IN 2010, the boost for Sri Lanka tourism was being named the top travel destination by the New York Times. As the dawn of 2012 emerges the plus point is being among the top six of National Geographic’s best global destinations.
Upbeat on tourism, the Government is considering a target of 950,000 arrivals for 2012 and authorities are going full tilt to maximise on investment with the latest being a US$ 300 million dollar deal with Sheraton.
Ironically, this is on the same land as the controversial China Aero Import Export Corporation or CATIC as it is better known. Readers will remember that the Government ran into a quagmire on good governance and transparency issues after it initially agreed to outright sell the land to CATIC and then had to back pedal on political and public pressure. Moreover there was serious concern over the transparency of the CATIC deal with the Government being unable to present a coherent case on the contracts signed and the exchange of money.
Latest reports indicate that the Economic Development Ministry is readying to put nearly a dozen more luxury hotel projects to invest in many areas across the country. Approval has been granted for 11 more five-star hotels within Colombo City according to Economic Affairs Minister Basil Rajapaksa and among the locations selected for the hotels are those close to the Regal Theatre in Fort and in Colpetty, while the Cargills building will be turned into a hotel cum shopping mall.
In addition, approval has already been granted for two five-star hotels in Gampaha, one in Negombo, four in Beruwala, two in Jaffna, seven each in Batticaloa and Trincomalee, and one in Nuwara Eliya. It is also hoped to create a tourist zone linking Katunayake, Gampaha and Negombo.
Furthermore the Ministry is also encouraging more hotel projects in other parts of the country which would help attract tourists as well as create employment opportunities. Meanwhile, the Urban Development Authority has already received applications from two of the biggest companies in the hotel sector to put up 15 hotels in various parts of the country.
This is positive news for the industry but the Government must ensure that the CATIC situation does not reappear by putting the large scale investments before Parliament to ensure transparency. There must also be a clear account of where the funds from these ventures are going within the State mechanism so that the benefits are inclusive to reach vulnerable groups of society.
Tourism developers must also ensure that these projects are carried out in a sustainable manner. This means that environment and cultural considerations should get top priority. The Government’s fear that if investment is not grabbed it will vanish to other countries should not disregard the damage that excessive tourism development can bring to Sri Lanka.
The cultural aspects of tourism development in conservative parts of the island need to be considered along with growing concerns over the rise in child abuse as tourist numbers grow. Law enforcement authorities, the Government and the tourism sector need to work together to counterbalance social fallouts from rapid industry growth or the investment will come at too high a cost.