Sri Lanka’s potential for “ecological and scientific marine tourism”, while immense, has still not been properly harnessed. To promote this unconventional tourism product, sustainable environmental practices are fundamental. We spoke to several stakeholders who questioned collaborative efforts and community involvement to make these best practices a reality.

*Lankan’s highly diverse and resource-rich coastline is now showing clear signs of degradation and destruction.

*Pandemic has made matters worse by adding disposable masks to growing plastic threat

*The “polluter pays” principle which is strictly applied in developed regions of the world is grossly neglected here

*Sustainable environmental practices can have a very positive impact on the country’s overall brand image

BY RANDIMA ATTYGALLE

The masks piled up on the beach and empty plastic bottles entangled in a coral reef do not fit into the idyllic image a tourist will have of our island. We take for granted our 1,620 km coastline, teeming with golden dunes, coconut groves and many other livelihoods for millions of people. Lankan’s highly diverse and resource-rich coastline is now showing clear signs of degradation and destruction.

Our coastal belt, with its enormous tourist capacity, is widely threatened by coastal pollution, unethical fishing practices and climate change, said the former head of the Department of Oceanography at the University of Ruhuna and former Director General of the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA), Prof. Terney Pradeep Kumara. “The need for sustainable management of the coastal belt is urgent. While more than 11 million people live in the coastal districts, nearly 62% of local industries are also located in this area. If we are to attract high-end tourists whose income matters to the country, we must act now in the management of our coastal resources. “

Sri Lanka’s potential for “ecological and scientific tourism”, while enormous, has still not been properly understood or harnessed, says Professor Terney. He explains that sustainable environmental practices are fundamental to promote this modern tourism product. “Given our very diverse ecosystems and our orientation in the Indian Ocean, our marine heritage, both natural and archaeological, is very rich. Corals, for example, may not only determine past events such as volcanic eruptions, sea level rise, massive flooding, etc., but they can also predict the same. If we look at the pollen, larvae, and cysts of different organisms, they can tell how ecologically connected we are through genetic material, animal migration, etc. Then we have several wrecks that are part of our marine heritage. They are historically important not only to us but to the whole world, showing evidence of trade relations and technological development and trade in maritime tariffs. To sustain all of this, coastal management is a must.

The ocean expert alludes to best practices in South Africa, Australia and the Maldives where tourism goes beyond recreation and also makes it a learning experience and thus diversifies the tourism industry. “The scope of scientific ecotourism is vast and if we market our resources in this direction, beyond the region, we can also attract a significant segment from Russia, Europe and Canada. “

High-level multisectoral collaborations are proposed by Professor Terney to meet the challenges of sustainable coastal management strategies. Have technical staff with solid scientific knowledge and experience on the boards of SLTDA and SLTPB which are responsible for promoting tourism, equip hotels with professionals capable of empowering tourists, strengthen the workforce on the ground, collect research data scattered among various dive centers (some of which support illegal activities such as spear fishing among tourists), give more bite to existing protection laws of the environment and the coasts and to increase the legal knowledge of tourist guides and local communities are part of its proposals.

The production of plastic waste here is alarming, warns Professor Terney. “A considerable amount of plastic waste is generated here and a good majority of it ends up in the sea, threatening marine life. The pandemic has made matters worse by adding disposable masks to the growing plastic threat. The principle of the “polluter pays” which is strictly applied in the developed regions of the world by multinationals is grossly neglected in our part of the world, accuses the researcher. “Compared to their commercial size, the amount these multinationals spend to restore the environment in developing and underdeveloped countries is paltry,” observes Professor Terney. The lack of a collection system for all waste like in the case of Singapore, one of the best Asian models, makes Lankans selfish and also dull towards the environment, he continues.

Citing the recent disaster of the oil spill in our seas, the environmental damage of which has not yet been quantified, Professor Terney calls for urgent changes to current laws, some of which contain “gray areas”. It also talks about modern standards and beach certification programs such as Blue flag (the world’s most recognized voluntary awards for beaches, marinas and sustainable nautical tourism operators) and other leading standards for sustainable marine tourism practices such as Green palms and Green key.

Most seasoned travelers look for countries and organizations that practice sustainable development before choosing their destination and, therefore, the impact of sustainable environmental practices on upscale tourism cannot be compromised, said the president of Jetwing Symphony PLC and the Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Ministry of Tourism, Hiran Cooray. “Sustainable environmental practices can have a very positive impact on the overall brand image of a country and unethical practices can obviously harm us,” says the hotel manager, citing the example of Boracay. in the Philippines where the destination had to be closed for almost a year to get it. cleaned up. “If our beaches and rivers are inundated with plastic waste and other pollutants, no one will come near them and automatically we will be bankrupt. “

The well-traveled hotelier explains that New Zealand is a great example of a destination labeled as “100% pure”. “They are leading the way by setting very high standards for protecting the environment and educating people. Education is the key to sustainable practices, notes Cooray who goes on to note that there are no quick fixes but the only way is to believe in clean towns and villages and work hard collectively to educate. the masses.

Protecting tourism assets and involving the community in conservation and income sharing are the two most important lessons Sri Lanka can learn from other Asian counterparts such as the Maldives, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines – countries that generate millions of dollars a year from marine tourism, says technician, underwater explorer and photographer Dharshana Jayawardena. Questioning the logic of promoting tourism while it is exploited illegally, Jayawardena accuses in certain regions of the country the use of illegal fishing nets, dynamite fishing and underwater fishing decimating the marine ecosystem. “For example, the wreckage and corals of WWII British SS sergeant are regularly destroyed by dynamite fishing and Unawatuna, dive operators complain that while they show the marine life to divers, a few dive centers are breaking the rules and engaging in illegal underwater fishing, shocking the tourists they guide. Dynamite fishing and spearfishing are illegal in Sri Lanka, but still occur endemically. “

“Surtourism”, as the explorer explains, can also destroy tourist assets. “In other countries, there is a daily limit to the number of tourists who can visit national parks, thus ensuring a respite for the marine ecosystem. Pigeon Island National Park, which suffers from overcrowding and pollution, can benefit from a model like this.

In many Asian countries, most of the income generated by a tourism asset goes directly to the surrounding community. The people of the area are involved in the provision of services and derive the majority of the income from the park fees which are spent on community development in the area. “This is a strong incentive for the community to conserve and protect tourism assets, because they benefit the most. We can also think of a reorientation of tax revenues from tourist companies in the region which are directly reinvested to offer a better quality of life to the inhabitants of the region and to tourists, instead of the money disappearing forever in the treasury ” , argues Jayawardena. .

Rasika Muthucumarana, maritime archaeologist in the Maritime Archeology Unit of the Galle Central Cultural Fund, says marine pollution accelerates the deterioration of wrecks and artefacts resulting from chemical reactions. “The inland waste that drains into rivers and canals ends up in the ocean at enormous cost. Pollution also distracts marine life from wrecks. Wreck diving is a popular form of marine tourism and the environmental risks, largely due to plastic pollution, can deter potential tourists, ”says Muthucumarana. Marine pollution resulting in unclean waters and reduced visibility could affect divers. “There are also dangers posed by ‘ghost nets’ entangled in wrecks and corals. Marine pollution also exposes divers to increased health risks, ”notes the maritime archaeologist who calls for penalties and higher fines for polluters.