Sri Lanka’s potential for âeco- and science-based marine tourismâ is immense, but has not yet been fully exploited. To promote this unconventional tourism product, sustainable environmental practices are fundamental. We have spoken to several stakeholders who are expressing the collective effort and community involvement in making these best practices a reality.
*Lanka’s extremely diverse coastline, rich in natural resources, is now showing obvious signs of degradation and destruction.
*The pandemic made things worse by adding disposable face masks to the growing plastic threat
*The polluter pays principle, which is strictly applied in developed parts of the world, is grossly neglected here
*Sustainable environmental practices can have a very positive impact on the overall branding of the country
FROM RANDIMA ATTYGALLE
Face masks piled up on the beach and empty plastic bottles tangled in a coral reef do not fit into the idyllic picture that a tourist imagines of our island. We consider our 1,620 km long coast, which is rich in golden dunes, coconut trees and much more, a matter of course for millions of people. Lanka’s extremely diverse coastline, rich in natural resources, is now showing obvious signs of degradation and destruction.
Our coastal belt with its enormous tourist capacity is severely threatened by coastal pollution, unethical fishing practices and climate change, says the former head of the Institute of Oceanography at Ruhuna University and former director general of the Marine Environment Agency (MEPA), Prof. Terney Pradeep Kumara. âThe need for sustainable management of the coastal belt is urgent. While more than 11 million people live in coastal areas, nearly 62% of local industry is also located in this zone. If we are to attract high-end tourists whose revenue is important to the country, we must act now to manage our coastal resources. “
Sri Lanka’s potential for âeco- and science-based tourismâ is enormous, but not yet properly understood or exhausted, says Prof. Terney. He explains that sustainable environmental practices are fundamental to promoting this modern tourism product. âGiven our very diverse ecosystems and our exposure to the Indian Ocean, our marine heritage – both natural and archaeological – is very rich. Corals, for example, can not only determine past events such as volcanic eruptions, sea level rise, mass floods, etc., but also predict them. If we look at pollen, larvae, and cysts from different organisms, they can tell how ecologically we are connected through genetic makeup, animal migration, etc. Then we have several shipwrecks that are part of our marine heritage. They are of historical importance not only for us, but for the whole world and prove the trade relations, the technological development and the exchange of seafaring. To maintain all of this, coastal management is a must. “
The marine expert alludes to best practices in South Africa, Australia and the Maldives, where tourism goes beyond leisure and also turns it into a learning experience, thereby diversifying the tourism industry. “The reach of scientific ecotourism is wide and if we market our resources in this way and go beyond the region, we can also attract a sizable segment from Russia, Europe and Canada.”
High-level cross-sectoral collaborations are proposed by Prof. Terney in order to address the challenges for sustainable coastal management strategies. Technical staff with in-depth scientific knowledge and experience in the boards of directors responsible for tourism promotion at SLTDA and SLTPB, equipping hotels with experts who could empower tourists, reinforcing staff on site, compiling research-based data that is scattered across various authorities, regulating diving centers ( some of which support illegal activities such as spearfishing among tourists) and strengthening existing environmental and coastal protection laws and increasing the legal competence of tour guides and local communities are among his proposals.
The amount of plastic waste here at home is alarming, warns Prof. Terney. âA considerable amount of plastic waste is generated here and a large part of it ends up in the sea and threatens marine life. The pandemic made things worse by adding disposable face masks to the growing threat from plastic. âThe polluter pays principle, which is strictly applied by multinational corporations in developed parts of the world, is grossly neglected in our part of the world, the laments Scientist. âCompared to the size of their business, the amount these multinational companies spend on environmental clean-up in developing and underdeveloped countries is a little hungry,â says Prof. Terney. The lack of a system for collecting all waste, as in the case of Singapore, one of the best Asian models, makes the Lanker selfish and also lackluster to the environment, he continues.
Referring to the recent oil spill in our seas, the environmental damage of which does not yet have to be quantified, Prof. Terney calls for urgent changes to the applicable laws, some of which have “gray areas”. He also discusses modern standards and beach certification programs such as Blue flag (the world’s most recognized voluntary awards for beaches, marinas and sustainable boating operators) and other leading standards for sustainable marine tourism practices such as Green fins and Green key.
Most seasoned travelers look for countries and organizations that practice sustainability before choosing their travel destination. Therefore, the impact of sustainable environmental practices on high-end tourism cannot be undermined, says Jetwing Symphony PLC chairman and tourism ministry advisory committee chairman Hiran Cooray. “Sustainable environmental practices can have a very positive effect on the general branding of a country and unethical practices can obviously harm us,” says the hospitality manager, citing the example of Boracay in the Philippines, where the destination had to be closed for almost a year in order to get it to get cleaned up. “If our beaches and rivers are flooded with plastic waste and other pollutants, nobody comes near them and we are automatically out of business.”
The well-traveled hotelier explains that New Zealand is a good example of a travel destination that is branded â100% pureâ. “They speak the language by setting very high standards for environmental protection and human awareness.” Education is key to sustainable practice, notes Cooray, who goes on to say that there are no quick fixes, the only way is to believe in clean cities and villages and to work hard together to educate the masses.
Protecting tourism assets and engaging the community in conservation and revenue sharing are the two main lessons Sri Lanka can learn from other Asian counterparts such as the Maldives, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines – countries that make millions of dollars annually profit from marine tourism. points out the techdiver, underwater researcher and photographer Dharshana Jayawardena. Jayawardena questions the logic of promoting tourism in cases of illegal exploitation and, in certain areas of the country, accuses the use of illegal fishing nets, dynamite fishing and spear fishing is taking their toll and decimating the marine ecosystem. âFor example the wreckage and corals from World War II SS British sergeant are regularly destroyed by dynamite fishing, and in Unawatuna, dive operators are complaining that some dive centers are breaking the rules and practicing illegal spearfishing while showing divers the marine life, shocking the tourists who guide them. Both dynamite fishing and spear fishing is illegal in Sri Lanka, but it is still rampant. “
âOvertourism,â as the explorer explains, can also destroy tourist assets. âIn other countries, the number of tourists who can visit the national parks is limited daily to ensure that the marine ecosystem has a breathing space. Our Pigeon Island National Park, suffering from overcrowding and pollution, can benefit from such a model. “
In many Asian countries, most of the income generated by a tourism property goes directly to the community that surrounds the property. The people in the region are involved in the provision of services and generate a large part of the income from the parking fee, which benefits the community development in the region. âThis provides a strong incentive for the community to preserve and protect the tourist assets as it will benefit them the most. It is also conceivable that the tax revenues of the tourism companies in the region could be redirected, which are directly reinvested in order to offer the people in the region and the tourists a better quality of life, instead of the money disappearing forever in the state treasury, âsaid Jayawardena.
Rasika Muthucumarana, a marine archeologist from the Department of Marine Archeology at the Central Cultural Fund in Galle, says marine pollution is accelerating the destruction of wrecks and artifacts through chemical reactions. âThe internal waste flowing through rivers and canals ends up in the sea at high cost. Pollution also distracts marine life from wrecks. Shipwreck diving is a popular form of marine tourism and environmental hazards, mainly due to plastic pollution, can put off prospective tourists, âsays Muthucumarana. Marine pollution, which leads to unclean waters and poor visibility, could hit divers. âThere are also dangers from ‘ghost nets’ caught in wrecks and corals. Marine pollution also poses an increased health risk for divers, ânotes the marine archaeologist, who is calling for higher penalties and fines for those polluting the environment.