Sri Lanka’s opportunity to leverage high-end tourism with reclaimed beaches

Tuesday, 6 February 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The recent proposals of the Megapolis Ministry to reclaim the sea around the Galle Face Green and to extend it southwards to Dehiwela, is a commendable idea. In addition, the expressway coming into the city centre with links to other expressways going north and south will be a realistic move. At the city end, the expressway linking the port, port city, and the underground access to the city hotels and the Marine Drive going south is appropriate as there would be a north-south link and would ease the traffic circulation. 

The reclamation of the sea takes time. In Rio De Janerio, Brazil, the Copacabana Beach and the adjoining beaches with improvements to the infrastructure has taken almost 60 years to complete and consequently totally transformed the area as a tourism hub in Rio. The urban designer has very cleverly integrated the commercial areas, hotels, and apartment buildings capturing the views of the ocean and the Copacabana and other beaches.

In Rio, the Copacabana Beach is 4 km in length and around 400 metres towards the sea and linked to other beaches. All these beaches are on land reclaimed from the sea. This massive land mass has collectively created a huge hub for tourism and related activities. These include marinas, restaurants, and recreation areas for cycling, roller skating, beach volley ball, walking and jogging, etc. In addition, areas for music and entertainment make the beach vibrant both day and night. The Annual Rio Carnival which is considered to be the pinnacle of the events in Rio and the pre Carnival Parades go pass the Copacabana Beach. All these activities have made Rio the Entertainment Capital of the World.

Therefore, Sri Lanka should also follow this concept and use the sea sand for reclamation, after studying the backdrop to reclaiming land from the sea. The reclamation would need to be preceded by a marine planning search exercise along the island’s coastal belt. It could then identify the coastal zones suitable for reclamation, rather than pre- determined boundaries in proximity to existing urban hubs. Its rationale will exclude harmful environmental and marine – based coastal hazards to dominate requiring reciprocative remedial measures at very high cost. In this connection, initially it would be necessary to find out the width and length of the beach needed to be formed; in comparison to similar tourist complexes elsewhere in the world. Its decision can then be surveyed along the Sri Lanka’s coastline to study naturally formed beaches that may be suitable to be declared. Its impact on the sand dunes and mangroves may need to be factored therein. 

The rationale for beaches to be formed by reclaiming the sea is found in many parts of the world for different purposes. Thus, in Singapore, more than 1/3rd the country is on reclaimed land and the land is used for tourism, entertainment, sports and recreation, parks and for cultural activities. Similar development has taken place in Hong Kong where the Disneyland and even the airport are on reclaimed land. In Macau, Japan, South Korea, Malta, Middle East, Maldives and even in Bangladesh reclamation has happened. Consequently, the existing infrastructure and land use within the city will remain, but, linked to the reclaimed area similar to the Port City in Colombo. This area will have to be carefully planned and designed to generate economic and social benefits to the country. Extending the reclamation from Colombo to Mount Lavinia will further enhance the economic potential of the country with tourism and other related activities happening on the reclaimed land. 

Nationally, the tourism belt between Beruwela and Galle could be reclaimed where appropriate to expand the tourism related activities. This has become important as the land alongside the beach is inadequate due to its close proximity to the railway lines and the Galle Road. Consequently, it has become a deterrent for large scale comprehensive tourism development. Two options are available: 

Firstly, to reclaim the sea to give bigger frontages for the hotel development and for other tourism activities. However, in Hikkaduwa, this may not be possible, due to the presence of corals, and in a few other locations. In addition, in view of Sri Lanka’s small island status and due to the fact that populations in coastal areas have generations of associations with beach fronts, (eg: fishing boats parking) it is best to secure the participation of these people during the early stage of project formulation. Otherwise, a conflict between the tourist facility and the community that now exists in Kalpitiya Tourist Zone, could dampen the ultimate vision of this exercise.

Secondly, to move the railway and road further to the east. It can be done, but, there may be some resistance from the villages. However, with generous compensation and alternative lands given to them they may agree to move. If so, greater benefits could be achieved as a larger land parcel could be released for extensive tourism development.

Sri Lanka should take a cue from other tourism developed Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and even Vietnam. In these countries, they have strategic regional plans for each region highlighting the strengths of each region and by providing the missing activities such as entertainment, shopping, restaurants, sports and recreation including highways, railways, airports and IT Infrastructure to be competitive not only with other regions, in the respective country, but, also, internationally. This is their success story. 

Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, we have not yet advanced to this stage to provide sustainable tourism. A good example is the tourism hotels in the eastern region. There are hotels, but, getting the tourists to travel to the hotels with the prevailing traffic congestion, is an issue, as it takes many hours to reach their hotel. Consequently, after you get there, besides the beach there is very little organised activity to keep them longer. Hence, the high end tourists avoid such locations and mostly the low end tourists and “backpackers” are seen at guest houses at these locations. For sustainable tourism in Sri Lanka, it should be as described above, and for other Asian countries.

In addition to the traditional attractions such as, the beaches, wildlife reserves, cultural sites, tourism should cater for different age groups and introduce a variety of other activities such as, sailing, water sports, fishing, horse racing, golf, adventure events like climbing, biking, hiking, for tourists to be occupied. 

Another area that Sri Lanka has not yet commercially exploited is Cruise Tourism. Cruise ships are getting larger in size and also the numbers of passengers are between 2500-3500. If Sri Lanka is to attract cruise ships, the Port of Colombo must be able to provide an exclusive area in the harbour for this activity, by providing more tangible docking and terminal facilities to accommodate larger ships.

The current experience in Sri Lanka has been around 50 passenger ships per year. These are mostly ships carrying between 500 to around 2000 passengers. The objective should be to double this number initially and promote larger ships with greater numbers of passengers to visit Sri Lanka. 

The concept in Singapore and Hong Kong is for cruise ships to use the ports as a hub, and Singapore handles over 1.5m cruise passengers per year. The tour operators and tourism in general, will get a huge boost if this concept is successful in Sri Lanka. There are other benefits that Sri Lanka could exploit by bringing in large numbers of high spending tourists, similar to other countries such as Europe, North America, Caribbean, and East Asia where it is a huge business, Sri Lanka could also compete if a tourism oriented infrastructure is provided, with duty free shopping and other commercial activities.

A growth of the locally available reservoir of knowledge, experience and enthusiasm to upscale tourism is the magnet to be harnessed. It provides the breakthrough that can facilitate the multiplicity of the allied policies to harmonise for achieving sustainable tourism and economic development. Therefore, the way forward is for the Ministries of Megapolis and Western Development, Tourism Development, and of Ports and Shipping to mobilise local expertise and prepare viable development plans for implementation on a Public Private Participation Model (PPP).

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