AS Sri Lanka celebrated World Tourism Day yesterday, it seems an opportune time to discuss the positives as well as the challenges facing Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan Government on Tuesday unveiled ambitious plans to provide employment in the tourism industry to one in seven people on the back of a 50 per cent earnings increase for 2011.
Economic Development Deputy Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardana told media during the official event organised to celebrate World Tourism Day that the Government was confident of keeping tourism on a growth trajectory for the next decade.
Following the end of a three-decade war in 2009, Sri Lanka has seen a boom in tourism. For the first half of the year, Sri Lanka attracted its highest-ever number of 537,787 visitors and hopes to top 750,000 before the end of 2011. A target of 2.5 million has been set for 2016.
The Government further extended this to four million tourists by 2020 on strong growth prospects. Latest data from the Central Bank shows earnings from tourism grew at a healthy rate of 50 per cent to US$ 451 million during the first seven months of 2011.
However, industry experts have more modest targets and point out that based on the current growth rates, 20% of the 21 million population can find jobs within the tourism trade by 2020. If the country hits the 2016 target, employment would climb to 350,000 employees.
This is, however, still good news since it gives the chance for low income groups to directly profit from tourism; youth in particular stand to gain much with the Government launching a special programme to draw 1,000 into the industry within the next year.
The downside is that Sri Lanka’s earnings are still lower than what would be best for the country. Of course this gives the chance to be a value destination but there must be more concentration on tapping into upmarket tourists.
Coordination between relevant organisations and institutions are still at a low level – a point that was made reality when the Government suddenly decided to cancel the Visa on Arrival facility for 84 countries. Despite this being partially sorted out with the launch of an online visa system early next year, more communication is a must to increase value and protect the country from the adverse effects of tourism.
Environmental pollution, deforestation, poaching, victimisation of animals and vulnerability of children as well as changes in the overall culture are just a few in the long list of detrimental effects that tourism can have. The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) has warned that unless Police and other tourism officials pay attention to the rising tide of abuse, the children of Sri Lanka are at stake. Sadly, at present no action has been taken by authorities to stem this scourge.
According to latest surveys, Sri Lanka has the fourth highest level of deforestation in the world. At the moment 254 acres on the buffer zone of the Wilpattu National Park are being destroyed with no deterrent from officials. Some of the most precious land of biodiversity is being cleared for tourism projects. Corruption and politicisation has crept into many tourism-related transactions with Sri Lanka being the loser as future generations lose access to some of the best land in the country.
Strip clubs and nude beaches are some of the ideas being tossed around by investors and corrupt politicians, which could have strong social repercussions. ‘Skin tourism’ as it is called needn’t be part of Sri Lanka. Yet, heady-with-greed politicians are considering these options now. Moves to open Sri Lanka’s precious national parks also means that animals are being robbed of their precious habitat and becoming more vulnerable to poachers and stress from loads of tourists.
Sri Lanka needs to take steps to make sure that tourism does not become a curse for the nation.