THROTTLING THE GOLDEN GOOSE

OVER DEVELOPMENT THREATENS THE SUSTAINABILITY OF TOURISM. A SLUMP IS THE BEST TIME TO FIX THE PROBLEMS

The first attempt to develop a tourist industry took place in 1966 with the formation of the Tourist Board. Visitor numbers grew steadily from 1966 until 1982 when arrivals peaked at 407,230. The violence of 1983 then leads to five years of decline, which bottomed out in 1988 when visitors hit a low of 182,660.

The end of the JVP insurgency in 1989 lead to a recovery, but numbers ebbed and flowed with the passage of the war and rarely exceeded 400,000 until 2003 when fresh hopes of an end to conflict caused arrivals to swell to 500,642. After some years of growth, the resumption of the conflict in 2006 saw further declines until the end of the conflict in 2009, after which the industry witnessed a boom. Arrivals grew from 447,890 in 2009 to reach 2.3m by 2018. The terror attacks of April 2019 followed by anti-Muslim riots have slowed arrivals again, but the slow-down also presents an opportunity to fix a fundamental problem; over development.

Sri Lanka’s tourist arrivals were stagnant in the 400,000 range for a better part of thirty years, so there was not much need for an expansion of infrastructure. The massive boom post-2009 has put an enormous strain on resources that are now threatening the very beauty and tranquillity that are being sought by travelers. The market for tourism has also changed. Until the 1990’s it catered to foreigners mostly on package tours. Two significant changes have taken place since then; the growth of the independent travelers – and the growth in local tourism. As the country has grown more prosperous, large numbers of Sri Lankans are traveling. Before the 1990s, the most that hoteliers could expect from local tourists was a day trip, so many beach hotels would put on a Sunday buffet lunch to cater to this market. No longer is this the case. As per the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, in 2016 foreigners accounted for 15.9m guest nights while domestic travelers accounted for 2.5m guest nights in both hotels and supplementary accommodation. While foreigners still outnumber domestic travelers, these statistics mask the extent of the overcrowding – because the local traffic is highly concentrated around long weekends, particularly in the school holidays.

High demand has to lead congestion. Many of the most picturesque locations have been defiled by construction and signage. Illegal, ugly, beer gardens of poor taste, restaurants and hotels dot every nook and corner; telecom towers and windmills sprout like mushrooms. This has destroyed Nuwara Eliya’s charm as a hill station and has now engulfed Ella and Haputale as well. The growth is visible, but it is an ugly, unhealthy growth like the toadstools that spring up overnight.

More serious is the damage to historic sites and nature reserves. The problem is partly the lack of building codes as well as the inability to enforce rules, such as encroachment into protected areas. The government and the industry must work together to ensure the preservation of the quality of the tourism product, preventing damage to heritage sites, nature reserves and areas of natural beauty through over development and over exploitation.

Fortunately, the Sri Lanka Tourism Strategic Plan 2017-2020 does acknowledge the issue, but the danger is that given the current slump, all efforts will be diverted to grow arrivals. This would be a mistake; it will be challenging to dissuade people from overbuilding when business is booming. During a slump, they may welcome support to downsize and agree to restrictions on new construction. Given the gravity of the problem, a separate task force should be assigned to work on these problems. The two areas of the plan that deal with these issues are:

  • Developing sustainable locations. (integrated geographic planning)
  • Lifting industry standards. (improve conservation, presentation, & management of natural & cultural assets) The worst affected are the sanctuaries and the hill country. The rest of this article will focus on the problems of the hill country as they are sometimes overlooked.

The Hill Country
The hill country is particularly sensitive for a few reasons.

Lack of buildable land due to steep slopes. Hillsides are far more visible than development on flat land and have a higher potential for visual scarring affecting views from the valley floor and surroundings. Slope stability, soil erosion, landslide potential.

Constructing on hillsides is constrained by their difficult terrain, steep gradients, complex geological structure, climatic conditions and abundant flora. Hill towns have been experiencing pressure for development (due to population growth and tourist influx), which has changed their environment and visual appearance. They have grown to many times their design and carrying capacity. Due to limited land and narrow streets, they are prone to traffic jams.

Overbuilding converts the lush green slopes into a sea of concrete and roofs (at the minimum, tree cover must be maintained, so views from opposing hills are not spoiled). The hill regions also experience heavy rain, which can cause landslides or the collapse of poorly constructed buildings. Barbecue’s or campfires may start wildfires.

THE BEAUTIFUL BUTTERFLY HAS TURNED INTO AN UGLY CATERPILLAR.

Ella is a classic case of overexploitation; the entire town is blighted with haphazard construction. A popular café actually encroaches on the pavement-it even encloses a street lamp inside the building! An ugly mountain of garbage sits a couple of kilometers outside the town. There is also an increase in the number of buildings of dubious legality within the Knuckles nature reserve, including a partly-constructed and abandoned building at Riverstone. Logging, mining and quarrying also take place close to some hill towns and reserves, these need to be strictly regulated so as not to damage the ecology or the view.

Broadly this could include a building code appropriate for the hill country and zoning regulations.

This will need to take into account the availability of water and facilities for waste disposal.

Encourage home-stay accommodation within existing buildings, but any extension or modification of structures must only take place within the building code.

The code must also cover billboards, telecom towers and other structures. Visitor management if possible. This needs to be considered carefully, but controlling the maximum number of visitors may be necessary for some sensitive areas. For example, the Galapagos, Machu Picchu and Barcelona restrict numbers. Venice and the Taj Mahal are reportedly considering the same. The rules of Machu Picchu which feature staggered timed starts (visitors being sent in batches) and strict time limits may be suitable for some of the ancient cities and sanctuaries like Horton Plains or the Knuckles.

Unauthorized construction should not take place. The difficulty is that the people who should enforce regulations (local government politicians) are either corrupt or involved in the abuse. The tourism authority should take the lead and try to win these groups over.

To understand the urgency one only needs to look at developments in India- Simla, Kasauli, Mussoorie, and Ranikhet suffer water shortages, endless traffic jams, toxic vehicular pollution, mounds of litter, unchecked development and ad hoc construction. As an Indian newspaper put it, a reverse metamorphosis is happening: the beautiful butterfly has turned into an ugly caterpillar.

Do we really want the same in our hill stations?.