By Marianne David and Cheranka Mendis
Sri Lanka Tourism yesterday told the Daily FT that the Department of Wildlife would set up a meeting with both the Tissamaharama Jeep Association and the officials of the three tented mobile safari operators in order to arrive at “an amicable settlement,” following the recent assaults on the operators by the drivers of the association.
Sri Lanka Tourism Director General Vipula Wangiasekera stated that the board had spoken to both the Police and the Department of Wildlife regarding the matter, where team members of the tented mobile safari operators had been assaulted, resulting in one of the members being hospitalised with head injuries. The operators are Mahoora Safari Camps, Kulu Safaris and Leopard Safaris.
“I was informed that the matter is being looked into by the Police and the Department of Wildlife. The department is planning to hold a meeting with both parties to come up with an amicable settlement,” Wanigasekera said.
“There has been a misunderstanding here and we are keen to clear the confusion soon.”
An official of one of the operators who wished to remain anonymous stated that the agents overseas were inquiring into the situation, which gives a bad impression of Sri Lanka. The operators have been accused of eating into the livelihoods of the daily tour jeep operators of the area and have been threatened and told to cease operations within five days, starting last Friday.
However, the operators are still continuing with their normal business operations, with the Kulu Safaris team being assisted by armed guards of the Kotagamuwa Army Camp.
Meanwhile, Founder/MD of Eco Team (owning company of Mahoora) Anuruddha Bandara categorically denied the charges that the tour operators had been taking business away from the association’s members, since the operators offer pre-booked safari packages.
“They allege that we are taking their business, which we categorically deny. For the last 14 years, we have not touched their business. Our safaris are all pre-booked safaris and pre-arranged. We have had no problem all these years and this clash has come about due to some misunderstanding. We don’t want clashes; we want to make our stand clear and run our business,” he asserted, in an interview with the Daily FT.
Noting that Mahoora started operations during the height of war and survived with no problems despite terrorism, undergoing much hardship to get to this position, he emphasised that the company follows a sustainable eco tourism model, where it has made the communities around the national parks an important part of the business model.
“We take jeeps from them and we don’t bring imports from elsewhere despite the economic advantages we would have in doing so. We rely on the communities and take jeeps from the association members, buy supplies and fuel from the area and also have people from the vicinity working in our camps. It’s a win-win situation for both parties. The mobile camps operate on a pack in-pack out concept, which has a low impact on the environment,” he outlined.
Acknowledging that Mahoora recently introduced luxury safari jeeps which could be compared to any safari jeep in the world since the company needed to constantly upgrade its services in order to remain attractive to clients, he added that despite this, the company had not impacted the income or business of jeep operators with this move.
“The overall income for the jeep operators has been accelerating over the years. We use them for safaris and for supplies as well. There has been no reduction in business. According to this so-called mafia, they have the blessings of Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa and MP Namal Rajapaksa, but we do not believe their claims have any credibility,” he asserted.
“They assaulted two of our fellow campsite providers and said the Speaker of the House was involved, but we don’t believe that. They even assaulted one of their own people – a guy running a shop near the Yala National Park – saying he was supporting us.”
Bandara noted that it would be unfair to pin the blame on the association since it was not the association per se but a few people affiliated to the association with vested interests who were behind the attacks.
“They imagine that they can do what we are doing if we were prevented from running our business, but they don’t understand this model and how much we spend to do this. We promote Sri Lanka’s national parks heavily and run six different websites towards this end, with close to 40,000 hits per month. Out of this, the number of clients we get is negligible due to the high cost of operating tent camps; our prices are higher than those of normal hotels and lodges. It is a select crowd that comes on safari with us. The rest see the importance and attractions of our national parks through our websites and book other places and use the association’s jeeps.”
Bandara revealed that the tented mobile safari operators have taken part in several promotional trade fairs over the years and spent heavily on producing video and brochures to promote the destination.
“All this marketing expenditure is diverted towards making Yala and the other national parks popular and creating awareness. We are featured in reputed foreign tour operator websites and brochures and they work with their counterparts in Sri Lanka and channel business to us.”
Commenting on what action the operators have taken in the aftermath of the attacks, Bandara said they had tried talking to the association to no avail, and had also informed the Tourist Board about the incidents.
“Two Mahoora employees were harassed recently at night and the next morning our Operations Manager scheduled a meeting with the association, but it was sabotaged by a few despite the majority wanting to discuss matters. After this meeting, the other two operators’ parties were assaulted.”
He said the operators had been told there would be a stakeholder meeting facilitated by the Police and the Department of Wildlife, details of which remain unconfirmed at present.
“We have not been called yet, but we are open for dialogue. We want something to happen. Ours is a legitimate business running on a low impact concept and we pay taxes to the State. We want to run our business of operating mobile tented camps inside national parks, which we have been doing for the last 14 years, since 1998,” he asserted.
Officials of the Department of Wildlife were unavailable for comment.