Srilal Miththapala has infectious enthusiasm for a man who has the unenviable task of promoting tourism in Sri Lanka, a country widely regarded as a dangerous war zone where tourists should not venture. Srilal is the president of Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka and is on a mission to persuade the United Kingdom that this is not the case. In fact, Srilal is taking on two challenges: one to reassure the outside world that Sri Lanka is in fact a safe, cheap and attractive country to visit; the other to draw attention to one of his pet personal projects creating a totally “green hotel.”
When we met at the Royal Commonwealth Club in London on a grey, early autumn day, the array of brochures with photos of lush, green forests, welcoming beaches and stunning mountain views of lakes and rivers tempted me to book a flight to Sri Lanka immediately.
Srilal spoke passionately about his pet project, Hotel Sigiriya, which is run on strictly environmental principles. It’s set in central Sri Lanka at the foot of an ancient palace complex dating back to the 5th century AD. The hotel brochure says it’s committed to conserving energy and water; minimizing solid waste greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, chemical pollution; maximizing re-cycling, the use of environmental-friendly materials and indigenous flora in landscaping; conserving biodiversity and supporting local livelihoods.
All these are impressive and ambitious goals but how easy was is it to implement? Srilal acknowledged they had to overcome many challenges. “We had to work from bottom up by transforming an old hotel,” Srilal explained. “In discussions with the architect I stipulated that not one tree was to be cut.” At the end they got away with losing just one tree.
The restaurant is surrounded by greenery with no air-conditioning. At one stage the architect and Srilal considered not having any fans either but relented given the sultry summer heat. The hotel has an organic garden where guests can pick their own salads. The hotel has also adopted a local village where guests mingle with the villagers, go out into the fields with them to cut crops and eat with them should they be invited to do so.
In establishing their green credentials the hotel management faced an unexpected problem: over-friendly monkeys. The forests around the hotel are home to all manner of wildlife including monkeys, which became so bold that they started to help themselves to food from the dining room. Monkeys can also be aggressive and this presented the hotel management with a dilemma. How do they tackle the problem in a humane way without harming the monkeys? Srilal came across an Internet discussion among primate experts grappling with this very problem. He’s confident that with their advice, the hotel will be able to end the “monkey business.”
Tourists don’t need to travel far to see herds of wild elephants at close quarters. The annual now famous “Gathering” of elephants at Minneriya is unique – the only place in the world where such a high concentration of wild Asian elephants are found in such a small area. What’s relatively unknown is that a by-product of elephants – their dung – is proving to be an unexpected hit. A small company started making paper out of elephant dung and now this is turning into quite a lucrative business.
While conservation is dear to his heart, Srilal is aware of the need to balance this with his responsibility to represent the interests of his country’s tourist industry as a whole. It’s true, that the long years of bloody conflict have scarred the country’s people and damaged the economy. It is also a sad fact that many of the most beautiful areas are in the north and east of the country where it would not be advisable for tourists to venture. Newspaper headlines track the twists and turns of the long-running ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka which has cost thousands of lives. As a result the number of tourists is not as high as the government would like. Tourist arrivals dropped to 224,363 in the first six months of 2008 from the same period last year. Although this represents only a drop of 0.2 percent Sri Lanka’s tourist authorities are desperate to boost the numbers. As Srilal Miththapala points out, huge swathes of Sri Lanka are unaffected by the violence.
With the onset of autumn and winter still to come in Europe holidaymakers could find that Sri Lanka could be an ideal destination offering cheap packages, warm weather, a choice of landscape and the opportunity to help protect the environment.