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Sri Lanka: Is unbridled tourism the panacea for all economic ills?

It is evident that there is a renewed focus on tourism in Sri Lanka. Rightly so considering what it has to offer to potential tourists.

6 mins read
Nine Arch Bridge - Ella, Sri Lanka [ Photo Credit: @rauljichici]

Tourism, as it is well known, is a major industry in Sri Lanka. The foreign exchange it brings into the country and the hundreds and thousands of people who are directly and indirectly employed in this sector makes this industry a vital one for the country. It is one of the most effective windows to the world provided the country develops and displays an image that is both unique, culturally and geographically, and offers an interest based, value for money option for tourists.

It is evident that there is a renewed focus on tourism in Sri Lanka. Rightly so considering what it has to offer to potential tourists. Its ancient and more modern cultural history, geographical beauty, its rich flora and fauna habitats, unparalleled beaches and its trekking adventures are all part of a package of diverse interests that are offered to tourists. It needs to be noted that tourism is not limited and should not be limited to non-Sri Lankan overseas domiciled foreign nationals, but also to the ever-growing Sri Lankan Diaspora, many of whom still call Sri Lanka their “home” and who would wish to enjoy the beauty of the country.  One hopes that the potential arising from Sri Lankan origin foreign nationals are not overlooked when it comes to promoting tourism.

A news report appearing in the Daily FT notes that India, Russia, China, the UK, France, Germany, the Middle East, Nordic countries and Australia as focus markets for tourists according to Sri Lanka Tourism (https://www.ft.lk/top-story/Sri-Lanka-to-focus-on-9-key-markets-to-woo-tourists-in-2023/26-745624. Tourist arrivals in the first two months of 2023 have reportedly exceeded 100,000 each month.

However, tourism also brings in unwanted negatives such as crime, drugs and cultural degradation While genuine tourists need to be protected, equally importantly, the Sri Lankan people and its culture also needs to be protected.

Madison Mussio, Hospitality writer and professional author writing in Quora, (https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-negative-effect-of-tourism) encapsulates some of the negatives of tourism “The biggest drawback of tourism is the authentic culture of many cities are lost to mass tourism and tourists. Every city has its own culture and culture is always changing. But some of the greatest and most beautiful cities in the world have changed from being wonderful cities to mega-tourist attractions and nothing more”. Another comment states “Spreading of various diseases, Rise in environmental pollution, Rise in criminal activities, Seasonal unèmployment may rise, and the Extension of endangered species of plants and animals.

Madison Mussio goes on to say “Citizens of cities like Barcelona and Venice are now heavily protesting the development of tourism in their cities. They have seen prices for their homes increase due to the loss of housing to hotels. They have seen entire neighbourhoods bought up by real-estate investors, only to never use them. The thing is, the government of these cities want tourism, they provide many jobs to the local people and tax revenue for them. Barcelona alone has 1.6 million residencies (2016) but had close to 8 million tourists in 2014. Twenty years ago, they had less than 2 million, in 2000 a little over 3 million. At what point does a government look at the number of tourist to residence in a city and say they need their biggest industry to slow down? Barcelona has recently voted in an anti-tourism mayor. Her biggest claims were that the rising pricing of housing and loss of culture is due to the mass tourism that is unnecessary and that the city should focus on its citizens, not the tourists. Currently, the building permits for hotels have stopped for at least one year and she has now required all Airbnb properties to have tourist licences to operate. She was also the first person to fine Airbnb in history (30k). They are now increasing the fine to 600k for every illegal listing.

Venice on the other hand, is trying to separate from Italy. In 1866 it because part of Italy, before then it was an independent kingdom. It has seen massive tourism since it became part of Italy. Fishing and agriculture jobs have been replaced with tourism jobs. The culture of a great and powerful nation surrounded by water and farmland has been destroyed. In 2014 in an unofficial vote, 89% of citizens voted to leave Italy. One of the biggest reasons was because they claim the city has been lost to them in favour of tourists. To be fair, I am part of the tourism industry, and my job is provided by tourists. However, even I agree sometimes it can be too much and that governments need to plan for tourism and local sustainability, rather than just developing the tourism industry blindly”.

Long term strategic planning however is a must to maximise on the opportunities that are there now and may be there in the future. Such opportunities may be lost if planning is not done.

The Borgen Project, a nonprofit organization that is addressing poverty and hunger and working towards ending them, states that “unless well planned, the disadvantages of tourism may greatly outweigh the advantages in a country (https://borgenproject.org/advantages-disadvantages-of-tourism/). It says that “A major factor to take into consideration is environmental damage. Many countries with ancient ruins or natural attractions are also in danger of destruction or erosion with significant foot traffic and human interaction. Additionally, flora and fauna can decrease in areas or change their growth and migration patterns when there is an overflow of humans interact. Foot traffic and continuous touching can also slowly degrade the stability of ancient structures. As previously stated, the profit gained from tourism is often reinvested into the industry. However, with unequal infrastructure development, the tourism industry can inadvertently sustain itself without aiding a country’s other vital sectors. As such, many countries end up developing tourism hot spots while the rest of the country suffers. In these countries, there are visible socioeconomic gaps between the wealthy and the poor. Focusing mainly on the tourism industry and places of mass attraction could leave disadvantaged communities at risk of financial instability”.

Econsult solutions Inc (ESI), a US based consulting company, emphasises the importance of strategic tourism planning efforts that achieve comprehensive and successful results. They mention four critical ingredients for such planning (https://econsultsolutions.com/tourism-strategic-planning-the-tried-and-true/)

  1. Attractions: Creating a compelling experience for visitors to enjoy
    1. Determine gaps in the tourism products.
    2. Enhancement and new product / event opportunities
    3. Support for and partnerships with attractions
  2. Tourism Infrastructure: Helping visitors successfully navigate their experience.
    1. Availability, variety, quality, and competitiveness of accommodations, restaurants, transportation, signage, visitor centers, retail, and visitor domains
  3. Marketing: Getting the right message to the right audience
    1. Addressing the appropriate target audiences and ensuring that the destination’s marketing helps:
    2. Attract new and repeat visitation; extends stays; increases tourist spending;
    3. Reflects the destination so that the visitors’ expectations are met.
    4. The right mix of paid, earned, owned and shared media for promoting the destination.
  4. Organizational Structure: Effectively and efficiently improving local tourism
    1. The most appropriate organizational structure to meet various responsibilities and achieve a strong return on investment.
    2. Ensure that the tourism organization figures prominently in political, policy, and planning discussions.
    3. The role to be played in determining and collecting public and private funding.
    4. The value and opportunities of partnerships

ESI states that “this framework is the starting point rather than the end point for the crucial discussion of the prioritization of opportunities, resources, and efforts to address gaps. Through collaborative discussions with key stakeholders, the most effective planning processes arrive not at a laundry list of recommendations, but at an identification of the most important priorities, and the initial implementation steps needed to address them”.

Sri Lanka Tourism is said to have developed a tourism policy. Presumably this will be in the public domain soon. Hopefully this policy is of strategic nature and is a long-term policy that addresses the positives of tourism and how to ensure tourism potential is matched to global trends in tourism, as well as its negatives and what measures can and will be taken to address such negatives.

If not already included, such a policy should include a promotional strategy based broadly on interest priorities of potential tourists. Is the emphasis of this policy about providing a composite package of everything the country has to offer say within a period of two weeks? Or are there interest-based packages such a sea and beach packages, cultural packages, wildlife experience packages, sports packages (for example, why not Golf tours that include Colombo, Digana, Nuwara Eliya, Trincomalee, and Hambantota?). If such interest-based packages are included, there will be a potential to improve the infrastructure associated with such interests through investments in these areas, and an overall benefit to tourism in general within the country.

While individual travel companies may undertake such interest assessments, it would benefit the country in the longer term if the national tourism policy, developed in consultation with all relevant stakeholders, includes this approach as a composite of such a policy.

It is also worth considering a zone based tourism approach from an interest and an infrastructure aspect. For example, a Southern zone with Hambantota as the centre of it, a Northern zone with perhaps Vavuniya as the centre of it, an Eastern zone with Trincomalee as the centre of it, and a Central zone including the cultural triangle with Kandy as the centre of it, could become the epicentres of an investment policy on tourism.

These zones are mentioned considering the proximity they have to various, current, and potential tourist interests. Hambantota has the advantage of having an international airport, a bustling port that could have the potential for cruise ships to call over, a network of roads that connects it to beach hotels in popular sea spots, wild life and bird sanctuaries, and the potential to link Hambantota to the East and places like Passekudah and Potuvil by extending the highway beyond Hambantota.

Unchecked, unplanned tourism could spell disaster for Sri Lanka from several aspects. The quality of tourists is as important or more important that the economic benefits they accrue to the country. Tourists will come and go, but the culture of the country, its environment, its fauna and flora and its natural beauty has to remain for the benefit of many generations to come. 

Raj Gonsalkorale

Raj Gonsalkorale is an independent health supply chain management specialist with wide international experience. Writing is his passion.

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