SINCE the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2002, its tourism industry has seen an unprecedented boom, hitting numbers that go up to two million inbound tourists a year, more than four times the number in 2009.
The Indian Ocean island – rich in is culture, nature and miles of beautiful coasts – has had its occupancy levels improving year on year, with most tourists going in from the US.
In fact, Sri Lanka has identified tourism as one of its main sectors to boost the economy with the aim of securing annual foreign exchange earnings of $2.75 billion, while 500,000 are expected to depend on the industry for jobs.
To better manage competition between hotels in Sri Lanka, the government recently abolished a minimum rate policy that was introduced at the end of the civil war in 2009 to curb hotels undercutting each other after smaller hotels complained of excessive price cuts by larger properties.
One of the biggest impacts of the rise in tourist numbers is the foreseeable threat of pollution of Sri Lanka’s palm-fringed beaches, with environmentalists calling the country a victim of its own success.
They warned that unchecked development is leading to pollution, as is untreated sewage from beachfront guesthouses and hotels that gets discharged into the waters.
Because of the sharp rise in tourist numbers, guesthouses have had little thought about how to deal with waste, exposing beach-goers to potential health risks.
Environmental engineering expert Mahesh Jayaweera said, “When you look at the water you won’t notice it. But at certain times of the year, the water in Mount Lavinia is so filthy it’s worse than taking a dip in a cesspool.”
Mahesh added that levels of faecal contamination at Mount Lavinia are 60 times higher than maximum safe limits, and that people shouldn’t bathe in them.
However, beaches in the island’s north are said to be cleaner because tourism is only just picking up. But if Sri Lanka doesn’t clean up its act, beaches like Nilaweli – hailed by tourists as a “perfect beach” – could be affected.
Industry expert and environmental specialist Srilal Miththapala told AFP that Sri Lanka needs to make urgent changes to ensure the tourism industry survives in the long run.
He added, “A few years ago, we tried to shift the focus from beaches to eco-tourism, but the vast majority [of tourists] still visit us for our beaches.”