Overdevelopment could destroy tourist industry | Daily News


Overdevelopment could destroy tourist industry

Overbuilding converts the lush green slopes into a sea of concrete and roofs (at the minimum, tree cover must be maintained so views from opposing hills are not spoiled). The hill regions also experience heavy rain which can cause landslides or the collapse of badly constructed buildings. Barbecue’s or campfires may start wildfires.

Once upon a time going on holiday upcountry used to be an exotic event, mostly the preserve of the upper classes. Visiting Nuwara Eliya, especially during the hot, dry month of April was the ‘done thing’. Now more people travel, but would ruin the beauty of the hill country?

The hill country is particularly sensitive for a number of reasons:

1. Lack of buildable land due to steep slopes.

2. Hillsides are far more visible than development on flat land and have a higher potential for visual scarring affecting views from valley floor and surroundings.

3. Slope stability, soil erosion, landslide potential

Construction of buildings in hilly terrain is constrained by their difficult terrain, steep gradients, complex geological structure, climatic conditions and rich flora. Hill towns have been experiencing pressure for development (due to population growth and tourist influx), which has changed the environment and visual appearance of hill towns. They have grown many times more than their design and carrying capacity. Due to limited land and narrow streets they are prone to traffic jams.

Overbuilding converts the lush green slopes into a sea of concrete and roofs (at the minimum, tree cover must be maintained so views from opposing hills are not spoiled). The hill regions also experience heavy rain which can cause landslides or the collapse of badly constructed buildings. Barbecue’s or campfires may start wildfires.

High levels of demand have lead to congestion and overbuilding which have destroyed much of the charm of hill stations, such as Nuwara Eliya, a disease that has now engulfed Ella and Haputale as well. More serious is the damage to historic sites and nature reserves.

Ella, a tiny town presents one of the starkest cases of over exploitation; the entire town is blighted with haphazard construction. A popular café actually encroaches on the pavement-it even encloses a street lamp inside the building. An ugly mountain of garbage sits a couple of kilometres outside the town.

Lack of building codes

There is also an increase in the number of buildings of dubious legality within the Knuckles nature reserve including a half built abandoned building at Riverstone. Logging, mining and quarrying also take place close to some hill towns and reserves, these need to be strictly regulated so as not to damage the ecology or the view.

The problem is partly due to a lack of building codes as well as the inability to enforce rules, such as encroachment into protected areas.

It is imperative that a proper building code be developed to control construction.

Broadly this includes:

1. A special code appropriate for the hill country must be drawn up and zoning regulations put in place. This will need to take into account:

a. Availability of water

b. Facilities for waste disposal

2. Encourage homestay accommodation within existing buildings but any extension or modification of structures must only take place within the building code.

3. Visitor management if possible. This needs to be considered carefully, but controlling the maximum number of visitors may be necessary in some sensitive areas. For example, the Galapagos, Machu Picchu and Barcelona restrict numbers. Venice and the Taj Mahal are reportedly considering the same.

Unauthorised construction should not take place. The difficulty is that the people who should enforce regulations (local government politicians) are either corrupt or involved in the abuse. The tourism authority should take the lead and try to win these groups over.

To understand the urgency one only needs to look at developments in India-Simla, Kasauli, Mussoorie, and Ranikhet suffer water shortages, endless traffic jams, toxic vehicular pollution, mounds of litter, unchecked development and ad hoc construction. As an Indian newspaper put it, a reverse metamorphosis is happening: the beautiful butterfly has turned into an ugly caterpillar.

While the hill country is particularly sensitive even other areas are coming under strain due to the massive growth in visitors over the last decade.

Development of Tourism Industry

The first attempt to develop a tourist industry took place in 1966 with the formation of the Tourist Board. Visitor numbers grew steadily from 1966 until 1982 when arrivals peaked at 407,230. The violence of 1983 then lead to five years of decline which bottomed out in 1988 when arrivals hit a low of 182,662.

The end of the JVP insurgency in 1989 lead to a recovery, but numbers ebbed and flowed with the passage of the war and rarely exceeded 400,000 until 2003 when fresh hopes of an end to conflict caused arrivals to swell to 500,642.

After a few years growth, the resumption of the conflict in 2006 saw further declines until the end of the war in 2009. For a quarter of a century the tourist market remained stagnant with visitor numbers never exceeding half a million.

There was little need to expand the infrastructure but all this changed very rapidly after the end of the war.

Arrivals grew from 447,890 in 2009 to reach 2.3m by 2018. In the meantime, another socio-economic shift has taken place; as wealth has increased many more Sri Lankan’s are taking holidays.

Until the 1990’s the tourist hotels catered to foreigners mostly on package tours; Sri Lankan’s did not use hotels but usually stayed with friends and family or in bungalows.

Before the 1990’s, the most that hoteliers could expect from local tourists was a day trip, so many beach hotels would put on a Sunday buffet lunch to cater to this market.

Since then two significant changes have taken place; the growth of the independent travellers – and the growth in local tourism. As per the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, in 2016 foreigners accounted for 15.9m guest nights while domestic travellers accounted for 2.5m guest nights in both hotels and supplementary accommodation. While foreigners still outnumber domestic travellers these statistics mask the extent of the overcrowding – because the domestic traffic is highly concentrated around long weekends, particularly in the school holidays.

The terror attacks of April 2019 followed by anti-Muslim riots have slowed arrivals again but the slow-down also presents an opportunity to fix a fundamental problem-overdevelopment.

The government and the industry must work together to ensure preservation of the quality of the tourism product,preventing damage to heritage sites, nature reserves, areas of natural beauty through over development and overexploitation.

Fortunately the Sri Lanka Tourism Strategic Plan 2017-2020 does acknowledge the issue but the danger is that given the current slump all efforts will be diverted to increasing visitor numbers.

This would be a mistake it will be very difficult to dissuade people from overbuilding when business is booming. During a slump they may welcome support to downsize and agree to restrictions on new construction.

Given the gravity of the problem, a separate task force should be assigned to work on these problems. The two areas of the plan that deal with these issues are:

1. Developing sustainable locations.( integrated geographic planning)

2. Lifting industry standards. (improve conservation, presentation and management of natural and cultural assets)

In the absence of proper regulation the growth of the industry can threaten the very beauty and tranquility that visitors seek.

The writer is an independent consultant

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