The human – elephant conflict: does it have to be like this?

Every year on average over 200 elephants are killed and 60 to 80 people lose their lives as aresult of elephant attacks. With maybe no more than 5000 to 6000 elephants left in the wild in Sri Lanka time seems to be running out for the Sri Lankan wild elephant.

At one time wild elephants could be found in most parts of the island. Now they are confined mostly to the north-central region of the island. They were driven out by hunting; for example on the Horton Plains where elephants once used to be plentiful, as well as the land clearances which created the vast tea and rubber estates.

Elephants and People; the old days

The traditional agriculture of the intermediate and dry zones is called Chena. It is a version of slash and burn. Chena cultivation is dependent on the rainfall, so at the onset of the monsoon, a patch of forest was cleared and cultivated for about 4 to 5 months and then abandoned. This then created low scrub/ woodland ( secondary regeneration) which is the habitat the elephants prefer

So, traditional Chena cultivation was compatible with maintaining the elephant population and, in fact, meant that people and elephants didn’t come into contact as often as they do now. The elephants simply moved on to abandoned and regenerating forest when the farmers moved on to open up another patch of forest.

What has changed?

The extension of sedentary agriculture in the centre and east of the country which began in earnest in the 1970’s was the single change that brought elephants and people into close contact and which has put the elephants at  risk of extinction.

The main causal factor is the  Mahaweli River Development Scheme (an irrigation scheme) Aimed at agricultural development it was begun in the 1960’s but accelerated after 1977.

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The Mahaweli scheme

The project had a number of inter-related aims:

  • to reduce growing population pressure and landlessness in the wet zone
  • to expand rice production and reduce dependence on imports
  • to develop hydro electricity to power new industrial development
  • opening up new employment opportunities to landless farmers

Settlers were encouraged onto the newly irrigated lands with the promise of land, a house and irrigation water. Apart from rice, the staple of Sri Lanka, farmers were encouraged to diversify into sugar cane, soya, corn, vegetables, fruit and cash crops.

The area under rice cultivation almost doubled to 87,000 hectares whilst rice production rose from 164 million tonnes p.a. to 471m tonnes p.a.

Land under other crops also doubled in area as a result of the  programme. However large areas of secondary forest were lost and the traditional chena system was largely  abandoned because it was not profitable.

and you have to question why large areas around Udawalawe in the South have been turned over to sugar cane production and at what cost? Surely a crop that Sri Lanka doesn’t really need; ask the 20% or so who are type 2 diabetics for example…

And the result:

  • the traditional elephant ranges have been reduced in size and become fragmented.
  • the traditional migration routes have beenblocked off to the elephants
  • with the traditional source of food for elephants (secondary forest) now not so readily available to elephants,  their food supply diminishing and migration routes blocked the elephants raid villages for food which is how the conflict is created.

The Farmer’s story

 Kalawagala is a small agricultural village with approximately 200 + families and a population of around 1200. The farm economy is centered on padi (or rice) cultivation, vegetables and fruit.

Hinnimama is typical; along with his family he farms around 3 acres and grows padi rice plus melon, pumpkin, okra, sweet corn, green grains long beans sesame and brinjal. Some farmers may also keep a few buffalo from which they sell curd.

 

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Apart from rice which is irrigated all the rest rely on the seasonal monsoon.

He would expect to grow crops in three cycles through the year (which he calls Chena) ; the more water demanding crops first and so on, and make around 100,000 rupees plus sales of rice surplus; each cycle yields around 30000 rupees dependent on amount of rain.

For Hinnimama there are 2 problems:

  1. When rainfall is not enough his yields take a tumble, and his income falls.
  2. Elephant herds invade the village land on a regular basis;  one raid can completely decimate his crop leading to serious loss of income

He told me that:

  • in the last 2 years alone 8 villagers have been killed as they attempted to drive marauding elephants away from their fields
  • groups of elephants (ranging from 2 or 3 to over a dozen) raid the village fields most nights
  • when they come for food elephants will completely destroy a farmers’ crops with the loss of the potential revenue; one night of destruction costs LKR 30,000 or more: this would be the equivalent of 1/3rd of the annual revenue

There are electric fences surrounding the village, which are supposed to keep out the elephants, BUT the elephants kick them over causing the electric current to fail and they walk through the gaps. (one ranger told me he had even seen an elephant jump a fence). The fact that the fences are poorly maintained doesn’t help Hinnimama to have much confidence that the Department of Wildlife Conservation (who are responsible for managing the situation) can do much to help him.

As a result, Hinnimama sleeps out in temporary shelters on his fields most nights. He has little choice and he feels he has no alternative but to drive away the elephants with whatever means he can employ. These methods can include shouting, using firecrackers or home made explosives, raising the voltage on the electric fences, poisoning, digging pits and possibly (although he wouldn’t say so) shooting the elephants.

The elephants story

Recent research has uncovered a lot more information about the Sri Lankan elephant:

  • Elephants don’t migrate far either seasonally or annually and their ranges are small in size (roughly 50 – 150 km2 on average).
  • Elephants follow the same migration routes (elephant corridors) year after year.
  • Ranges and corridors are well established and pre date human settlement.
  • Ranges don’t always match up with protected areas, however. Around 70% of elephants live outside protected areas.

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from the Sunday Times

To accommodate there elephants the number and size e of protected areas needs to be much bigger

  • Elephants prefer open low canopy woodland and grassland and disturbed habitats such as abandoned Chena lands which are the result of clearance and secondary plant succession.
  • A single wild elephant consumes approximately 150 kg of food per day. A hundred elephants would require 15,000 kg of food per day, and a large area of woodland every day.

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elephant country

Elephants were well established before commercial farming pushed into the interior. In simple terms they were there first. However, they have been squeezed out of their traditional “range” lands. Their alternatives have been shrinking every year.

  1. Between 1948 and 1975 as a result of the Mahaweli Project; 1/3rd of the natural forest was lost due to clearance for agriculture. The depletion of the elephants main food source increased pressure on remaining natural food supplies to the extent that the elephants were forced to search elsewhere for food.
  2. A combination of fragmentation of habitat and blocked migration routes have created major pressures on the elephant population. Land was allocated to settlers by politicians (seeking electoral advantage), which blocked the traditional elephant migration routes or corridors.
  3. Increased numbers of cattle and water buffalo have further reduced the amount of grassland available to elephants.
  4. The disappearance of the traditional Chena (shifting cultivation) system will mean that through natural succession, habitat in many of the protected areas will become progressively less able to support high densities of elephants because they thrive on secondary forest created by Chena cultivation.
  5. An inadvertent introduction of the plant lantana camara into Sri Lanka has had an almost catastrophic impact on the vegetation in Udawalawe, one of the protected “elephant homelands”. The plant is toxic to elephants and highly invasive. It is currently replacing the endemic vegetation at a rapid rate resulting in significant habitat and disastrous food loss for the elephant population.

The net result has been that elephants and villagers are increasingly competing for the same space with disastrous results all round.

Managing the Human – Elephant conflict

So far the main response has been to try to keep elephants and farmers apart. This has been attempted in the following ways:

  1. The irrigated and resettled lands have been protected from elephants with electric fences.
  2. Protected areas and national parks have been created for the elephant population. Elephants living outside of the protected areas are captured and relocated into the protected areas where possible.

Problems

  1. However, so far this strategy hasn’t worked too well. Elephants break down fences which results in major problems for villagers. The fact that those fences are poorly maintained is a major source of frustration to the villagers.

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a fence pushed over by an elephant

  1. Nor does moving captured the elephants into the protected areas doesn’t make ecological sense; in effect this is a policy of creating elephant concentration camps. This is because:
  • Protected areas can support only a certain number of elephants (the carrying capacity), which is determined by the amount of resources such as food and water available for elephants. Eventually there will be too many elephants in each “safe zone”
  • Translocating a large number of elephants that normally range outside protected areas into protected areas just adds to the elephant numbers, and increases the pressure on the habitat leading to habitat destruction.
  • Any attempt at managing protected areas to provide more food for more elephants would require a vast amount of funds and resources that would have to be spent indefinitely. It would also result in a massive loss of biodiversity, as a large number of fauna and flora, many of them endemics, require relatively undisturbed forest. Simply put it is not sustainable
  • In any case most elephants range outside of the protected areas or maybe their ranges are partly in and partly out of protected areas. So you can move them into a protected area but the chances are that they will take off at some point and go back to the areas they are used to ranging in.

The Main Point:

Translocation of elephants into protected areas keeping them there and finding enough food for them is just not sustainable; a new approach is needed.

New Management for Old

One such approach is suggested by The Centre for Conservation and Research in Sri Lanka:

  • Manage the protected areas and their elephant populations as the core of future elephant conservation.
  • Manage areas outside protected areas so that together with the protected areas, they form a contiguous landscape for elephants.

They argue that Management of outside areas can be achieved by regulating Chena cultivation, so that:

  • Traditional cycling regimes are preserved and conversion to permanent cultivation is prevented.
  • Providing facilities to chena farmers, so that they derive a direct conservation benefit from elephants being outside protected areas, and costs of having elephants in their area, such as crop depredation, are offset.”
They argue further that “such a conservation strategy, … will benefit both elephants and humans, and will ensure the sustenance of a healthy elephant population in Sri Lanka, for the future.”

This means going back to a form of slash and burn; Chena. But Chena farmers would need to be financially supported and that does not appear to be a likely outcome. In any case would the government be able to persuade the second/third generation farmer/ settlers to accept this? It seems unlikely.

The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) takes a more practical view.

The idea is to engage with people at the grassroots level:

Mission: “to build capacity, foster leadership and empower citizens to support sustainable, long term conservation success.”

They adopt a range of innovative approaches which are all aimed at helping the local people live in harmony, not in conflict with elephants, and which are sustainable.

Here is a summary of some of their projects:

  • Electric Fence Intrusion Alert System (eleAlert) monitors fences remotely and give early warning of elephant intrusion to villagers and fence damage to crews who can go and repair the breach.
  • An electric fence maintenance team was established in the 2,300-year-old Buddhist Temple, historic Somawathiya Chaitiya, in the North Central Province.
  • in Wasgamuwa, SLWCS formed a community organization to promote the cultivation of oranges. Elephants do not eat citrus, therefore farmers are less likely to lose their crops to elephant raids.; see Project Orange
  • A number of community based organizations for human elephant conflict mitigation, home garden development, and agro-forestry, have been established at Lahugala, Pottuvil and Panama in the Eastern Province.
  • microfinance is being made available to communities to enable them to diversify away from farming into other activities.
  • encouraging improved methods of dairy farming to raise yields not numbers of cattle which would reduce the demand on grassland resources
  • Ele bus: Saving elephants while helping people is at the heart of the SLWCS’ brand new “Ele-friendly Bus project.” The bus will buffer school children, farmers and other pedestrians from elephants (and vice versa) by providing safe transportation along a busy rural roadway that transects one of the region’s most important, ancient elephant corridors. In turn, fewer negative human-elephant encounters will occur, helping to keep people safe and elephants alive.

In one of the newer projects they are experimenting with beehive fences, where beehives are strung out along fence boundaries. Elephants stay away from bees and so the hope is that a network of such fences will deter elephants form invading farmers land

see: http://elephantsandbees.com/sri-lanka-beehive-fence-progress/

Summary

The future for elephants in Sri Lanka is far from secure. There are signs in the media and in various pronouncements from the authorities that the threat to the Sri Lankan elephant is now being taken increasingly seriously.

Tourism can  play a part. Around 20% of tourists visit Sri Lanka hoping to see elephants in the wild. What would the loss of the wild elephant do to the tourist trade? What does the decimation of the elephant population do for the image of Sri Lanka?

The key to protecting the elephant is a multi layered strategy;

  • collecting more date on elephant behaviour is needed to try to better understand elephant movement
  • strict conservation zones can be useful but only as one tool in the box
  • the adoption of the practices being trialled by the excellent Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society
  • giving the villagers a stake in the future of the elephant by becoming more actively involved in elephant conservation; that also means giving the villagers a greater stake in tourism development and a greater say in how that management should take place.

If villagers can be helped to see the economic sense of maintaining the elephant population (I think arguments about biodiversity don’t cut much ice), then this may be the way forward in terms of putting a stop to the pointless and very sad loss of life we are seeing today.

Stop Press

Report from the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society is worth a real close look; check it out now

 

Short term lets on the rise in Sri lanka: is this good for the tourism industry?

The informal tourism sector is growing in Sri Lanka and Hiran Cooray Chairman of the Tourist hotels of Sri Lanka for one thinks it’s a good thing.  ( see  report in the Daily Mirror )

So do I.

By his reckoning 2/5th of tourists coming to Sri Lanka now stay in rented apartments, villas and homestay accommodation many of which are rented out via organisations such as Homestay.com Trip Advisor, AirB&B and the like.

Benefits

So why is this a good thing? Let’s start with the positive side.

  • Money paid by tourists goes directly to local people;

“Tourists staying within the local communities pass the revenue directly to the bottom of the income pyramid, fast-tracking grass root level economic development.” Hiran Cooray

  • Visiting tourists get to mix with local people rather than stay cooped up in hotels full of foreigners and they get to experience and enjoy true Sri Lankan hospitality; plus they get to hang out away from traditional tourist areas.
  • Because tourist are using existing facilities there is no additional strain on local authority services
  • The emergence of the informal rental market actually expands what Sri Lanka has to offer to tourists.

Not everyone (Chinese apart maybe) wants to stay in an hotel. A significant number of tourists like to do their own thing, explore local areas eat when they want in and around local Sri Lankans, and so on. They don’t want to be “trapped” in a cramped and possibly quite expensive hotel room. They like the space and informality that the informal sector can offer and when you can stay in an apartment in Havelock City for example.. at a much lower cost.. well why wouldn’t you?

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Havelock City; example of apartment

doing away with the negatives :

  • Unlike the major developments which are springing up around the coast from Kalpitiya to Mirissa and down the east coast; there is no negative environmental impact.
  • There are no major costs to be borne by local communities, economic, environmental or social
  • Homestay and the rental market place no extra strain on stretched local authority services such as electricity, water supply and refuse disposal (although the latter doesn’t seem to be working that well)
Costs
  • owners of rented accommodation don’t pay tourist taxes
  • they are not registered; no-one knows how many there are
  • there is no real quality control beyond what TripAdvisor and AIR B&B can exert
Is it a threat?

So does  the hotel sector needs to worry? No of course not. Sri Lanka can offer world class tourist accommodation for those who want it; plus Colombo is set become a signicant business hub in South Asia so the growth of business tourism which depends on quality hotels is almost assured.

It’s just that not every one can afford the prices that some city centre hotels charge in Colombo for example.

(I could add from my experience that for the money sometimes the service could be a whole lot better, some hotel staff could be a little less “up themselves” but that is for another blog.)

Where it is possible to agree with the Hotels Association is that it is not a level playing field because the informal sector are mainly unregistered and do not have to pay the tourist tax and development levy paid by the hotel chains.

True but the owners do pay local and regional taxes; adding the other costs could simply cause them to raise their rentals to a level where they would not get business so thinking about applying these extra costs or banning the advertising of short term rental and homestay on the web (as has happened in New York for example) is not a step to be taken lightly.

That said there is a case for regulation to be introduced in homestay and private rentals to ensure quality and value for money.

Research needed

In the meantime there is very little data available on the growth of the informal sector at present and maybe it would be worth conducting research so that all concerned know what it is they are discussing.

So time to start asking questions;

  • Where do informal sector tourists stay ? In Colombo? Western Province? Or coastal areas? Maybe it would be worth finding out.

To judge by the Air B&B site much of it is in and around Colombo. If that is so then is it a bad thing? Getting more people to visit Colombo and stay for longer, not necessarily in the city centre can only be good for the economy.

  • Who are these type of  tourists; where do they come from?
  • How long do they stay?
  • What do they do, where do they go what do they visit?
  • Why do they choose rental/homestay?
  • What about the owners/renters: who are they? What accommodation is being used and why?
  • How much money is it making for the owners?

As I wrote in an earlier blog; A Paradise Lost ; see https://geosrilanka.wordpress.com/2015/06/16/sri-lanka-tourism-is-it-just-a-case-of-re-branding/, my belief is that Sri Lankan tourism needs a balanced portfolio of investment; homestay and apartment rentals are.   a part of that, (as is mass tourism) because it has the value of bringing tourists much closer to an understanding of Sri Lankan life and culture.

After all, there is nothing better than hanging out around Water’s Edge on a Saturday night along with the thousands of families who come to chill, enjoy the street food , and relax over an affordable beer maybe.. and you don’t get to do that at The Cinnamon Grand

Boardwalk

 

Colombo; progress but who is it for?

Colombo is modernising fast, and many would argue ; not before time.  In 2010 although the Sri Lankan economy started to grow rapidly in economic terms at least Colombo was not pulling its weight.

A lack of inward investment was the main cause and the reasons for that were fairly obvious. The image of Colombo was a negative one. Colombo was a city:

  •  prone to flooding,
  • suffering increasing levels of traffic congestion and chronic air pollution;
  • with garbage choked waterways
  • with high levels of deprivation and relative poverty often focussed on the pockets of underserved settlements you can still find all over the Colombo
  •  that looked “down at heel” and in need of a major makeover
  •  that seemingly went to bed by 8pm
  • with a very limited home domestic market and a small tourist base

and of course this was a country still emerging from a brutal period internal conflict.

Contrast this with the glitz of the major Asian cities; KL, Singapore and Hong Kong and it isn’t hard to see why  foreign companies were not too keen to come to Colombo given a commercial environment typified by an out of date and unattractive  commercial environment a shortage of land, and lack of modern business facilities in the city.

Garden city

Not surprising then that the last government saw the need to “rebrand” Colombo as it embarked on a major regeneration exercise, post 2010.

This is what Gotabaya Rajapakse had to say in  2013:

The focus is on developing clean, green, people friendly cities and towns that will foster an efficient working environment and a relaxed living environment….conducive for knowledge workers and other professionals to live and work in Sri Lanka. (who) expect to maintain a high quality of life for themselves and their families…. it is also extremely important from the perspective of attracting Foreign Direct Investment.”

Out of this was borne the concept of The Garden City of South Asia with its emphasis on greening the city, opening up urban spaces and creating high quality recreation spaces such as at Waters Edge.

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pics taken from Sunday Observer

A lot of good came from this.

  1. Flooding ( a regular problem) has been brought under control and the cities drains and spillways have been improved.
  2. Canal sides have been cleared of the sprawling and messy underserved settlements and the rubbish that piled up within them. Beira Lake has also been cleaned up.
  3. Garbage collection improved and the environment generally got a lot better. Colombo in 2014 was a lot cleaner city than London that’s for sure.
  4. The city has at last got properly paved sidewalks; there is even a degree of traffic taming in some parts of the city.
  5. Ugly walls have been knocked down and the city space is opening up.
  6. Major landscaping along the Diyawanna river,  at Waters Edge and in other locations around the city make for high grade recreation space that everyone can use.
  7. City nightlife is on the up; The Dutch Hospital complex and the multiplex cinemas, bars and up market eating places are evidence of growing investment in leisure within the Sri Lankan community.
  8. Many beautiful old historic buildings have been restored to their original glory; none better than the town hall and the old auditor general’s building.
  9. Independence Square is an attractive urban area used by many and Viharamadhevi Park has been turned into a beautiful open space.

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credit: YAMU

So there are many positives and the plans go far beyond the simple environmental uplift the city has enjoyed.

Projects

Ambitious projects like Port City, The Lotus Tower, Krrish Square, the Galle Front Shangri La development  are planned to shoot Colombo into the 21st Century.

note; you can find videos of all of these on U tube via google

The image of Colombo as a vibrant modern city is one that has been promoted; and why not after so many years of hardship?

Clearly government policies are driving this development  but there are other forces at play.

  • you could argue that there is  an emerging middle class with more money to spend and the ambition to live in a more modern city
  • at the same time we live in a global world; TV and the cinema, facebook contacts with friends and relatives living abroad, and holidays abroad; all of that serves to make people aware of what the cities of Singapore, KL and Hong Kong have to offer.. and they want to have a slice of that.. all of which is quite understandable.

However, the major force at work is commercial pressure.

As I wrote at the top of the article  the government believed in 2013 that Colombo needed to attract a great deal more inward investment.

The idea goes.. attract in investment (mainly from abroad) which will drive up tourism, and possibly increase the presence of multi national companies, retail chains and the like locating to Colombo..the development will open up business opportunities, and create jobs which will trickle down to the rest of the city  in terms of jobs and per capita income; everyone benefits.

But do they really or is it a few well placed individuals and foreign corporations who will take most of the rewards from whatever growth occurs?

True, everyone in Colombo benefits from better roads/pavements, more green spaces and a cleaner environment but how relevant are the proposed commercial developments in downtown Colombo to the average joe?

The fact is that around 50% of the Colombo population is on low incomes; the average urban income ( which takes into account all the high earners in the city) is only just over Rs 60,000 whilst outgoings are around Rs 50,000 and that is with at least 2 and maybe more in the family working. (In fact the median income; the most common income, is just Rs 30,400 per month)

So  once rent/ food etc are taken into account what else is left and how many visits to enjoy the high life in Colombo can you make? ( see 2012/13 Household Income and Expenditure Survey)

Port City is justifiably a source of some national pride even among the lower income groups BUT how relevant to them is Port City and all the other developments in downtown Colombo?

Port City (if it ever gets finished) is not really for Sri Lankans is it? The only low income people in Port City will be the tuk and taxi drivers or the housemaids. the same goes for all the hotel developments; This is also true of the new shops and restaurants in the old Auditor General’s building close by Independence Square. They are lovely buildings but how many local people can afford to visit the shops and restaurants there? They are for tourists both business and recreational; something for them to spend their money on.

So is it a case of two Colombo’s are being created: one for the rich, mainly wealthy foreigners and one for the rest?

Not that Colombo is alone in this regard. It is pretty much the same in all the world’s major cities.

Forced evictions; the ugly face of beautification

Commercial pressures were also behind the forced evictions of large numbers of families from the underserved settlements under the guise of urban regeneration and beautification. In all it was planned to evict 65,000 families; around a quarter of a million people and relocate them in high rise blocks like this one:

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this from the Centre for Policy Alternatives second report:

The rush to relocate communities to high-rise apartments was not done with the uplifting of people’s lives foremost in mind, but with the intention of freeing up property with high commercial value. What made the Urban Regeneration Project of the Urban Development Authority more problematic was the means used to acquire land. Military force, intimidation and harassment were used to evict people from their homes and the process did not follow Sri Lanka’s laws related to land acquisition.

Communities… face many hardships. Residents are forced to pay Rs 1 million for the apartments over a period of 20 – 30 years. They are yet to be given deeds to their apartments and there are restrictions on selling, renting and mortgaging the apartments, which means that a source of financial security has been taken away from them.

Winners and losers

A common concept that has been used in geography over many years is that  whenever economic/commercial development takes place there will be winners and losers.

If London is anything to go by the future for Colombo’s lower income groups is bleak. Ongoing development will most likely result in soaring land values; the lower income groups will be priced out of the city and forced to the edge of the city from where they will face an expensive commute back into the city to their place of work. Central London has already been bought up by rich foreign investors who in some cases have bought property with no real intention of living in it; just an investment. The average worker can’t afford to live in London now. Prices in restaurants and bars are obscene in some cases.. and so it goes on.

The accepted view (at least amongst governments and politicians ) is that the capital city drives the economy. London has become a monster dominating the whole of the UK; London is not a place for Londoners these days. Colombo will go the same way.

Note 1

The drive to Singapore style development has taken a step further with the launch of the government’s Megapolis plan. This is really an extension of the Port City, Skyscraper City concept mentioned before in this article. It is a grandiose plan; you can check it out via the Sunday Times (Lanka) report at http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110918/News/nws_19.html

Initial thoughts:

  • It relies totally on foreign direct investment; so where is it going to come from and with what strings attached?
  • how much of the existing architectural heritage will be retained?
  • What will happen to Slave Island and Pettah? I am betting those vibrant multi-cultural communities will be broken up and their residents forcibly evicted
  • what will we be left with? Singapore glitters but it is soulless..is that really what Sri Lankans want..
  • how if anything will it change the lives of the majority urban poor/middle income groups.. who will only be able to afford to stand and stare
  • how much of any growth will trickle down to the Sri lankan people?

Colombo is a fascinating, and in places, beautiful city but much of it will be buried by this project and in terms of the country as a whole I wonder what real good it will bring.

How relevant will Colombo really be to people in the rest of the country? Are the policy makers in ganger of creating 2  countries: Colombo and the rest?

Finally will Colombo become such a magnet for growth and development that it becomes a true primate city dominating every aspect of Sri Lankan economic life and what effect will that have on the rest of the country?

Note 2

There is another view of city life though which is worth a look; check out the vision of Jan Gehl on U tube who believes that city growth and regeneration needs to be organised around the needs of people as much as economic priorities.

 

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

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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

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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?