“Batticaloa has no must-see sights…” begins a guidebook that shall remain nameless.
A promising start to my year of supporting tourism development in Batticaloa—Batti for short—and the rest of the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka! Nine months into to my MBAs Without Borders assignment, I’m keenly aware that much remains to be done before the next edition of that guidebook changes its tune.
Most visitors to Sri Lanka that I’ve met have never heard of Batti; one of the most common questions posed to me: “Is there anything out there?” The answer is yes, but it can take some digging. As travelers, we often have a mythologized ideal of an unspoiled destination—a place undiscovered, but full of magic, charm and ambiance. The Eastern Province is overflowing with all of these characteristics, but it lacks the tourism infrastructure required to attract visitors. Though many travelers proclaim their love for a hidden gem or going off the beaten path, there is a threshold that even the most intrepid visitors won’t cross. As a result, magic, charm, and ambiance alone are insufficient to grow the region’s tourism industry.
It is important to recognize that the region’s unspoiled atmosphere stems, in part, from its difficult and tumultuous past. Despite being identified as a tourism zone in the Sri Lankan Tourism Development Master plan released in 1967, development was abruptly halted in 1983 with the outbreak of Sri Lanka’s violent civil conflict that plagued the province for nearly three decades.
During this period, the province suffered from a purposeful lack of infrastructure development. The stunning beaches and alluring surf were abandoned, as residents were restricted from moving around the region and large areas were deemed entirely off limits. Even towns within the province were alienated from each other. The East was further devastated by the 2004 tsunami that directly affected the entire coastline. In one day, the burgeoning tourism infrastructure was wiped out.
Tourism Rises in the East
Following the end of the conflict in 2009, as foreign countries dropped their travel warnings, Sri Lanka once again became a popular tourist destination. While the East remains relatively undeveloped compared to the country’s southern destinations, the rise in foreign visitors to Sri Lanka overall has led to a trickle effect as more curious travelers venture beyond the traditional tourist destinations. Additionally, Sri Lankans are curious to see a part of their own country that was for so long inaccessible to them.
Yet, without appropriate infrastructure, the stunning beaches, fabulous diving, and an intriguing past are not enough to draw a crowd. To become a viable destination, the region requires moderate accommodations, stable businesses, and reliable tourist information.
Currently, the Eastern Province’s high season, which is entirely based on beach tourism, runs for the three months of summer—June, July, and August—during which the more established beach resort towns of the southwest are overcome by the rainy season. Most Eastern Province residents employed by the beach season’s demands believe that this is all there is—they turn back to fishing and farming for the rest of the year. Would-be visitors hear that the only time to visit is in the summer, so tourism in the east all but shuts down for the rest of the year. A handful of more established tourism businesses operate year round but at a lower occupancy, conceding that it is too difficult to attract and entertain guests in what are essentially ghost towns.
But, visitors can go crabbing in Batticaloa’s lagoon, learn to cook spicy and delicious Sri Lankan meals, glimpse crocodiles and elephants in an extensive maze of wetlands, bicycle through lush paddy fields, and attend festivals at the numerous candy-colored temples across the province. Batti and its neighboring towns are so much more than swaths of unspoiled beaches.
Cultivating a Culture of Tourism
For tourism to become a viable engine of economic growth in the Eastern Province, at least two critical challenges must be addressed. First, the region lacks any reliable information on its tourism assets. To make matters worse, what little information is available perpetuates the East’s reputation of having little to offer travelers. Second, because the region’s tourism sector is nascent, the community doesn’t realize how attractive and profitable their tourism assets can be. Community members and businesses have little firsthand experience with consumers and very little understanding of what it takes to be a successful tourism provider. It is in this context that the International Finance Corporation and the USAID-funded VEGA/BIZ+ program, in collaboration with National Geographic’s Maps Division, are working to roll out a Geotourism program.
Geotourism is defined as, “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.” National Geographic’s Maps Division has developed a Geotourism program centered around the creation of online map guides: comprehensive websites and maps with content generated by local residents. The program’s approach is different from traditional guidebooks as they encourage local communities to generate the content for the Geotourism assets themselves. Rather than being defined by outsiders, this approach empowers the community to define and establish their own brand as they see fit. The program’s approach provides local residents with the opportunity to come together and identify what makes their region unique, what they want to share, and how they want to share it.
The National Geographic’s Geotourism program benefits destinations in a number of ways. Principally, it helps the region attract a specific type of tourist interested in local character and unique experiences as opposed to generic mass-tourism destinations. These types of travelers tend to stay longer, spend more, and spend at a local level, ensuring the revenue stays in the community. The program also empowers the community to raise the visibility of lesser-known sites, businesses, and attractions in popular regions, helping to spread economic benefits from localized tourism, while also reducing pressure on heavily-visited sites. Lastly, such an approach can encourage dialogue on the sustainability and stewardship needs of a destination.
This is the first time that National Geographic’s Geotourism website approach is being used in Asia and in an emerging destination. In this case, the website has the potential to catalyze a conversation around tourism development at a local level. While tourism is already happening in the area—the coastal village of Passikudah for example, is a crescent of new resorts—this program engages and empowers residents to identify what makes the Eastern Province special. It allows them to envision their role in the current and future tourism development of the region, and importantly, identify its untapped economic potential. This model gives residents a fresh perspective on their tourism assets and encourages them to market them in a way that is attractive to tourists while simultaneously authentic to the community’s own voice and values.
Batti may never be first on a tourist’s check-list, but it should be on a traveler’s bucket list—a land of rich natural beauty and soulful stories of humanity that are just waiting to be told.
Annessa Kaufman is an MBAs Without Borders Advisor currently serving as a Tourism Development Specialist in Sri Lanka. A graduate of the Master of Tourism Administration program at the George Washington School of Business, Annessa seeks to work with emerging destinations in developing sustainable and profitable tourism industries.