holidays (www.jetwingeco.com) was emphatic that the best we could help Sri Lanka was to go ahead with the tour. We communicated this to our clients who heeded the request.
Led by Deepal Warakagoda, we visited Kitulgala, Sinharaja and Nuwara Eliya, where we saw almost all of the island's unique bird species. After a wonderful afternoon in the savannahs of Uda Walawe National Park, we headed for the south coast. Certainly, it was a distressing experience to see the devastation along the coastal road in Hambantota. But we knew that by travelling, we were helping the process of the country getting back to normality.
When we arrived at our accommodation in Tissa, the hotel manager thanked us for coming and for bringing his staff much-needed work after so many groups had cancelled. The jeep drivers and trackers of Bundala and Yala National Parks were also happy to see that the flow of visitors, interrupted by the tsunami, were beginning to trickle back. We heard that two displaced families (who had lost everything except their lives) were being temporarily housed at a nursery school next to our hotel. We arranged to meet them, with useful items from our luggage and a cash donation. A drop in the ocean maybe, but at least we could see it reached one spot where it was needed.
"When will the tourists come back?" was a question we often heard from receptionists, waiters and room staff, throughout our trip. The coastal tragedy has penetrated throughout the whole island. To anyone considering a visit to this beautiful and welcoming country, I'd say "go now!" Only a tiny proportion of hotels are still out of action, and all the others need our support.
Simon Boyes can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with some superb birding. Surfbirds encourages all birders planning foreign trips to show their support for those countries affected by the tsunami by visiting rather than staying away.