by Kanchana Wickramasinghe
Research Studies: Environmental Economic Policy Series No.12, November 2009
Forest-based ecotourism is considered as a non-consumptive, market-based approach to forest utilization. Ecotourism can be viewed as an important tool for forest management, wherever potential exists. Sri Lanka possesses an enormous potential and prospects for the development of forest-based ecotourism. However, ecotourism in Sri Lanka is still at its infancy. The study aims to identify the main problems and issues that demand policy attention in developing forest-based ecotourism in Sri Lanka, to identify the existing management approaches of forest-based ecotourism, followed by an evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses, to review policies and legislations relevant to development of forest-based ecotourism and to recognize existing policy gaps in addressing the identified issues. Finally, it presents key policy implications and recommendations for promoting ecotourism as a sustainable tool for forest conservation in Sri Lanka. The study makes use of data and information gathered through focus group discussions, key informant interviews and secondary information sources.

The study finds that there is lack of awareness and understanding on benefits of ecotourism among relevant stakeholders. Also, there is no coordinated effort among the relevant government stakeholders of ecotourism. It is a challenge to bring the resource owning state agencies and the private entrepreneurs in forest-based ecotourism. Some businesses are presenting themselves as ecotourism, without complying with true ecotourism practices. In addition, education services provided to the tourists on environmental and socio-cultural aspects of the area are not up to the standards. From policy level, there is no agreed definition on ecotourism among resource managing agencies and tourism agencies. It is a major policy gap that ecotourism has not been recognized as a tool for forest conservation and generating economic benefits in environment policies. The present legislative framework is not comprehensive enough to provide legal regulations for ecotourism. Present policy and legal framework shows barriers for active private sector and community involvement.

The study recommends the need for establishing well-coordinated mechanism among the tourist agencies and environment agencies, assignment of clear roles for relevant stakeholders, eliminating the gaps in the present policy and legal framework to support development of ecotourism, enhancing private sector participation in forest-based ecotourism, preparation of a database on potential forest sites and other natural sites which can be developed as ecotourism sites and establishment of a certification programme of ecotourism businesses