Managing Protected Area Tourism for Sustainable Community Development: The Case of Ruhuna National Park (Yala), Sri Lanka

Senarathna, Dinesha
Deuchar, Carolyn
Orams, Mark
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

Since demarcating the world’s first protected area 150 years ago, many countries are increasingly leveraging their rich natural environments as valuable assets to promote tourism and strengthen community development. The existing literature on community development in Protected Area (PA) tourism has predominantly focused on African countries, while the South Asian context, particularly in Sri Lanka, is limited, with a lack of evidence-based research on community perceptions of PA tourism impacts. This doctoral research addresses this gap by conducting a case study on Ruhuna NP (Yala), Sri Lanka, and the proximate community of Ranakeliya to provide empirical evidence of the complex issues surrounding PA tourism growth.

In PA tourism, few studies have explored the local community’s internal dialogue concerning power dynamics in resource consumption and benefit sharing amongst stakeholders, and there is also limited knowledge about the community’s response to park conservation initiatives. This research adopts the Community Capital Framework (CCF), stakeholder theory, and political ecology approaches to explain the impacts of PA tourism on a local community.

This doctoral research aims to gain a deeper understanding of how PA-focused tourism can be managed to generate sustainable development for communities and, in turn, enhance the willingness of communities to embrace conservation efforts and support PA’s broader environmental goals. The research makes distinctive contributions to the current literature on PA tourism, community development and conservation. The research achieves three objectives: 1) to explore and explain the relationships between key stakeholder groups engaged in PA tourism practices, and 2) to understand the community-level impacts of PA-based tourism using a case study approach, and 3) to make theoretical and methodological contributions at the intersection of PA tourism, sustainable community development and conservation. A mixed methods approach was adopted to obtain evidence from the case study on PA tourism issues outlined above. Participatory observation, surveys, semi-structured interviews, and participatory mapping exercises have addressed the research’s key objectives. Descriptive statistical approaches, and thematic and spatial analysis were applied for data analysis.

The findings show that the locals are experts in defining their problems and finding potential solutions, drawing on their local, traditional, and spatial knowledge. Despite certain context-specific drawbacks inherent in Yala PA tourism (due to power dynamics between stakeholders), that disadvantage the local community and hinder conservation efforts, this doctoral research concludes that several opportunities still exist. The local community’s intention to contribute to conservation is unexpectedly high. The prospects can be harnessed by managing PA tourism to create sustainable community benefits (through integrating local culture and livelihoods), thereby enhancing the local community’s commitment to achieving Yala’s conservation goals. The community women’s leadership in participatory conservation practices instils conservation passion in their children, emphasising the necessity of connecting these practices to PA tourism and educating the young generation about Yala’s value for long-term sustainability.

The thesis offers practical insights for evidence-based tourism strategies in PA conservation policies and sustainable community benefits applicable to Sri Lanka, and also to other developing countries. The research yields a valuable community-created mapping tool for Yala park management, local authorities, and PA tourism practitioners, and identifies areas (based on impacts) to develop indicators of successful sustainable community development achieved through Yala PA tourism.

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