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Discussion held on coastal and marine tourism development

Aug 8, 2013 2:30:06 PM - www.ft.lk

On Thursday, 25 July, the Sri Lanka Business and Biodiversity Platform with the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce presented a forum for the exploration of the risks and opportunities associated with the rise of marine and coastal tourism in Sri Lanka.
Arjan Rajasuriya, IUCN Coordinator of the Marine and Costal Thematic Areas, opened with a presentation on Sri Lanka’s dependency on marine and coastal resources, as well as the risks of such dependency and the opportunities provided by marine resources for tourism development.
Rajasuriya posited that preserving the biodiversity of the beaches, lagoons, reefs, mangroves and other marine attractions is critical to maintaining the overall attraction of such sites for tourists. For example, the coral reefs are extremely rich in biodiversity and provide support for about twenty-five per cent of all marine life. These in turn provide economic opportunities such as recreational activities, restaurants and hotels, and the fisheries sector, feeding the tourists and providing daily livelihood for locals.
However, human activities such as targeted fishing and over-fishing often support neither biodiversity nor tourism. Manta rays and sharks are such species that can attract tourists in droves but are not being utilised and maintained in balance.
Rajasuriya cited the case of the Maldives, a close neighbour to Sri Lanka, excelling in tourism, where the manta rays and grey reef sharks are closely guarded. The Maldives has found that some of its biodiversity is proving far more valuable as a tourist attraction than as a product of the fisheries sector. For comparison, one reef shark in the Maldives provides approximately US$ 3,300 per year in tourism but would sell at the market for only about US$32.
In order to attain a balance between the use and conservation of its biodiversity for the expansion of tourism and the economy at large, Sri Lanka must address the risks of human activities and development. From destructive fishing practices, which damage corals and inadvertently lead to the death of protected species, to overcrowding and poor waste management, the marine and coastal areas are becoming more and more unappealing to visitors.
The presentation again compared images of Sri Lankan beaches littered with garbage alongside the pristine condition of the beaches in the Maldives. Rajasuriya does, however, point out that many opportunities accompany these risks. Sri Lanka has already established four Marine Protected Areas and three Fisheries Management Areas which has set a standard for conservation and continues to attract tourists and provide livelihoods through fishing activities. These include Pigeon Island Marine National Park off of Trincomalee, Hikkaduwa Marine National Park and the South Coast Fisheries Management Area of the Galle, Matara and Hambantota districts.
A follow-up presentation was then given by Srilal Miththapala, Project Director of the Greening Sri Lanka Hotels Project of CCC Solutions, on how the tourism industry can “face-up” to the challenges of sustainable development. According to Miththapala, Sri Lankan Tourism has set its sights on increasing the number of annual visitors from 875,000 in 2011 to 2.5 million in 2016.
In order to house these visitors, there are also plans to increase hotel capacity around the island with the addition 12,600 rooms on the coastline alone. Miththapala discusses the challenge of achieving these goals in a sustainable manner as the balancing of a reciprocal triad of conservation, business and local involvement; each element affecting all other elements bi-directionally. With increasing competition between local groups and developers for the wealth of resources provided by coastal and marine areas, it is important that the tourism industry develop responsibly.
Through a series of images, Miththapala illustrated how the frontage and coastlines of responsibly developed hotels compare with that of unregistered and unregulated areas. The amount of trash and erosion were starkly contrasted. Where the beaches are clean and intact, the tourists continue to visit. Where boating and recreational activities are offered with proper equipment and training, the biodiversity continues to thrive.
In the unregulated areas, however, migratory whales are disturbed by overcrowding of boats and corals are trampled by unaware visitors. While some argue for tighter regulations and better planning on the Government’s part, Miththapala argued that it is the responsibility of the industry to practice better implementation and self-regulation with the understanding that protection of the marine and coastal environments is critical to its survival.
A vibrant and lively question and answer session followed the presentations and included audience members from several hotel chains and related tourism-centric businesses. As the discussion turned toward the lack of oversight, public engagement and discourse, audience member Prasanna Jayewardene remarked that this very meeting was a good first step for many. The Sri Lanka Business and Biodiversity Platform aims to build on this first discussion to pursue the idea of involving those who benefit from these resources in the conservation and sustainable management thereof.