Sri Lankan Tourism Industry at its Crossroad

The country name “Sri Lanka” rings a bell to most Hong Kong people. Yet, notwithstanding a vague and general correlation to its neighbor India, we may know little about this island country that went through quite some pain in history. The Sri Lankan Civil War ended in 2009 with the government reestablishing control over the entire island. Before that, the country wasted 25 years on internal unrest, putting the development of tourism completely on halt.

Old town area in Galle with worn-out buildings, seldom visited by tourists.

Old town area in Galle with worn-out buildings, seldom visited by tourists.

The fight over land

Just like any countries survived a war, when the war was approaching its end, tourism industry on this war-torn island immediately caught the attention of foreign investors. The potential for wealth-making is revealed in the abundance of breathtaking beaches which are transformable into luxurious resorts. War may once be the most devastating pain, but it now becomes iconic images on postcards from Sri Lanka to every part of the world.

The fight over land in Sri Lanka had begun even before the war was completely over. Weeks before the government announced its final victory, land agents had already received phone calls from all over the world, asking for the price tagged to every piece of land. These pieces of land are embedded with certain development potential into hotel resorts, and were designated to be out of bound during the war era.

The development of tourism projects is undoubtedly a lucrative business in Sri Lanka, thanks to the authority’s encouragement. One has to obtain approval from the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, with the step-by-step guideline easily accessible online. The Authority also keeps an updated “investors’ opportunities” catalogue online, with analysis on every city, from what has been constructed so far, to lists of facilities that the Authority desires to start a partnership to develop on.

They are now gradually transforming into holiday resorts. The 5-star Cinnamon Grand Hotel is situated in the heart of the Sri Lankan commercial capital, Colombo, but it costs only US$180 (breakfast included). Its degree of luxury overshadows 5-star hotels in neighboring countries, but the price is just four-fifth of the latter. It was one among the most profitable first batch of development projects. The developers were able to purchase land of 100 acres with only US$10 million. As time went by, the price level of land also skyrocketed.

It is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

During the two-and-a-half-decade-long civil war, Sri Lanka was continuously a destination for curious travelers, despite the lack of ancillary services and facilities. There were only three operating airlines with flights to Colombo, one of which was the local airline, i.e. SriLankan Airlines. Around 500,000 tourists paid visits to the island every year. The attractiveness of this “Asia’s compact, diverse and authentic island” immediately absorbed a 50% increase in tourist arrivals in 2010, only one year after the end of a devastating war.

The splendid development of tourism in Sri Lanka is still visible even up to this moment, although eight years have already passed since the end of the civil war. From the statistics compiled and made publicly available by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, we get a picture of the impressive bloom in Sri Lankan tourism. The tourist arrivals in January 2016 was 194,280, but that in January 2017 has already risen to 219,360, recording another 13% increase. From January 2015 to January 2016, the percentage increase was even an amazing double, i.e. 25%.

Clearly, the report card of Sri Lankan tourism in the past 7 years have been more than impressive, but there are also worries implied in the flourishing numbers. How could Sri Lanka prevent itself from turning into a duplication of the Thai beaches and spa resorts, which despite being luxurious, are monotonic?

The Tale of Galle

Galle is a walled city only 67 km away from Colombo, established by the Portuguese. The first boutique hotel in Sri Lanka, the Dutch House, which was just as its name reveals, refurbished from an antique and quaint house built in the colonial era, located in Galle.

The city was once pushed to the edge of non-existence by the tsunami which destroyed thousands of Sri Lankans’ homes in 2004. Not only were the lives of Sri Lankan threatened, the fact that the tsunami happened during Christmas season meant that the lives of tremendous amount of tourists were also at stake.

A public fundraising campaign named “Adopt Sri Lanka” then assisted in the renovation of 125 traditional guesthouses. Under the advocacy of both locals and expatriates, Galle Literary Festival has become one of the best around the world, and attracts highly literate tourists to the city in mid-January every year.

Tourist spot in Galle, clean and tidy. Frequented by tourists.

Tourist spot in Galle, clean and tidy. Frequented by tourists.

Galle is predictably growing into one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia, but the city is not without worries. How could the increasing number of visitors generate wealth that could better the life of civilians? Mr. Bernard Goonetilleke, the former head of the Sri Lankan Tourism Development authority identified the key of success, “No hotels should be taller than coconut palms, and beaches shall remain public property.”

The Author

Yvonne is a law student at the University of Hong Kong. She is obsessed with travelling alone, and believes that learning the history and language is the best way to explore a place.

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