Dr. Palitha Gurusinghe

Interview: Dr Palitha Gurusinghe, President, Sri Lanka Ecotourism Foundation

"At present, Sri Lanka Tourism is going after ‘Volume’ rather than ‘Value’; they are only interested in the ‘Headcount’. In the process, the Authorities have entirely forgotten projects and programmes on sustainable tourism and ecotourism"

Dr Palitha Gurusinghe is the Founder and President of the Sri Lanka Ecotourism Foundation (SLEF), the national ecotourism association of Sri Lanka. He is also a Consultant and Coordinator of the National Sustainable Tourism Certification (NSTC) Programme in Sri Lanka, Managing Director of Sri Lanka Ecotours and President of the Asia-Pacific Regional Ecotourism Council (APREC). He has acted as a Tourism and Marketing Consultant and a Trainer for the Sri Lanka Ministry of Tourism, for international organisations and the private sector. He is also an external Board Member of the Faculty of Tourism Studies at Sabaragamuwa University and a Visiting Lecturer in Ecotourism in many Universities and higher educational institutes in Sri Lanka. He is the author of various research papers in Ecotourism, the Editor of journals, newsletters of eco and sustainable tourism, while he has recently authored the “Story of Ecotourism Sri Lanka” (2017). In 2012, Dr Gurusinghe was awarded the ‘Presidential Tourism Award’ for ‘Outstanding Contribution for Sri Lanka Tourism’.

ECOCLUB: What first attracted you to Ecotourism and how did you decide to get professionally involved with Ecotourism?

Dr Palitha Gurusinghe: Since 1978, I was actively involved in the Tourism Industry in Sri Lanka as a National Tourist Guide Lecturer, Tour Leader and a Travel Agent, particularly in the mainstream tourism sector. Ecotourism was not very much heard or popular in Sri Lanka until the 1990s. In 1990, the Ecotourism Society was formed in the United States, and the concept was conveyed and popularised at the global level. I was so inspired by the concepts and principles of ecotourism and started thinking about forming an organisation in Sri Lanka. In October 1998, I was able to establish the Sri Lanka Ecotourism Foundation (SLEF) as the pioneer national ecotourism society in Sri Lanka supported by individuals and other like-minded organizations. After a few years, it was recognised by the Sri Lanka Tourism authorities as the ‘National Ecotourism Society of Sri Lanka”. I was the founder President of SLEF in 1998 and hold the position up to now.

ECOCLUB: You have recently authored a highly-praised book on the History of Ecotourism in Sri Lanka. What prompted you to do this and is it written with practitioners and academics in mind or is it also suitable for eco-minded travellers?

Dr Palitha Gurusinghe: Yes, I have written this book mainly with academics and practitioners in mind. “Story of Ecotourism Sri Lanka” is the first ever book published recording important landmarks of ecotourism in Sri Lanka for the benefit of those who are interested, inquisitive and looking forward to widening their horizons in ecotourism. It is equally suitable for the eco-minded travellers to Sri Lanka.

ECOCLUB: What key need did the creation of SLEF come to meet and to what extent do you feel that you have succeeded in meeting that need?

Dr Palitha Gurusinghe: SLEF was founded in October 1998, at a time the tourism industry segments or any individual in Sri Lanka hardly talked about ecotourism. In fact, there was a void in this niche segment of the tourism industry. Sri Lanka Ecotourism Foundation created history in Sri Lanka Tourism by becoming the pioneer organization for Ecotourism. The idea of establishing an organization to promote ecotourism in Sri Lanka was mooted by me as an academic and practitioner in the tourism industry in Sri Lanka. The tourism background which existed then necessitated forming an environmental and people friendly non-profit tourism organization to motivate the industry stakeholders, tourism authorities and the wider section of communities in tourism generating areas of Sri Lanka in the right direction. In 1998, the tourism industry was the fourth biggest foreign exchange earner in Sri Lanka. However, many negative aspects had a great impact on the socioeconomic and sociocultural fabric of Sri Lanka as observed by the industry segments and the intellectuals as well. Negative impacts of tourism industry included prostitution, child sex abuse, drug addiction and alcoholism, erosion of traditional values in family, religion, education, economic leakage, increasing poverty level. The primary objectives of formulating Sri Lanka Ecotourism Foundation (SLEF) were to mitigate the negative impacts created by tourism in the society of Sri Lanka and to protect biodiversity and environment.

During the past 19 years, SLEF has succeeded in meeting the main Objectives it had at the beginning of the formation of the organization, namely;

  • Introducing and popularising of the concepts of Community-Based Ecotourism Enterprises (CBEs) to Sri Lanka Tourism to assure socioeconomic and sociocultural benefits to the communities through tourism, thereby supporting to alleviate poverty in tourism generating areas of Sri Lanka.
  • Establishing of first ever Research and Training Institute to develop quality Ecotourism in 2002
  • Establishing a Data Base and Research Centre for South Asian Region (RETSA) to research and disseminate information on Ecotourism in 2003
  • Playing a leading role in establishing the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises Tourism Sri Lanka (ASMET) in 2006 in association with GTZ and supporting to establish the Small and Medium Enterprises Network of Tourism Sri Lanka (SMENTS) in 2015, to handle Ecotourism businesses in Sri Lanka
  • Providing advanced training programmes for the practising eco guides/interpreters on nature, adventure and ecotourism
  • Formation of Sri Lanka Eco Tours, as a ‘model travel agency’ to locate funding for the activities undertaken by the SLEF to promote ecotourism, nature and adventure tourism in Sri Lanka. 
  • Training of Adventure and Nature-Based Tour Operators, Hotels, Guest Houses, Restaurants, Ecolodge owners and Camping Operators, Travel Journalists in Electronic and Print media.
  • Helped Sri Lanka Tourism authorities to develop National Policies, Guidelines and Action Plans to develop Ecotourism in Sri Lanka.
  • Conducted the first ever regional Ecotourism Conference on “Community Based Tourism” in Sri Lanka in 2009 and the formation of Asia-Pacific Regional Ecotourism Council (APREC).

ECOCLUB: How satisfied are you with the overall sustainability of the Sri Lankan tourism model and what appropriate actions would you have taken if you were to be the Minister of Tourism?

Dr Palitha Gurusinghe: I am not ever happy with the overall sustainability of the Sri Lankan tourism model. Although Sri Lanka Tourism recognised Ecotourism as an important sector in Sustainable Tourism as its policy, the present scenario is somewhat gloomy for Ecotourism development in Sri Lanka. At present, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) and the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB), hardly talk or promote Ecotourism in Sri Lanka. It seems that Ecotourism Development and the promotional plans have entirely been dropped from the current tourism strategy in Sri Lanka. The previous Ministry of Economic Development in its five years Tourism Strategy identified Sustainable Tourism as a vital sector in Sri Lanka Tourism Development, but nothing has been practically done to promote Ecotourism. The policies and plans adopted on sustainable and Ecotourism seem to be no longer effective or in operation even under the present Yahapalana Government too. Currently, the Sri Lanka Tourism is going after numbers or volume rather than value.

If I were to be appointed as the Minister of Tourism in Sri Lanka I would first implement and legalise the National Policies and Guidelines; those were formulated in 2003. It was so unfortunate to note that even after 14 years those officials at the Sri Lanka Tourism failed to take any step in legalising those policies through a proper legal procedure. Due to this situation, many mushrooming eco ventures propped up and “Greenwashing Ecotourism Practices” became rampant. I would take immediate action to:

  • formulate an ecotourism unit/department under the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority - this action was recommended by the Ecotourism National Policy Plans.
  • promote and facilitate the development of ecotourism sites, activities and facilities in a manner that is consistent with the principles of ecotourism.
  • educate all stakeholders about the concept of ecotourism, the economic opportunities that it offers, and the actions that are required to develop a successful ecotourism business in Sri Lanka.
  • contribute and influence a more sustainable form of tourism in Sri Lanka, through a diverse range of measures: incentives, education, guidelines, regulations, and marketing.
  • locate funding and support for the ecotourism and environmental organizations which are active.


ECOCLUB: Following many years of political and inter-communal strife, did peace also bring about the pressure to develop pristine areas for tourism? What has been SLEF's role in that respect?

Dr Palitha Gurusinghe: Yes, but no proper plan has been developed by the government or the tourism authorities to protect pristine areas for tourism. Over the past few years, the SLEF has been lobbying with the respective authorities to develop proper plans to protect Sri Lanka’s virgin forests, biodiversity, preservation of centuries-old culture and heritage. However, the relevant officials and the politicians are doing nothing in this respect. Most of these people are ignorant about sustainable tourism and ecotourism for that matter.

ECOCLUB: From your experience, can sustainable tourism actively contribute to peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, or should it better play a more gradual and passive role?

Dr Palitha Gurusinghe: Of course, sustainable tourism could actively contribute to peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, provided the authorities could support the environmental, ecotourism organizations, individuals active in these fields in Sri Lanka, particularly in the war-torn areas of North and East. This is not happening at the moment.

ECOCLUB: As someone who is involved with Asian tourism cooperation, how are intra-Asian tourism flows going in your view? Are they contributing to less or sometimes more suspicion between neighbouring countries with troubled relations?

Dr Palitha Gurusinghe: This is a very tricky question. From the inception of SLEF in 1998, I have been in the forefront in promoting Asian Tourism and Ecotourism. However, there are many conflicts of interests among the regional Asian Ecotourism Partners and Organizations. I am of the view that it is very difficult to bring them together under a united umbrella because most of the Asian Ecotourism Leaders have their own agendas. Most are not transparent enough in dealing with their Asian Partners. For example, some leaders of Asian Ecotourism Networks are trying to sideline South Asian Ecotourism partners and activists because they find it easy and to work with South East Ecotourism Partners. These leaders are not promoting Ecotourism, Community Based Tourism, Ecotourism Researches but using the networks as a tool to develop their personal businesses. This is a very unfortunate situation. I think the only alternative left for SLEF is to expand the Association of Asia-Pacific Regional Ecotourism Council - APREC. We will do this in the months ahead.

ECOCLUB: In Europe, some are already panicking about Overtourism. How concerned are you in Sri Lanka, considering that you are in the vicinity of India and perhaps China where tens of millions joining the middle class are increasingly travelling abroad? Is luxury sustainable tourism the answer perhaps, i.e. raising the prices so that only few nature lovers can afford to visit your incredibly biodiverse country and thus also help preserve it without exerting undue pressures?

Dr Palitha Gurusinghe: Yes, this a challenging issue to Sri Lanka Tourism also. I think Sri Lanka Tourism should develop tourism in a sustainable manner and respecting the sustainable concepts. Rather than targeting a ‘Head Count’ to increase tourist traffic to the country and trying to build big hotels, Sri Lanka Tourism should develop a people-friendly tourism fabric. Sri Lanka has the highest biodiversity rate in Asia backed by a strong culture, historical artefacts, exotic beaches, green environment and friendly people all of which are solid building blocks for tourism development. Therefore, the authorities should think of the carrying capacity of the island and tourism, because, currently, Sri Lanka is being inundated with Chinese and Indian travellers but most of them not belong to the up-market, eco-friendly segment. Sri Lanka is a small country with high biodiversity. Therefore the tourism authorities should think about the ‘carrying capacity’ and the impact caused on the environment, because of over visitation. There may be a lot of negative effects caused by excessive tourist numbers, and it will definitely create a physical and biological deterioration on the environment of Sri Lanka. In the light of this situation, SLEF is of the view that Sri Lanka could learn a lot from the Bhutan Tourism Model. I have explained and highlighted this in my book, “Story of Ecotourism Sri Lanka”.

ECOCLUB: Has sustainable tourism certification made significant progress in Sri Lanka, and is voluntary certification the right way to proceed, compared to say, compulsory legislation?

Dr Palitha Gurusinghe: The SLEF has developed a voluntary National Sustainable Tourism Certification (NSTC) Programme, which will be available free of charge to all tourism stakeholders in Sri Lanka. I think in the SME tourism sector, compulsory legislation certification would not work. However, it is sad to mention that Sri Lanka Tourism is not interested in promoting Sustainable Tourism Certification Programmes. I think this is because; Sri Lanka Tourism is going after numbers and is mostly interested in promoting mainstream tourism. The politicians handling tourism sector are looking for political mileage by showing the country that tourism is on the increase.

ECOCLUB: Are the criteria used in your NSTC Programme available to the public?

Dr Palitha Gurusinghe: NSTC has not yet received official national recognition. Our criteria are not yet publicly available as we are still waiting for the support from Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority. We published a brochure on NSTC in Sri Lanka in 2015. However, the project did not come off the ground successfully due to financial constraints.

ECOCLUB: Finally, what advice do you give to youngsters in Sri Lanka who want to follow your footpath?

Dr Palitha Gurusinghe: The youngsters should focus on “Investigative" Tourism so that they could gather very productive information. Also, they should conduct research in tourism and become involved in environmental and biodiversity conservation awareness programmes. In Sri Lanka, most of the travel journalists write feature articles or carry news which is favourable to the tourism authorities and the Ministry of Tourism - ‘rosy’ side only! I am of the view that these journalists should write articles or publish news only after conducting research but this is not happening in Sri Lanka. They do not devote time to do research or go into the depth of a tourism issue. At present, Sri Lanka Tourism is going after ‘Volume’ rather than ‘Value’; they are only interested in the ‘Headcount’. In the process, the Authorities have entirely forgotten projects and programmes on sustainable tourism and ecotourism and given a ‘low value’. This causes an adverse impact on the environment and biodiversity conservation of Sri Lanka. I think the journalists could investigate these issues and make the public and the tourism authorities aware. I have discussed this issue at length in my book.