Sri Lanka Tourism: Paradise Lost?

Tourism hot spot? Maybe not

A quick search though google shows up that, right now Sri Lanka was not in the hottest destinations lists anywhere for 2014. Yet wasn’t Sri Lanka the big new thing a few years ago? So what has happened and should the Sri Lankan tourist industry be worried?

Facts and Figures

  • Tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka are on the up; more than 1.5 million in 2014 and growth is predicted to continue through the decade.
  • Overall tourism contributes around $800 billion to the economy, or about 9% of GDP.
  • It is reckoned that more than 700,000 jobs are linked directly or indirectly to the tourist sector.
  • The majority of visits (84%) are leisure based; only 16%  of tourism is business tourism
  •  India supplies the largest number of tourists at 134,000 in 2014 (January to July)
  • about 25% of tourists are come from Western Europe, North America and Australasia
  • Tourists from Eastern Europe and China for the fastest growing group of tourists

Rethink Due?

Speaking at a tourism conference in Singapore David Keen CEO of “QUO” a marketing organisation embedded in the global tourism industry said:

“Sri Lanka tourism should completely rethink its tourism branding strategy to leverage its culture, in order to entice the new age traveller who seeks uniqueness in diversity,” 

Now, leaving aside the marketing speak  he has a point. (see Daily Mirror June 2nd: http://www.dailymirror.lk) His argument, is that Sri Lanka may well be going down the wrong path in terms of its overall tourism strategy.

Paradise lost?

The previous regime took the view that:

“It is important that the country moves away from the low cost tourism and focuses on high end tourism. A product that is appealing to the high spenders”

But has it done that? What that seems to have led to in reality however, is the growth of mass tourism aimed at the younger age group; mainly Europeans, which to my eyes doesn’t look dissimilar to any where else in the world. Already, arguably Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna have become seaside resorts not too dissimilar to Spain or Majorca, as the photo above shows:

and now Mirissa is following the same path

At the same time there have been hotel developments on the East Coast for example at Pasikuda, along the South Coast isolated beach resorts like Ranna 212 and now major developments planned for Kalpitiya around Dutch Bay see http://www.sltda.lk/kalpitiya; all of which cater for a limited section of the tourist market and one which is highly volatile.

Reading down the list of proposals for this latter development makes for depressing reading; it is a full works version of everything that is probably unsustainable in the longer run: high end hotels, golf course, water park, high speed boat safaris, theme parks etc. True it will make money for the property developers and in the short run for the major hotel chains who will build there but at what cost to the environment and local communities in the longer term?

You may want to have a look at the report from NAFSO http://www.nafso-online.org/2011/03/tourism-project-in-kalpitiya-islands.html

map_0

credit; Sri Lankan Tourist Development Board

Mass Tourism Cycle

History shows that mass tourism has a limited shelf life in any one location. The Butler diagram is found in most text books and still applies today, and will I suspect apply to Sri Lanka if the strategy remains to focus on seaside / hotel tourism for the masses. What has happened all around the Mediterranean and in parts of South East Asia will happen in parts of Sri Lanka

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The Butler Model

Mass tourism based on the 2 week stay by the sea in an hotel expands to begin with but as the numbers increase the environment becomes increasingly damaged, the beaches fill up, become increasingly noisy and polluted, more and more hotels are built and the location loses its attraction.

For those who know Sri Lanka well,  just try to remember what Unawatuna used to look like and look at it now..a noisy crowded mess; and this used to be one of the world’s top ten beaches.

And now Mirissa which was arguably more idyllic than Unawatuna has seen a rapid growth in hotels, guest houses and beachfront cafes; I counted close to 20 on a recent visit.

The beach area shows the same congestion as Unawatuna

IMG_0710

author’s photograph

The Mass Tourist

In the early days places like Unawatuna and Mirissa were largely unknown to all but a few pioneers.

  1. These pioneers had very little impact and simply used the existing facilities.Their impact overall was quite low you suspect; these visitors were educated, culturally quite aware; yes they came for the sea and the beach but to hang out, snorkel, surf; that kind of thing
  2. As the word spread improvers arrived; independent travellers. They brought with them spending power and a demand for improved facilities.. hot water showers, better food, and service, a/c in the rooms and eventually the capability of booking online. Savvy guest house owners put web sites together and got themselves on the net; this was probably the state of play around 2006/7 although the 2004 tsunami had slowed things down on the coast. However, the island was getting a place on the tourist map.These visitors were also interested in the culture of the country. They would have visited the hill country the cultural triangle (ancient archaeological sites in the centre of the country).
  3. Recently the mass tourists have arrived; they only seem to be after sun, sea, sand and booze.Their demands are few their collective spending power, however, is large. But, that is all they bring. They seem to have no real interest in moving outside of their immediate environs. The local economy away from the beach gets very little of their custom. The characteristics of this group on observation seem to be:
  • predominantly 20-35 age group
  • mainly “western/european + some chinese
  • limited ambitions re travel and exploration
  • stay on or close to the beach most of the time; sunbathe swim and sleep
  • select their tours (if they take them) from beachfront
  • very little interaction with locals except to haggle over prices in shops
  • culturally unaware; some might say illiterate
  • inappropriate (possibly) dress; especially females; thongs, topless sunbathing;

So what you have is invasion and succession at work. As the improvers arrive the pioneers move off to find somewhere unspoiled. As the mass tourists arrive so the improvers are put off. In Spain the resorts slid down market in time and my concern is that the same will happen here.

The tourists aren’t the whole problem, but mass tourism is. Tourists come because they have been sold a vision of idyllic tropical beaches. What they get is a little different. What they do perhaps unknowingly is they impose their culture and their demands on the tourist destination and the industry feeds those demands in order to maximise short term profit.

Increasingly driven by the entrance of package tour companies the numbers will grow and with it the global spread of western night club culture. Already Unawatuna and Mirissa have a major night time noise problem from the beach bars pumping out maximum decibel dance music, a problem that no-one seems to be able to control. The high numbers mean that the bars and cafes can’t keep up; service is slow and poor; and in Mirissa there have been reports of friction between local people and tourists including harassment of women.

So what happens is that this kind of mass tourism destroys the very thing that the tourists come to enjoy. Sri Lanka becomes a land like every other; David Lee was right on that score.

When that happens, eventually tourist numbers start to decline; The tourists come once but don’t return because the vision they were sold doesn’t exist. They simply look for somewhere else to go. The tourism industry willingly obliges and the cycle starts all over again in a new location. You are left with half empty hotels, underused infrastructure and people out of a job.

And where is Sri Lanka right now? it is arguably somewhere around stage 3/4 on the Butler model

It isn’t just that this type of tourism is doomed to be unsustainable. This kind of tourism imposes its values and behaviour on the host community, and it exploits the host economy. You can bet that a large percentage of the investment in hotels will be made by foreign companies. Most of the profit will leak out of the Sri Lankan economy, many of the top jobs in these hotels will not be filled by local people, they will get the menial lowly paid jobs instead. There is no guarantee that food will be sourced locally either.

Alternative strategies

Where David Keen has it right is in suggesting that Sri Lanka should be looking at promoting an alternative strategy for tourism; an alternative experience. He argues for a strategy which promotes the people and culture of Sri Lanka rather than the climate and the beaches. ( which they can find anywhere in South and South East Asia).

He also suggests that Sri Lanka should recognise a new type of traveller; he calls them the “new age” travellers and that future strategies should be developed to attract this emerging group.

Now I am not sure what he means by “new age” but what I understand that to be is a tourist that doesn’t buy a package tour , is not especially interested in staying in an over the odds expensive hotel, who plans the holiday themselves and wants to experience the country and its culture, not hide out in some artificial enclave.

Not one type of tourist but many

Investing in tourism is like investing on the stock market in a way. Most wise investors spread risk by having a broad portfolio of stocks and shares rather than being dependant upon one thing. The same could be said of Sri Lanka’s tourist potential.

So far as Sri Lanka is concerned, there isn’t one type of tourist but many; sport (cricket), outdoor activities (rafting, hiking, surfing), wildlife, birds, culture, health (ayurvedic resorts for example) sea fishing, hiking, educational, business and conferences; and yes the traditional sunseekers.

So there should be a range of strategies aimed at encouraging as diverse a client base as possible. In that way you spread the risk.

Sri Lanka is an incredibly beautiful and diverse country and Sri Lankan people are wonderful hosts. The country has a rich history and cultural heritage, an amazing variety of wildlife, and great food. Above all it can offer a wide range of experiences and it is this diversity which should be promoted.

Around one in four tourists comes from Western Europe the USA and Australasia. They include a sizeable number of what David Keen terms the “new age travellers”, the people who are looking for this diversity of experience. These are the people Sri Lanka could be targeting. They are probably the future of tourism in the country.

However, cutting back on mass tourism comes at a short term cost. During the current phase of development there is a lot of money to be made by those in a position to exploit a tourism boom at all levels from the property developer to the guy who owns a beach shack. They want to make as much money as they can while they can. Cutting back on mass tourism and promoting a wider range of experience will not go down well with them.

So a choice is going to have to be made; short term loss for long term gain or the other way around?

There is nothing wrong with retaining some of the traditional tourist trade. Long term, however,  the country needs to move away from its reliance on mass tourism, because, like it or not, the boom will be short lived. More support and promotion could be given to guest houses as an alternative to the impersonal nature of the larger hotels. Smaller travel and tour companies like the Ecoteam for example or Little Adventures should be encouraged to develop.

More also needs to be done to safeguard the environment and place more controls on the kind of development that has ruined Unawatuna and will ruin Mirissa, so that people will still want to visit Sri Lanka 20 years from now.

This is perhaps where the government and the private sector could work together to promote a different view of tourism and to offer a more diverse range of experience.

In its 2010 strategy document the Sri Lanka Tourist Development Board included the following:

“Tourism products will be diversified with special emphasis on eco-tourism. Adventure tours (safaris, jungle tours, mountain trekking) will be provided…tapping the tourism potential of the natural topography and the ecological values of the country. Community based tourism and tourist villages are also to be promoted to increase value change in tourism based activities linking with rural economy, harvesting seasons, wild life, farming practices, art, culture and religions.”

How much of any of this has happened so far?

 

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