By Marianne David
The order by President Mahinda Rajapaksa calling for the removal of all private campsites inside national parks over the weekend has left mobile tented safari operators in a quandary, with advanced bookings and the country’s reputation as a wildlife tourism hotspot hanging in the balance.
The three operators – Leopard Safaris, Kulu Safaris, and Mahoora Safari Camps – have already confirmed bookings for many months ahead, well into 2013, and are now uncertain on the way forward given the cessation of operations following the order, which called for the removal of campsites with immediate effect.
Leopard Safaris Chairman/MD Noel Rodrigo told the Daily FT that the company, which has confirmed bookings until end 2013, has had to cancel most of its bookings despite them already being paid for.
“We have already paid the Wildlife Department for the bookings that have been cancelled. There has been no refund. What do we tell these foreigners and our agents around the world? This is the beginning of the downfall of our tourism, if we give in to these thugs. This is a follow up to the assault that was carried out on the operators two months ago. These thugs and small time politicians backing them do not realise what harm they are doing,” said Rodrigo, adding that the President has been misguided in this regard.
“We are appealing to the President to hear us out and let us prove that he was misguided to make such an order, which has a direct negative impact on tourism in this country,” he said.
According to Rodrigo, when the order was issued on Friday, his company’s clients who had fully paid for their bookings had been misplaced. “We were all kicked out. We don’t know what to do with the guests. We were kicked out not only from the park but also the entire Tissamaharama area by the thugs. We have to pay compensation and as a result even the Wildlife Department is incurring losses,” he noted.
Revealing that last year alone the company had paid about Rs. 4 million to the Wildlife Department for permits, he said that the operators are charged US$ 50 by the department to keep a foreigner in a wildlife park overnight.
“We are catering to a niche luxury market. Our guests travel on Business Class and take sea planes or helicopters to reach the park. This is the market Sri Lanka needs. The President has been misguided that these companies are owned by foreigners and money is going out. If the money is going out, why should we pay tax? The President was also misguided that we have built hotels in the park; this is not true. We have South African canvas tents. Our entire camp was vacated in 12 hours. How can you vacate a permanent building or structure within 12 hours? It is a mobile tented camp,” he asserted.
Rodrigo remains hopeful that the President will give the operators a hearing and consider reinstating them. “My company has a full house for this coming season and if something happens, we will have to cancel all the bookings. Already our top agents are asking us whether to cancel the bookings. If this happens, we will lose, the Wildlife Department will lose, tourism will lose, and the country will lose.”
Commenting on the allegations of wrongdoing within the Yala National Park, Rodrigo said: “There are many false allegations that we are doing wrong things. When inside the park, we are always under scrutiny of a wildlife ranger. There are certain rules and guidelines. If we violate them, they can remove us within 48 hours. In my company for the past six years I have not violated any of these regulations. We practice eco tourism policies.”
Founder/MD of Eco Team (owning company of Mahoora) Anuruddha Bandara told the Daily FT that many cancellations have been coming in, while some clients have said that they are entirely cancelling their trips to Sri Lanka.
“Of the bookings for November, December and January, so far around seven clients have said they are cancelling trips to Sri Lanka entirely. The whole purpose in them coming is to experience real wilderness, which a hotel cannot provide. We cancelled some of the bookings and refunded the clients. With some of the others we didn’t have this option, so we set up a camp outside the park and they are willing to stay there,” said Bandara.
However, he added the company is in a “desperate situation” with regard to clients who are on tour elsewhere at present and will be coming here directly, since there is no way to get in touch with them until they reach the island.
“We have paid for permits and obtained them from the Wildlife Department for quite a few weeks in advance already. Even the Wildlife Department is not too sure what to do. They might refund us, but there is uncertainty. They are allowing us to do safaris for those tickets, which is a relief,” he added.
Bandara emphasised that their request is for the President to give the mobile tented safari operators a fair hearing. “What we believe is that the President and Hambantota MP Namal Rajapaksa have been misinformed. We appeal for a fair hearing for our side of the story as well. It was stated that no money comes to Sri Lanka and that these companies are foreign owned companies and that there is no benefit to the locals.
All this is completely wrong. All the online payments and bank transfers come to Sri Lanka and we pay taxes for the income we generate. Our online gateway is through HSBC in Sri Lanka, which any authority can check.”
Commenting on impact of the removal on stakeholders, Bandara stated that throughout the country there are about 125 employees dependent on the company directly and a similar number through indirect employment, in addition to a large community of traders in the Tissamaharama, Wilpattu, and Udawale areas.
“Where park fees are concerned, for Yala alone, Eco Team pays about Rs. 5 million per year, while we also pay about Rs. 2.5 million per year to the members of the Jeep Drivers Association, and furthermore, small traders such as vegetable vendors, food sellers, laundry owners, and petrol sheds are all in this chain of business. It is completely wrong to say the local community is not benefitted,” he stressed.
Refuting claims that the mobile tented safari operating companies are foreign-owned, he asserted that his company is a 100% Sri Lankan owned company with no foreign involvement.
“We have struggled very much during the last 14 years, having brought in the concept in 1998. Until 2009 we went through an immense struggle to survive. We are thankful to the President for creating a situation where we can recover our losses, with the end of the war. However, this decision is a complete shock to us,” he added.
Kulu Safaris Managing Director Javana Fernando told the Daily FT that his company has confirmed bookings until May 2013 and since 20 October when the order was issued the company had lost about 36 clients.
“The loss is bearable for us on the economic front, but the detrimental effect on the country when we have to write to clients and say this has happened is scary because that will go around the world and have a negative trickledown effect on all stakeholders. It is not only a loss to Yala, but all our national parks,” he asserted.
Citing an example, Fernando said that Abercrombie & Kent, one of the world’s foremost luxury travel companies, has booked a group of 12 to arrive here in mid November through Kulu Safaris and he is at a loss on what to do in this regard.
Fernando emphasised that the biggest issue at the moment is misinformation about the operators and their modus operandi. “This segment of tourism was initiated during the height of the war and we were the pioneers. Why is it that the pioneers who stood by the governments in power are being penalised at this juncture, especially at a time when Sri Lanka is targeting a massive tourism increase?” he queried.
Fernando added that the companies are making an appeal to the President to seriously reconsider the operations, which he said were run in a manner similar to or better than African operations, which are Sri Lanka’s competitors.
“If we do not use an opportunity like this, it would be a huge loss to the country, Sri Lanka’s wildlife, and Sri Lanka’s tourism, because this segment of the tourist itinerary will be lost,” he asserted. COURTESY: FINANCIAL TIMES