From left: Tourism Development, Land and Christian Affairs Ministry Secretary Janaka Sugathadasa and Minister John Amaratunga during a recent press briefing in Colombo
Pic by Kithsiri De Mel
Sri Lanka will require an extensive study on the country’s tourism carrying capacity, a top government official told Mirror Business recently, amid the ongoing government plans to attract higher volumes of tourists to the country.
“We will require a big study. Not only Beruwala but also Sigiriya is overcapacity and Yala is overcapacity,” Tourism Development, Land and Christian Affairs Ministry Secretary Janaka Sugathadasa said, when asked how the government will deal with Beruwala and southwestern areas overcrowded with tourists.
Reports of elephant attacks on tourists and safari jeeps running over animals in Yala have highlighted the dismal situation prevailing over the country’s most popular national park.
Although the private sector in the past had speculated that the country’s carrying capacity could range between 4.5 and seven million tourists, academics have warned that given the current level of development in Sri Lanka, the carrying capacity may have already been exceeded.
According to the World Tourism Organisation, the tourism carrying capacity of a country takes into account the number of tourists a country can accommodate without causing harm to its physical, economic and socio-cultural environment and also without reducing the quality of satisfaction of a visitor.
While the country’s main tourism zone ranging across the south and west coasts is now saturated with hotels—claiming over 70 percent of the country’s established hotels—innovations such as Airbnb have expanded the carrying capacity physically, while putting greater pressure on the socio-cultural environment.
Spreading tourism development into less popular areas could increase the country’s carrying capacity, although success would hinge on the ability of Sri Lanka to create and market new or existing minor tourism attractions more successfully.
Sugathadasa said that a study could result in a major change in Sri Lanka’s tourism policies.
“In the study, if we find that our carrying capacity is 1.5 million, then we will have to see how we can attract 1.5 million high-spending tourists,”
The government is hoping to attract around 4.5 million tourists by 2020 compared to 2.05 million the country attracted in 2016, although a slowdown in hotel construction recorded in the latest available figures of 2015 is pointing towards the private sector working with estimates which are somewhat lower.
Sri Lanka has to conduct a study and make its decision soon, since according to research, it is more difficult to convert a highly entrenched mass-tourism destination into a high-spending premium destination, compared to developing a destination from the ground-up as a premium destination.
Some industry experts have been advocating Sri Lanka to follow the example of Bhutan and limit the entrance of tourists to the country based on the expenditure they are guaranteed to make in the country, while others have pointed out the long-term adverse impacts to Sri Lanka’s national image if the youth and budget segments are alienated.
The effects of alienating certain tourist segments are fresh in the minds of Sri Lankans, since the hotels and restaurants in some popular tourist areas either refuse to or are reluctant to serve the locals.
The government has recently been seen taking nascent steps to promote sustainable practices—which could increase the carrying capacity for Sri Lanka—although a more firm commitment by the state is yet to be seen.