A pier under fire

The serene beaches of Trincomalee will be a major attraction once tourism returns to the East after decades of war. Anticipation of better times ahead is already high but will short-sighted development get in the way, asks Malaka Rodrigo

The heavy machines were at work on the Nilaveli beach in the name of infrastructure development. Their aim? To construct a permanent rock/concrete pier to facilitate visits to Pigeon Island- just about a kilometre from the shore.

But is there a need for such a pier, asks Travice Ondaatjie who has been associated with tourism in Trincomalee since 1974. The sea at Nilaveli is so shallow and calm, a visitor to Pigeon Island just needs to hop into a boat and go. The pier would be an eye-sore that will not add real value to tourism, he says.
Work in progress on the beach

If a pier is required it would serve a better purpose on Pigeon Island where it would help protect the delicate corals around the island as boats could anchor in deeper water and drop off visitors at the pier without having them stepping on coral or the boats having to travel over the coral beds, he points out.
For most, a visit to Pigeon Island is simply seen as a fun getaway. But this is one of the important coral reefs in Sri Lanka and one of three marine parks in the country (the others are Hikkaduwa and Kalpitiya). It is also a marine sanctuary that escaped the coral bleaching due to a warm sea current a decade ago.

“The coral bleaching destroyed the corals in the south, west and south eastern coasts reducing the live coral percentage to 10% in most of these places. However, Pigeon Island escaped this disaster,” said marine biologist Prasanna Weerakkodi.

Many believe that building the pier will increase the number of visitors to Pigeon Island. The damage due to heavy visitation was seen during the 2002 peace accord. “Sometimes there were up to 20 boats beached at Pigeon Island. When there was physically no space to park anymore, boats would wait out at sea till one departed,” Travice recalled. Some ignorant locals also would pluck out live corals, causing irreparable damage.

“Even though we need development in East and should take multiple tourism initiatives to promote it, we will not give way to ad hoc development like in Hikkaduwa,” assured Deputy Minister of Tourism Faiz Mustapha, during a visit to Trincomalee last week. Constructive planned development is what is required to make the East ready for the promise of tourism, he said.

Tourism Ministry Secretary George Michael assured that the Ministry would not encourage any development that damages tourism potential in the East. He said that the initial plan was to build the pier on the island, but the Provincial Council that had begun the construction had messed it up. The Ministry has already sent a team to investigate this matter, he added.

Any development on the beach needs a permit from the Coast Conservation Department but when contacted by The Sunday Times, an official from the CCD said nobody had asked for permission for the building of a pier at Nilaveli, hence it is illegal.

The Department of WildLife Conservation (DWC) meanwhile has plans to have a visitor centre at Pigeon Island and have each group accompanied by a guide. These developments will take time, so some interim measures are required to control visitor numbers that are already increasing.

“We monitored what happened due to the influx of visitors during the peace accord. That is one of the reasons to upgrade Pigeon Island from a sanctuary to a Marine Park status that gives higher legal authority to execute protective measures,” said Assistant Director of the DWC H.D.Rathnayake.

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