Safari mafia practices
Deniyaya (Sri Lanka), February 20th 2011

Last years during our travels, we unfortunately experienced several times that some local people who earn their money in the tourist business, treat their customers like walking ATM’s in stead of customers who deserve the best service for their money. We had this experience again; this time in the little village of Tissamaharama, the starting point for many safari trips to the nearby Yala National Park in Sri Lanka. The owner of the small guesthouse Independent Travellers Inn looked like a nice person when we met him, turned out to be a so-called wolf in sheep cloths. And not just a wolf, but a wolf who likes to show his teeth.

Most travellers come to Yala National Park to do a jeep safari in the hope to see wild elephants and maybe even one of the elusive leopards. So did we. We checked in, in the little Independent Travellers Inn, and discussed the several types of jeep safaris with the owner. We agreed to do a jeep safari to the Bundala National park first, and to discuss the Yala jeep safari afterwards. We decided to do the Bundala safari with the two of us, because we like to watch birds. And watching birds for people, who have no special interest in them, is no fun. We agreed which of his jeeps to take, taking into account the length of Edwin (2 metres!). A jeep which is too low is annoying. We also said that we wanted to leave at 05.30am exact, because the early hours of the day are the best for watching birds. And, in stead of taking the three hours safari (3 hours in the park), we opted for the four hours version, just to be sure that we had enough time. Total price of the safari: 9000 Rupees (€ 60), including 4000 Rupees (€ 27) for the entrance fee to the park. But the following day, we experienced how much worth the agreements are with the owner of Independent Travellers Inn. The jeep was more than 15 minutes late, he changed the jeep to a smaller one because he promised the higher jeep also to another group, and in stead of the agreed four hours in the park, we only stayed three hours and fifteen minutes. But despite that, the visit to the park was great (see also the article about Bundala National Park).

After we came back from the safari, we discussed our experiences with some other travellers who did a safari with Independent Travellers Inn. They experienced the same kind of things. One couple was even driven to the wrong national park! We were warned. If we wanted to do also the Yala NP safari with Independent Travellers Inn, we better make good and clear agreements, including what to do if they fail to deliver the agreed. Around noon, two new guests arrived in the guesthouse, Andrew and Christine from England. They also planned to do a Yala safari, and because they also like to watch birds, we agreed to share a safari. This can safe some money. But when we heard the offer of Independent Travellers Inn, we weren’t very enthusiastic. The owner told us that a jeep that is shared by more people is also more expensive. Or in other words, he wanted to take a significant part of the savings if people share a jeep. The figures were as follows. If we would do the seven hours tour (effectively five hours in the park) with just the two of us, the price would be 11000 Rupees (€ 73, divided in € 34 for the entrance fee of the park and € 39 for the jeep). If we decided to share the jeep with the four of us, the price would be per couple 10000 Rupees (€ 67, divided in € 34 for the entrance fee of the park and € 33 for the jeep). The saving per couple is only € 6, but for the jeep the owner gets 2 x € 33 = € 66 in stead of the € 39 that he would get if we didn’t share the jeep. So, sharing the jeep increases his income with € 27. Compare that with the € 6 per couple saving that we get! Of course, we wanted to discuss the offer with him, but that wasn’t possible at that time. There were too many other tourists around, and because he asked different prices to different people, he wanted all discussions to be taken place ‘secretly’.

In the afternoon, Andrew met another jeep safari organiser in the village. This guy was much more realistic in his offer. He said that the fixed price for the jeep was 6500 Rupees (€ 43), independent of the number of people that share the jeep. Of course, we also had to pay the 5000 Rupees per couple entrance fee, but that is everywhere the same. This means that the jeep costs per couple only € 21.50 and that is € 11.50 less (a saving of 35%) than the jeep of Independent Travellers Inn. Besides that, the jeep was much better. It was not only newer; it was also a high one with elevated seats for better views. It didn’t take long before we decided to go with this chap. The owner of Independent Travellers Inn wasn’t available that afternoon, so we told one of his employees that we decided to book the jeep safari somewhere else. In the evening, the hell broke loose. When Ivonne and I were having a dinner at a local place in Tissamaharama, the son of the owner of Independent Travellers Inn stormed inside with a mobile phone in his hand. His father wanted to speak to Edwin. He was furious! He said that it was not allowed to book somewhere else. We were staying in his hotel, so we had to book with him, is what he said. For some reason he thought he owned us. Edwin tried to tell him that it is his business risk that people book somewhere else if he asks significant higher prices than his competitors do. “But you sleep in my guesthouse and I do not earn money on the rooms”, is what he roared. Edwin responded that he never told us that staying in his place would also mean that we had to book with him. If he had told that, we would never stay in his guesthouse. But he didn’t relax. His message was clear: “cancel the safari that you booked at the other place”. When Edwin told him that we didn’t want to do that, he ended the phone call abruptly.

When we arrived at the hotel again, it escalated even more. The owner wanted to talk only to Andrew, because he was the guy who met the jeep safari organiser where we booked. He was the new wrongdoer. Andrew told him the same arguments about our decision to book elsewhere and when he also didn’t want to cancel the safari, the owner of Independent Travellers Inn almost exploded and urged Andrew and his wife to leave the guesthouse immediately. It was already 9.30 in the evening. But of course, Andrew didn’t comply with his threat and stayed in the room. The next morning at ten to five, we checked out and took our entire luggage to the nearby bus station where we agreed to be picked up for the safari at five o’clock. But five minutes past five, one of the jeeps of Independent Travellers Inn appeared. They tried again to convince us to go with them. They even agreed the priced that we agreed to pay to the other safari organiser. We tried to contact the owner of the jeep where we booked the safari, but he didn’t answer the phone. When the driver of the Independent Travellers Inn jeep mentioned that they won’t come to pick us up, we suspected that the owner of Independent Travellers Inn put pressure on the other jeep safari organiser not to pick us up. We discussed together what to do and we decided to go with the jeep of Independent Travellers Inn, because we didn’t want to put our safari at stake.

At the time that we thought to go to Yala NP, things changed again. Independent Travellers Inn wanted to change the jeep in where we were sitting, because it was promised to someone else. When we refused to do that, things got stirred up again. One of Independent Travellers Inn’s boys almost lost his temper, when the solution appeared. The jeep of the agency where we booked appeared with fifteen minutes delay and we transferred our luggage to the jeep that took us eventually to Yala NP. Before we left, the owner of Independent Travellers Inn called to us that he organises the best jeep safaris to Yala. However, our choice to book at a different agency was rewarded that morning. We did not only see a lot of elephants, including two tuskers, but we also saw the leopard twice. And especially the second sighting was a world class one (see also the article about Yala NP). At the end, it was still our lucky day!

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