Monday, January 7, 2013

Environment needs protection while promoting Tourism

Dhanesh Wisumperuma

The Nation, 06-01-2013, Gain, p.9

The one millionth tourist to visit Sri Lanka during 2012 arrived on December 30. As shown by the reception received by this Chinese tourist and the 1,000,001st tourist, it seems to be a milestone of the tourism industry. Actually, the arrival of one millionth marked the hitherto highest number of tourist arrivals in a single year. According to the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, the number of tourist arrivals was 855,977 in 2011, which was about one and half times than the then so far highest number, 566,200 recorded in 2004.

Sri Lanka has been a popular tourist destination since the ancient past mainly due to the attractions and the location of the island. There was a marked increase in the number of tourists in 1980s, but it got reversed due to the conflict in the North and East of the country and the numbers fluctuated depending on the peaceful nature of the country. For instance 2002-2006 period saw a rapid rise of tourist arrivals, and the so far highest number of tourists was recorded in 2004, which record was only overtaken in 2010. Since the end of the conflict in 2009, Sri Lanka was named as an outstanding tourist destination by international media such as the New York Times and since then tourism industry has seen a boom. This source of revenue grabbed the attention of authorities and the expected target of tourists changed with the growing state of the industry. For instance, Mahinda Chintana (2005) stated the target as 2 million tourists for 2016 and this expected figure was later revised to 2.5 million.

At present tourism is considered as a source of income for the country. Tourism has been identified as a sector that has the potential to become a key source of foreign exchange earnings. It is a fast growing sector of the country and the authorities as well as the entrepreneurs are interested in the industry. A large number of resorts and hotels are being built around the country and a number of tourist hotels have been repaired, refurbished or under planning stage at present. Majority of the existing resorts are located in the coastal zone, which is estimated as 70% of the registered hotels. This shows that the attention is for the mass tourism, which caters the visitors who come for leisure and sun, sea and sand.

The development of the tourism sector has an impact on other sectors, such as the transport and construction sectors. It could be a contributor for the development of the country and economy, but there are certain negative impacts of it, which are widely discussed in the country for the last three decades. These include the impact on the environment as well as the society. It has been accepted that this impact should be minimized to make tourism a contributor for sustainable development.

The environmental impact

Tourism has an impact on the environment and this needs due consideration of the authorities as pointed in the Central Bank’s Annual Report of 2011. This fact has been pointed almost for the last three decades, and highest at present but seems to be still neglected by the authorities.
One such issue so far neglected is the situation caused by over visitation in some of the protected areas. Visitation of large number of groups throughout the day time could hinder the normal behavior of animals and cause distress among them. Research has shown that this is also a growing issue in our protected areas such as Ruhuna National Park. This seems to be increased during the season. Also, some species such as crocodiles are in a threat in some areas where tourism is thriving.

The increased number of tourists has even forced the authorities to implement certain action which are illegal according to the law. The best example for this is the operation of campsites within the national parks by private sector agencies, which was recently stopped with the intervention of the President, after the continuous protest by the environmental activists.

Similarly incidents of biotheft have increased recently, where tourists (or bio-thieves in tourist attire) were engaging in this illegal act. Collection of rare and endemic species of animals and plants has been recorded from various areas of the country, even with the support of locals. In addition, road kills has been increased in and around many protected areas, which could be linked to tourism activities. The threat of invasive species could also become serious with the increased tourism.

The negative impact of tourism is seen in both local as well as foreign tourism. Some such impacts of over visitation are more common in sites frequented by local tourists. Environmental pollution is one such serious problem, which is worsened by the lack of proper waste management by some of the local authorities.

Infrastructure and environment

The intensive tourism development around the country has caused a serious impact on some of the natural resources. Some hotels and resorts were developed causing threats to some of the threatened ecosystems. Due to the scenic beauty and as a method of obtaining ‘eco’ label, some of the pristine environments are attracted by tourism industry. This can even cause encroachment of protected areas as well and increase the environmental impacts mentioned above. Such informal constructions could also be seen even in the coastal zone. According to a research paper published in 2009, tourism development in Bentota and Hikkaduwa areas has not been carried out according to principles of sustainable tourism development. A number of important ecosystems in the country are under the threat of hotels and some of these receive the support of the state authorities, considering the benefit to tourism sector only. But in such projects the environmental impact should be considered important.

Development of tourism and catering the increasing demand needs further infrastructure like hotels, guesthouses and transport facilities as well as more resources like water, electricity etc. This can affect the protected areas as well as the general environment. The recent efforts to construct roads in and around some protected areas seem to be an act intended to open those areas for tourism, without considering the sustainability. The demand for granite, sand and earth has increased partly due to the new constructions as well as other infrastructure. Unplanned extraction of these resources could lead towards local problems which could affect the people and the environment.

A classic example about this is what we need to provide transport - airports or highways. The country has a number of airports in use since the British occupation of the country. Some of these are at present used as domestic airports. These could cater to the needs of the smaller planes suitable for internal flights and rest could be handled by the road transport. The second international airport at Mattala is also being built and nearing completion. In such a scenario, the plan to construct airports in Kandy using the lands belonging to the farm and in Nuwara Eliya caused opposition among the people. The government’s decision to abandon these proposals was welcome news. We wish that the decision will stand on.

The country needs to identify priorities first. For instance, the main objective of wewas or the tank system which is an important part of our history was should be to provide water for paddy fields. Using those as a landing water body for sea planes should be done if necessary, but without hindering that main use, which directly produces what people consume. Small aero planes which could be landed in existing small airports can be used instead of the seaplanes.

‘Sustainable Tourism’

The need of the day is to promote sustainable tourism. It should not be another tag used to promote the mass tourism, but must mean sustainability genuinely. Such a tourism development will preserve environment as well as obtain the best benefit from the industry. Making the tourism industry sustainable is not just making the hotel industry sustainable with introducing eco-friendly measures. Sustainable tourism development has to have environmental balance as well as it should increase the wellbeing of the local people and it includes all types of tourism including mass tourism. (for more on sustainable tourism, visit

To achieve the sustainability, ecotourism could be prioritized than the mass tourism which is the leading sector at present. Further, it should be the real ecotourism and not a new face of mass tourism just labeled as eco. In Sri Lanka, environmental friendly tourism and environmental friendly tourists are often pointed as ecotourism. But ecotourism is connected to the object of the visit and not the environmental friendly nature of the hotel industry. For instance, resorts built close to a forest or other natural environment is labeled as ecotourism ventures, while it continues to cater the conventional mass tourism industry.

But, in ecotourism, the benefit should go to the people and the local community, and not to a few outsiders or companies. Its environmental impact will be lower while it brings more foreign exchange earnings. Promotion of ecotourism is among the policy priorities in certain authorities. The National Action Plan for Haritha Lanka Program, published in 2009, has a target to increase ecotourism by 30% between 2009 and 2016. It seems the current trend is nowhere near this.

The cultural and religious tourism industry has not yet grabbed the attention of the industry yet. Although country’s heritage cities are in the list of tourist attractions, but it is not at the optimum level. As a country with a rich Buddhist heritage, Sri Lanka has the potential to attract more visitors from other Buddhist nations. Sri Lanka’s Buddhist heritage is connected with the history of the country.

Unfortunately, what we can see on the ground is not the best we can expect. The country seems just promoting mass tourism, and it is time to make a shift of the policies towards sustainable tourism to obtain the best from this industry. Sri Lanka can provide an example for green economy through such a way only. An extensive discussion and action are required on this.

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