Sri Lanka’s tourism sector has many benefits. It is the country’s third largest foreign exchange earner and contributes a substantial percentage towards the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). There are different types of tourism and ecotourism is a sub-set of tourism.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education of both staff and guests”.

According to TIES, ecotourism in 2004 grew three times faster than overall tourism. Nearly 90% of the British tourists recognize active protection of the environment and support of local communities to be part of hotel responsibilities when selecting holidays, whilst in Germany, nearly 42% of travellers prefer environmental-friendly accommodation.
Nearly 53% of American travellers prefer to experience local customs and culture of the country they visit. A higher number of tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka are from Western Europe (nearly 31%). Further, the top ten sources of tourist arrivals are from the countries that show the highest demand for ecotourism in the world.

Moreover, nearly, 68% of foreign visits are for leisure or holiday, followed by other reasons such as visiting relatives and friends. Thus, there is a greater potential to develop ecotourism in the country.

IPRs in tourism
Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) can be used as a tool to support tourism development through the creation and protection of ideas, knowledge, and innovations in the sector.  The main IPRs in the tourism sector are trademarks, geographical indications, industrial designs, patents, copyrights, and trade secrets. ‘Trademarks’ are essential in the service sector to distinguish one enterprise from another.

Geographical Indication (GI) is also important especially for ecotourism, where a particular ecotourism sector or a sub-sector such as birding tourism, culture tourism, or forest tourism can be further developed by protecting GIs.

Traditional knowledge of village people is also another aspect for ecotourism.
In Sri Lanka, a majority of villagers use traditional knowledge for health and agricultural purposes.

Ecotourism includes tours of local farms to take a first-hand look at the growing, traditional methods of crop protection, astrological practices in the field, attracting support from spirits and gods for cultivation, harvesting, and processing of locally grown food as well as sampling them on site or in local restaurants and cafes. There are also lectures and other learning opportunities for the tourists who also have the possibility of staying at one of the farms to absorb the experience.

Copyrights are also used to protect promotional material. Thus, protecting IPRs and taking measures to strengthen them will provide an incentive to private and government investors to promote tourism in the country.

Existing IPR system
Presently, Sri Lanka does not have an established IPR protection mechanism for the tourism sector. Countries such as New Zealand, Switzerland, and Hong Kong have implemented several types of IPRs to promote their tourism industry.
In 2016, Sri Lanka tourism has identified tourism branding plan as one of its main strategies. Sri Lanka has made a request to the Committee on Development and Intellectual Property (CDIP) projects of the World Intellectual Property Rights Organization (WIPO) to implement IPRs in the tourism sector in the near future. The Intellectual Property Rights Act No: 36 of 2003 covers the IPRs in Sri Lanka. Currently, very few hotels and restaurants use trademarks to promote their businesses. However, on most occasions, only large-scale hotels are concerned about registering their trademarks or industrial designs. Thus, IPRs are not commonly used in the country’s tourism field.

Way forward
Despite the country’s rich cultural heritage and biodiversity, the tourism sector has yet not reaped the benefits of IPRs, especially the benefits that the sector can gain from promoting brands, establishing GIs, etc. There are several activities relating to ecotourism, which could be strengthened through strong IPRs.

For   example, there are several locations, which can be developed as ecotourism destinations by introducing GIs (tours in tea estates/cinnamon estates/ paddy fields, etc.). As a developing country, Sri Lanka should take advantage of the arrangements provided by the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) Agreement of the WTO and provide protection via geographical indication, sui generis system, and folklore to enhance the tourism sector; by prioritizing ecotourism, which has proved to be a booming industry in the economy.

The country also lacks a well-built protection system for tourism, including ecotourism; this may lead to exploitation by outsiders when natural resources are open for sightseeing and exploration. Therefore, when promoting tourism, it is important to identify and devise ways and means to strengthen customary laws for the protection of traditional knowledge and natural resources of the community from exploitation by outsiders.

(Dilani   Hirimuthugodage is a Research Officer at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka)