Tourism to the North of Sri Lanka is just getting going. A primary goal of Bridging Lanka is to learn from the mistakes elsewhere of tourism ‘at any cost’ and to pursue an ethically driven model. Its roll out will ensure tourism operators, their products and services will be founded on respectful global connectedness, minimising negative environmental and social impacts, increasing economic benefit, showcasing local culture and heritage and most importantly providing a meaningful and enjoyable experience for tourists.
Unlike the average tourist who may stay in Mannar for one or a maximum of two days, our tourists stay for between one week and six months. Each day they spend locally and thus stimulate a sluggish local economy. In our quest to establish Mannar District as an alternative and attractive tourist destination, we are experimenting with new and different options. Our model of tourism focuses on five major areas of interest:
- Volun-tourism – for those who want to ‘make a difference’, get valuable work experience in the developing world and further career advancement or simply to delve more sincerely into local culture. Placements range from ten days to six months or longer. Areas include urban planning, landscape architecture and engineering to English teaching, office administration, graphic design, and more.
- Reflexive-tourism – this is tourism into the interior, of leaving one’s comfort zone and venturing into the unknown to rediscover one’s self, confront inner demons and work through life issues in a confidential and supportive environment. Many who are at cross-roads find their time in Mannar helpful and illuminating for the journey ahead.
- Edu-tourism – students from overseas secondary schools and universities undertake field study tours that focus on women’s empowerment, veterinary medicine, social enterprise development, leadership, economy, environmental protection, international development and town planning. These educational activities count toward students’ course requirements or personal advancement.
- Contest-tourism – global teams of professionals are presented with a ‘real world’ challenge to respond to ‘wicked scenarios’ together with local villagers in specific contexts where no easy solutions exist. Any course of action may lead to unintended and negative outcomes, so collaborative efforts are pitted against complex and enduring dilemmas in a real-life contest. Team members receive background briefings before they come. This is only for those up for the challenge!
- Adventure-tourism – is about connecting with a new physical and cultural landscape and being physically active at the same time. Guided activities include: day hiking – experiencing a new location under the power of your own feet; backpacking & camping – staying out in nature overnight with the hope of glimpsing animals such as elephants, bears and deer; water adventures – canoeing and fishing in bird-rich lagoons and swimming in pristine rivers, and eco-tasking – being involved in an ecology-enhancing activity.
Kunchukulam Responsible Tourism – in close proximity of Wilpattu Forest we focus on three isolated villages where the youth unemployment rate is a staggering 49%. As an alternative to illegal livelihoods – logging, sand and gravel mining and killing of protected animals – we are developing a legal and responsible career path through ecotourism ventures with local young people. Guided forest walks, cultural immersion, visits to ancient sites and local cuisine are all operated by Kunchukulam’s youth.
Kunchukulam Forest Walks – many young people here know the forest like the back of their hands. We are enlisting hem as forest walk guides to reveal the unique and changing nature of the forests on the northern tip of Wilpattu National Park. The forest changes dramatically according to the season – wet or dry. If lucky one can encounter many animals at a safe distance including elephants, sloth bears, deer and armadillos or see evidence of their presence via their footprints, dip one’s feet into the languid tree-shaded streams or become more aware of the ayurvedic properties of so many of the plant species. Young people earn an income from their knowledge of land.
Bridging Lanka’s contribution to tourism includes setting up the Mannar District Tourism Coordination Forum, forming the Guesthouse Association for improving service and product, arranging new tours, developing information, brochures, maps and menus and more recently embarking on creating a Mannar District tourism master plan.
Donkey Tourism Gets a Boost – with the near completion of the Donkey Clinic & Education Centre and the functioning of the Donkey Assisted Therapy Centre, much national and international attention is now being paid to our donkey programs. Matt and Saleem from the International Finance Corporation (IFC) saw the tourist potential of both sites and ran workshops to identify a ‘tour stop’ structure, info panels and tour costing schedule for us.
Managers of premium tourist facilities, Palmyrah House and Kite Surfing Lanka asked whether they could send their guests to these sites. Of course!
Tour Guide Training – Matt and Saleem from International Finance Corp, part of the World Bank Group have been assisting Bridging Lanka to develop quality tourist services and products. As part of that commitment, a workshop on characteristics of an effective tour guide was an eye-opener for our Kunchukulam forest guides and the Donkey Clinic & Education Centre staff. They learnt that a good guide speaks loudly and clearly, uses non-verbal communication, acts professionally, prepares in advance, knows the audience, provides necessary information, shares personal experiences, makes the tour dynamic, manages the group, knows first-aid and continues to learn and improve the tour.