By Srilal Miththapala
Wildlife tourism is a fast growing segment of the modern tourism market. Sri Lanka, being blessed with an abundance of biodiversity, is known for its wildlife attractions. Can this segment then attract more discerning, higher spending tourists to Sri Lanka?
What is wildlife tourism?
Wildlife tourism is basically interacting with wild animals in their natural habitat. It can be passive (e.g. watching/photography) or active (e.g. hunting/collection). The more popular aspects encompass non-consumptive interactions with wildlife, such as observing and photographing animals in their natural habitats. Many elements of wildlife tourism are closely aligned to ecotourism and sustainable tourism.
Wildlife tourism is an important part of the tourism industries in many countries, including African and South American countries, Australia, India, Canada, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.
Global wildlife tourism
The size of the global wildlife tourism market was $ 120.1 billion in 2018, which is about 4.5% of all tourism revenues. Today, wildlife tourism provides 22 million jobs worldwide. The segment is largest in the Asia-Pacific region, worth $ 53.3 billion in direct gross domestic product (GDP) and responsible for 4.5 million jobs. In second place is Africa, where 3.6 million people are employed through wildlife tourism, which was worth $ 29.3 billion in 2018. This segment is forecast to have a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 5%.
The average spend per night for wildlife tourism in Africa was estimated to be $ 433, with additional out-of-pocket expenses of $ 55 per day per person. The very high-end facilities would demand $ 2,000 or above per day.
Hence there is no question that proper wildlife tourism is a fast growing segment that can bring in top-dollar tourists to a destination that can offer the proper products and services.
The Sri Lankan wildlife tourism segment
Being blessed with a great abundance of biodiversity, Sri Lanka (one of the 36 biodiversity hotspots in the world, according to the Conservation Organisation) is ideally suited for wildlife tourism. It is already well known for large charismatic animals, both on land and in sea, and if positioned and marketed properly, can be promoted as a good alternative to Africa.
In 2018 (considered the best year for tourism in Sri Lanka) close to 50% of all tourists to Sri Lanka visited a wildlife park in the country. This is a dramatic increase from some 31% in 2015.
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has no information on the revenues directly generated from wildlife tourism. But in a study I conducted to ascertain the value of the famous elephant gathering in Minneriya, it was found that the earnings of the hotels in the Minneriya, Dambulla, and Habarana areas (some 3,450 rooms) was approximately Rs. 3.5 billion in 2018.
Who is a wildlife tourist?
In my view there are two types of wildlife tourists. The “casual wildlife tourist”, who only wants to see some animals in the wild and quickly just “tick a box”, and the “die-hard” or “hard core” wildlife tourist, who wants a more meaningful and wholesome experience of wildlife and nature. It stands to reason therefore that the latter will be willing to pay more for the experience they are seeking. Hence it is this segment that would comprise the high-spending tourists that wildlife attract, and to whom destinations should therefore try to promote themselves.
How do you attract the discerning wildlife tourist?
Obviously, the discerning wildlife tourist will demand more from the destination and service providers. They will definitely be concerned about sustainability and conservation, and consequently the destination must be able to deliver on this. This would mean good practices in wildlife management, responsible wildlife viewing facilities, conservation activities, good interpretation, etc. to be seen and practised in the destination.
Some aspects they will look for are:
- That wild animals must be free, and should not be held in captivity, locked in cages or in chains
- Not taking selfies with wild animals
That wild animals should not be used in shows
- Not touching or hugging wild animals, and keeping a safe and minimal distance
- Not feeding wild animals, especially when the intention is to attract them
- Experiencing a memorable and rewarding experience, in a calm and quiet environment
- In no way harming the natural environments being visited
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka would fail in most aspects of the above checklist.
What type of wildlife tourist is Sri Lanka attracting?
Given the poor practices in wildlife viewing and management prevalent in Sri Lanka today, I would conclude that we are attracting the lower end of the market – the “casual wildlife tourist”.
The mayhem of over-visitation and crowding in most of our popular wildlife parks would deter even the partly serious wildlife enthusiast. Most of our trackers (park rangers) and guides are not knowledgeable enough to relate the proper information regarding wildlife, to tell the rich stories behind the subject being viewed and give a proper interpretation. In contrast, many years ago, on a USAID-sponsored trip to Costa Rica, our interpreter was an honours graduate in zoology!
Even the few high-end wildlife tourists who come to Sri Lanka see for themselves the poor product and service quality prevailing, and may be disappointed. Several years ago I was asked by the then Tourist Board to accompany a VVIP visitor and spouse to see the Pinnawala Orphanage. It was a daunting task, given the poor conditions and management of the facility. And in spite of rehearsing a carefully curated tour, de-emphasising the negative aspects of the orphanage, the VVIP spouse, who was a serious conservationist working in Kenya, saw through the facade in next to no time!
What does Sri Lanka need to do to attract high-end wildlife tourists?
As evident, there is a big gap between what a proper high-end wildlife tourist expects and what Sri Lanka tourism can offer.
Some urgent action is required as follows:
- Improve all national park management
- Manage park visitation to reduce overcrowding
- Improve visitor experience (better information centres, brochures, and interpretation)
- Proper branding of the destination as a wildlife destination (“The Big Four”, “Best for wildlife next to Africa”, etc.)
It is only if we can address these basics and put them right that Sri Lanka can reap the full benefits of proper wildlife tourism.
(Srilal Miththapala is a member of the WNPS, he has been involved in Tourism for the past 30 years and was Past President of the Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka [THASL], He is a fellow of both the Institute of Electrical Engineers UK, and Fellow of the Institute of Hospitality UK. During his free time he now pursues his passion of enjoying wild life, environment, and studying and observing wild elephants)
The history of wildlife protection in Sri Lanka is almost synonymous with that of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka. At 128 years old, the WNPS is the third oldest non-governmental organisation of its kind in the world and was responsible for the setting up of the Wilpattu and Yala National Parks in Sri Lanka, and of the formation of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).