Kussi Amma Sera, Serapina and Mabel Rasthiyadu were at the gate on this bright and sunny Thursday morning watching the tradesmen pass by including the ‘Choon Paan Karaya’ with his noisy and ubiquitous melody. As they chatted, a three or four-year-old girl happily prancing on the road accompanied by her mother caught their attention. The [...]

Business Times

Tourism: Quality versus quantity


Kussi Amma Sera, Serapina and Mabel Rasthiyadu were at the gate on this bright and sunny Thursday morning watching the tradesmen pass by including the ‘Choon Paan Karaya’ with his noisy and ubiquitous melody.

As they chatted, a three or four-year-old girl happily prancing on the road accompanied by her mother caught their attention. The child was happy and care-free, thoroughly enjoying herself.

“Balanna ae daruva, kochchara sathutenda inne kiyala (Look at that child, how happy she is),” pointed out Kussi Amma Sera.

“Jathiye anagathaya saha deshapalanaya gena kanassallata pathvela inna loku kattiya vage neve (Not like us adults who are worried about the future and the politics of the nation),” said Serapina.

“Ae lamaya santhosen innava, karadarayak nethuwa (She is care-free),” opined Mabel Rasthiyadu.

I was momentarily distracted watching the trio at the gate while in conversation with Kalabala Silva, the often agitated academic, who had called early morning.

We were discussing a key issue raised at the recent ‘Future of Tourism’ summit organised by Cinnamon Hotels and Resorts in Colombo and a point raised by popular CNN business journalist Richard Quest. Both of us had attended the event.

This is the case in tourism – over-visitation of a destination which Richard pointed out can break a destination’s popularity and affect its sustainability. “Look, for example, if you visit Times Square in New York you see nothing but crowds. Who wants to see crowds?” he asked.

Over-visitation or over-crowding of a destination happens when issues arise between locals and visitors at tourism destinations due to congestion or overcrowding.

“Will this be a problem for Sri Lanka?” asked Kalabala. “I don’t think so,” I said.

“But look at our wildlife parks…….Yala for example, where dozens of jeeps are crowding the park and not making it a pleasurable experience,” he argued.

“On that point you’re right. We are not managing this resource properly. Similar attention should be made to the rock fortress – Sigiriya. On the other hand, Wilpattu is not crowded and there are other sites that can also draw visitors to balance the equation,” I said.

Sri Lanka, like it or not, is looking at increasing numbers, going from a 2-million-visitor destination to one of 5 million in the next few years.

There is a huge debate in the industry as to whether we should opt for quality tourism (high-spending and high-yielding tourists) against large, low-spending numbers.

What should also be taken into consideration is the need to ensure that local food production is enough to feed two or four million more mouths annually or whether food needs to be imported. If our food production is enough for Sri Lanka’s 21 million, then more food needs to be locally produced to meet tourist numbers.

An uneasy situation would arise in terms of demand and supply if the same amount of food is used to feed an additional two to five million people.

Invariably local communities will suffer as hotels and resorts will pay higher prices and local produce becomes costlier to local communities.

Increasing food production in this context is a vital requirement in the tourism plan to cater to four million or more tourists.

Both arguments – high-spending versus low-yielding tourists – are valid but if you consider the numbers that bigger destinations attract and also the way they manage their facilities so that there are no conflicts with local communities, then Sri Lanka also has scope to attract more tourists as against the current 2-2.4 million arrivals.

Consider these statistics. The top five tourist generating destinations and their populations according to the latest available statistics are: France 89 million visitors (population: 65 million); Spain 83 million visitors (46.7 million); United States of America 80 million visitors (330 million); China 63 million visitors (1.4 billion); Italy 62 million visitors (60.5 million) and Mexico 41 million visitors (128 million).

Closer home in Asia, these are the numbers: Malaysia 25.8 million visitors (population 31.6 million); Thailand 38.2 million visitors (69 million); Vietnam 15.5 million visitors (95.5 million); Indonesia 15.8 million visitors (264 million) and the Maldives 1.4 million visitors (436,330).

These statistics have both ends of the stick: Destinations that attract more visitors than their populations and others that attract less than the local population.

Many issues surround over-crowding in the modern sense. Water use, plastics use, fuel used in a resort or while travelling; air and land transport, the overall carbon footprint and many other issues. At a tourism discussion in the Maldives once, one suggestion was whether there should be a points scheme to be given to visitors who take back their waste – plastics or minimise their water use and leave a more accommodating footprint during a visit, among other sustainable initiatives. Such points can secure credit card offers, discounted holidays or even discounted airfares among other benefits for leaving a manageable footprint.

At the Cinnamon Summit, while it discussed the future of tourism, there was no serious discussion on how to manage a destination that is seeking quantity or large numbers of tourists. This is an issue that needs to be addressed or Sri Lanka will face a situation where its popular sites like Yala and Minneriya National Parks and cultural sites such as Sigiriya become acutely overcrowded to the point that visits to these sites would leave unpleasant, rather than pleasant memories.

How does a country manage its tourism potential? This is a discussion that (if not already held in international fora) should be held quickly. In the present situation, it’s a “blind leading the blind” scenario in tourism: We are simply following the practice of destinations with large numbers for economic growth and creating opportunities for business and employment without a clue as to how to manage large numbers and spread around the numbers to visit other, untapped areas and sites in the country.

Whew! The conversation with Kalabala was taxing to the point that at its end I was looking forward to my second cup of tea. And hey presto… like reading my mind, Kussi Amma Sera – having finished her regular chat with her friends – was near my computer with a second, good strong cuppa.

Thanking her and as I imbibed the aroma and took the first sip, my thoughts rested on whether “Colombites (gossipy Colombo residents)” are interested in a crucial tourism discussion or on the political rhetoric in the run-up to the November 16 Presidential Election. Your guess is as good as mine!

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