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Opinion

Sri Lanka's tropical beaches: A development trap?

Due to shifting coastlines, sustainable and environmental measures are vital in planning ecotourism initiatives.

Last Modified: 25 Oct 2013 10:07
William G Moseley

Prof William G. Moseley is a human-environment and development geographer at Macalester College in Saint Paul.
Vinod Malwatte

Vinod Malwatte, a native of Sri Lanka, is a recent graduate of Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, US, where he specialised in environmental studies and geography. He performed fieldwork for this study in early 2013.
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The country's rich biodiversity is at risk if the locals are not allowed input in development plans [Vinod Malwatte/Al Jazeera]

After over 25 years of internal conflict ended in Sri Lanka in May 2009, the country finally seemed poised to capitalise on its beautiful beaches and tropical landscapes. Named as the New York Times top tourist destination in 2010, and receiving similar accolades from the Lonely Planet in 2013, the country has experienced a tourist boom.

Unfortunately the government has embarked on an aggressive, top-down tourism development campaign, allocating valuable coastal land assets to local investors and international resort chains that do not have the interests of local people in mind. Surrounding communities must be involved if development is to be fostered and flora and fauna managed sustainably.

Big development plans

As part of its countrywide tourism development plan, the government hopes to bring 2. 5 million tourists to Sri Lanka by 2016, up from a record million visitors in 2012. To that end, the Sri Lankan Tourism Development Authority has identified coastal regions like Kuchchavelli and Passikudah on the east coast, and Kalpitiya on the west coast to be built up as government sponsored development zones.

The Kalpitya subdistrict in northwestern Sri Lanka was little known and isolated for years during the conflict, yet hosts a beautiful tropical coastline on a stretch of the Indian Ocean between India and Sri Lanka known as the Gulf of Mannar. The area's rich mangrove ecosystem provides valuable resources to local communities and fishermen as they serve as nursing grounds for many species of fish and crustaceans. The coastal waters are also home to spinner, bottlenose and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, whales, sea turtles, and even the illusive dugong (in the same family as manatees) that are of great appeal to potential tourists.

According to the Ministry of Economic Development's master plan for the area, 17 hotels with a total capacity of 5,000 rooms are to be built. A wide variety of tourist activities are to be offered including fishing, deep-sea diving, nature-, beach-, sport- and adventure-tourism. While it may sound problematic in this historically isolated and biodiversity rich region, there are also plans for cable car tours, underwater amusement parks, boat safaris, golf courses, observation towers, camping sites, race courses, cricket grounds, botanical gardens, shopping centres, museums, and art and entertainment centres. Since transportation infrastructure is insufficient, development plans also include an airport, helipads, sea flight ports and jetties.

Part of healing the rift created by Sri Lanka's long running internal conflict is promoting development in all areas of the country. In this regard, Sri Lanka's ambitious tourism development plans for Kaliptiya seem admirable. After all, the proposed massive investment is supposed to generate 37,500 direct and indirect jobs in the region. However, if not carefully implemented and modified, the government's proposed Kalpitiya Integrated Tourism Resort Project would seriously compromise local livelihoods, not to mention the region's unique biodiversity resources.

Part of the problem is that the proposed approach will create an economic enclave that will be of minimal benefit to members of the surrounding communities. It is important to note that many coastal and inland communities in this area lack basic infrastructural amenities such as water, electricity and good roads. While tourism development will bring some needed infrastructure to the region, much of it is not designed to cater to the needs of local people.

Worse yet, is that this development activity may actually harm local livelihoods by, for example, damaging fisheries through mangrove destruction. Water sports would also have profound negative impacts as the noise generated from high speed motorboats and jet-skis will cause marine life to migrate away from the region towards more peaceful habitats - ironically leading to a loss of one of the main reasons for tourists to come to the area in the first place.

Community-based ecotourism

An alternative approach would embrace community-based ecotourism. Under this approach, it is understood that local communities must be involved in the conservation of natural resources and be key partners in unfolding tourism development initiatives if these endeavors are to be sustainable. Our interviews with community members and local resort owners earlier this year suggest that they are open to exploring this community-based approach.

For example, dolphin watching has experienced rapid growth in recent years and local fishermen are well positioned to play a key role in this industry. A local tourist boat operators association is working to train local operators on sustainable dolphin and whale viewing practices. There are also plans to start up a local diving collective comprised of youth in the Kalpitiya area. As these young people have grown up in this area, they are familiar with the ocean currents and suitable locations for diving. Since both ventures mentioned above would directly inject income into the community, the stakeholders would be motivated to conserve the local ecosystems upon which their livelihoods depend.

The nature of the shifting coastline in this region also does not bode well for the proposed large-scale resort projects. The construction of such resorts will likely lead to the building of rock barriers that would change wave patterns and promote more erosion along the coastline. As such, more sustainable, environmentally friendly structures must become a part of plans. Community members should also have the opportunity to engage in alternative forms of ecotourism through the creation of low budget accommodation facilities that offer tourists a local and authentic experience. This would allow low budget tourists to enjoy northwestern Sri Lanka, while also generating income for the local people.

It is not too late for the government of Sri Lanka to change its tourism development plans for the northwestern part of the country. While the country's lush beaches are alluring to local and international investors with big plans, this approach will ultimately be counter-productive in terms of promoting peace and stability, local development and environmental conservation. In the end, there must be a participatory, win-win approach which benefits local communities, business people and the environment.

William G Moseley is Professor and Chair of Geography at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA. His latest book is An Introduction to Human-Environment Geography: Local Dynamics and Global Processes.

Follow William G Moseley on Twitter: @WilliamGMoseley

Vinod Malwatte, a native of Sri Lanka, is a recent graduate of Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, US, where he specialised in environmental studies and geography. He performed fieldwork for this study in early 2013.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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