Turning the Tide of Sri Lanka’s Exploitative Approach to Tourism

Shenelle Rodrigo and Shehaan Thahir are passionate about travel, and even more passionate about promoting sustainable and responsible travel in their home country, Sri Lanka. Realizing that there was a gap in the online content space for informative and inspiring travel videos about Sri Lanka, created by locals, they embarked on a part-time project to create videos about different spots on the island. When their content began gaining traction online, Shenelle and Shehaan realized that what started out as a hobby could well turn into something much larger and much more impactful. Today, they have created over 80 videos featuring different parts of the island, and they have over 85,00 followers and subscribers on YouTube and Instagram who engage with them regularly.

Good Life X recently spoke to Shenelle and Shehaan about their views on promoting alternative travel experiences and how they think it can positively impact Sri Lanka’s tourism offering, especially as we look at opening up to travellers in a post-covid world.

Below is an excerpt from our discussion with them.

Q: What motivated you to consider promoting alternative travel experiences?

A: We noticed that the online content about travelling in Sri Lanka primarily consisted of videos from tourists and vloggers who would visit the country for seven days and rush through the island capturing the traditional tourist sites to create a quick video - it was very surface level, with no real insights to the destinations or attractions. For example, we noticed that vloggers were recommending travellers to visit the Pidurangala rock instead of Sigiriya because the former had no entrance fee. But that completely misses the point of visiting Sigiriya - the beauty of the place, the historic significance and the sheer engineering marvel that it is! So, we realized that there was a gap in terms of local knowledge and context, and that this was a gap we could fill.

Along with this, we also realized there were plenty of other destinations and sites that travellers could visit, but there was very little information about them. We wanted to tell people what it is that they are visiting and why they should visit it, and to promote travel to other lesser known, uncrowded destinations. We believe that this is one of the best ways to spread the benefits of tourism among more communities, while spreading out the traffic and reducing the pressure on the main hotspots.

Our travels, especially to popular destinations like Bali, opened our eyes to what the future could look like for Sri Lanka, if we didn’t heed the possible issues of over tourism. Sri Lanka is still in the early stages of tourism, it is not as commercialized a destination as the likes of Bali. So, there is much we can still do to ensure that tourism takes place in a sustainable manner on our island. As an industry, we must talk about the potential threats and issues so that we don’t create these issues for ourselves in the long term.

Q: Is there an increasing awareness about unique/alternative travel experiences?

A: We feel there is a growing interest in this type of travel, at least among the online community that we engage with, which is primarily a younger audience. Young travellers want to do their research and book their trips themselves, and these are the types of travellers who discover our content and engage with us. They actively look for alternate experiences and alternate voices because they realize that sites and attractions promoted by tourism authorities and operators are more traditional and main stream. There is definitely a growing sense of awareness and plenty of forums where fellow travellers share their insights and experiences. So, the more informed travellers know what to avoid, and they won’t be convinced by a brochure offering.

Globally, there is a growing trend for authentic and unique experiences. For example, there was a time period where the trend was to see an awesome travel photograph, replicate it and post it online - the ‘instagrammable spot’. However, this seems to have changed in recent times. Our statistics (on our own content) shows us that we get far better engagement and viewership for the alternative destinations and experiences we showcase, instead of the traditional attractions.
We believe that people are now more interested in being unique and showcasing an experience or site that others may not have seen.

Q: How do you handle the ethical responsibility of promoting travel?

A: In an ideal world, the tourism authorities need to train and educate local operators and communities about the type of traveller who will visit, about the traveller’s expectations, about how they can create sustainable experiences and products, about the need to think of the long-term impact on the environment and their livelihood. But until we have a proper national framework in place for such a program, we believe that we can also serve a purpose in our own capacity.

Everywhere we go, we share as much information as we can with the local tourism businesses and communities. We make a significant effort to educate the people, to show them examples of how other regional destinations have been impacted negatively by unsustainable tourism practices. We draw attention to potential problem areas and share best practices, based on our learnings. And so far, a majority of the people we engage with on-ground appreciate what we share with them, because they don’t often have access to this information.

Q: How do you think post-COVID travel will impact alternative travel?

A: The reality is that there isn’t going to be ‘post-covid’ travel in the immediate future! It is ‘covid-travel’, which will evolve into post-covid once the Pandemic is less of a threat to humanity. So, what we are immediately going to see is the arrival of long stay travellers, and these are not the type of travellers who come, take pictures, exploit a destination and leave. Instead, these are people who have travelled around the world, travelling is very much a part of their identity, and they are far more intentional in their travel purpose. As a result, they are more conscious of the impact of their travel. We feel that the practices that they bring will be much better for the industry.

We have to face the fact that the ‘mass model’ is not going to work for Sri Lanka any more, it is outdated and not sustainable. So, we feel that the long-stay travellers can help our industry evolve and change the tourism approach to one that is more sustainable and responsible.

Q: Based on your travel experiences, what thoughts can you share on regenerative hospitality and sustainability?

A: We definitely think that it's the only way forward, and we try to make it a huge part of our cause and our core belief when we travel. We want to encourage travellers as well as operators to be sustainable and focus on more regenerative initiatives.

From our experience, there is still not a lot of this happening in Sri Lanka’s tourism sector. Possibly because awareness is low, and local operators are not exposed to the potential and positive impact it can have on their businesses. Everyone is still so geared towards exploiting what we have - the opposite of regenerative - and they have all invested heavily in those lines. There is a lot of education and attitudinal change that has to be done. And a great part of that needs to be done by the authorities. But we are aware that we too can play a role in helping the situation.

Tourism operators who are doing good work in this space need to get the message out, so that travellers know about their offerings. That’s where we come in. We can use our content, our platform to give visibility to businesses that are making a conscious effort to make a change and embrace a sustainable approach.

When we saw the entities that GLX is working with through the Digital Evolver program, we realized that there are people who are thinking along these lines. We think that programs like these are so important and provide an opportunity for sustainable businesses to grow and gain more visibility so that they become the norm instead of the exception.

Turning the Tide of Sri Lanka’s Exploitative Approach to Tourism