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Go Local in Sri Lanka

Traveling can be a deeply personal journey, a quest for self-evolution, a mental expansion, or the beginning of a new chapter in life. In this pursuit of personal growth and profound experiences, we might inadvertently overlook the broader impact of our choices. Absorbed in our personal objectives and plans, there’s a risk of sidelining the needs of others and the potential consequences of our actions.

In the context of our evolving world, it’s imperative that we consider our travel ethos no matter the occasion. The journey should not be solely about personal gratification, but equally about the people whose countries we visit, the landscapes we traverse, or the oceans we explore. Travel should offer a reciprocal experience, where the act of giving becomes as enriching as what we hope to receive. This balanced approach fosters a more meaningful and responsible way of exploring the modern world.

(Surfing in Weligama, Sri Lanka. Photo Credit: Marla Tomorug)

Embracing local experiences stands as a fundamental pillar of conscious exploration. Moving away from large resorts, international dining chains, and the heavily trodden path, we instead delve into the heart of local life. Actively choosing to stay with local hosts or homestays, dining at locally-owned eateries, or opting for conservation-focused tours not only enriches our travel experience, but also fosters a genuine connection with the culture, land and sea. This approach unlocks a realm of rich and authentic experiences, offering a deeper understanding and appreciation of the places we visit.

We experienced this first hand when visiting Sri Lanka on the Edges of Earth expedition. Historically, tourism has been a major contributor to Sri Lanka’s overall economy. Despite having faced recent setbacks in this sector though, posed by the pandemic and an economic crisis, there are promising signs of a rebound. This resilience not only showcases Sri Lanka’s allure as a lasting travel destination, but also highlights the nation’s adaptability and enduring spirit.

In 2018, Sri Lanka’s tourism receipts reached a peak of $5.61 billion, with 2.5 million annual tourist arrivals. In 2023, the numbers have remained lower by relative terms but are recovering gradually, anticipated to reach 1.5 million annual tourist visitations in the next year. More often than not, the diverse attractions of Sri Lanka are nature based, such as their beaches, wildlife parks, rainforests and tea plantations. These combined with cultural sites all contribute to its broad appeal as a tourist destination.

(Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo, surrounded by wetlands. Photo Credit: Marla Tomorug)

Government initiatives have also focused on boosting tourism. Strategies include improving connectivity, streamlining access to tourism services, and launching advertising campaigns in key markets. These efforts aim to enhance Sri Lanka’s competitive position in the global travel marketplace and contribute to the overall economic growth of the country. 

Tourism in Sri Lanka presents a complex scenario with both positive and negative impacts. On one hand, it provides a crucial revenue stream for the local economy, supporting or completely enabling livelihoods across the country. On the other hand, the environmental cost cannot be overlooked. This dilemma is particularly acute in Sri Lanka where the very ecosystems that attract tourists are the ones at risk of degradation. Balancing the need for economic benefits from tourism with the imperative to preserve vital natural habitats remains a significant challenge for the country and its occupants.

Addressing the challenge of sustainable tourism in Sri Lanka requires a multifaceted approach. One key strategy is to empower local leaders and communities to guide and shape sustainable practices. This is where the work of the Lanka Environment Fund (LEF) is crucial. 

(Beach cleanup with Lanka Environment Fund’s grant award team, The Pearl Protectors. Photo Credit: Adam Moore)

Collaborating with key partners throughout the country, LEF is committed to funding initiatives across four key areas of focus: terrestrial ecosystem conservation, marine conservation, responsible tourism and effective waste management. Our expedition was an opportunity to spotlight their efforts, which are instrumental in steering Sri Lanka towards a more sustainable and prosperous future. Their dedication not only supports conservation projects but also encourages a broader adoption of eco-friendly tourism practices.

During the expedition, we encountered local leaders whose initiatives are reshaping their communities in sustainable ways. Their endeavors range from restoring mangroves, operating eco-conscious seafood restaurants, to organizing beach clean-ups and volunteer programs available to anyone eager to help. These game changing initiatives are not only revitalizing their communities but also providing travelers with opportunities to engage in meaningful activities. Their efforts play a critical role in spreading awareness about conservation and demonstrating the power of community-driven environmental stewardship.

(Shores off the Northwest coast of Sri Lanka in local fisherman town, Mannar, off the tourism track. Photo Credit: Marla Tomorug)

Our expedition offered us an immersion into the local way of life in Sri Lanka. As we voyaged up and down the west coast, our accommodations and culinary experiences were deeply rooted in the local culture. From the places we stayed to the traditional foods we sampled, every aspect of our journey was steeped in the grassroots and homegrown essence of Sri Lanka. This gave us a rich insight into the vibrant culture and everyday life of its people. The experiences we had would have simply been unattainable if we had stuck to the well-trodden tourist trails.

Traveling in an immersive manner teaches us vital lessons about coexisting with nature and respecting the communities we visit. It offers a firsthand perspective into diverse lifestyles and the unique needs of communities different from our own. This approach unveils new, often undiscovered opportunities that go beyond the conventional ‘top ten’ tourist attractions. These unique experiences not only provide essential support to the local providers but also foster personal growth and understanding in those who partake in them.

(Meeting a local sea cucumber diver in Mannar, Sri Lanka. Photo Credit: Marla Tomrug)

Conscious exploration provides a support cycle where both travelers and hosts have the potential to benefit. 

Hafsa Jamel, Programme Manager with LEF, put it perfectly in one of our conversations when traveling the west coast of Sri Lanka. “Everything is about balance. We must strive to harmonize conservation efforts, support for local communities, and the vitality of tourism. It’s in this blend that we can achieve collective success.”