Sri Lanka’s Opportunity to Leverage High-end Tourism with Reclaimed Beaches


Surath Wickremasinghe

The recent proposal of the Megapolis Ministry to reclaim the sea abutting the Galle Face Green and to extend it Southwards to Dehiwela is a commendable idea. In addition, the Expressway coming into the City Center with links to other Expressways going North and South, it 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 traffic circulation. 

The reclamation of the sea takes time. In Rio De Janeiro in Brazil, reclamation of the Copacabana beach and the adjoining beaches with improvements to the infrastructure has taken almost 60 years to complete and totally transformed the area as a tourism hub. 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.

The Copacabana beach is four km in length and around 400 meters wide 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, jogging etc. In addition, areas set apart for music and entertainment makes the beach vibrant both by day and night. The annual Rio Carnival is considered to be the pinnacle of the events in Rio and the pre-carnival parades go past the Copacabana beach. All this has made Rio the entertainment capital of the world.

Sri Lanka should also follow this concept and use 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 exercise along the island’s coastal belt. This could identify the coastal zones suitable for reclamation rather than depend on pre-determined boundaries in proximity to existing urban hubs. Its rationale should exclude harmful environmental and marine – based coastal hazards requiring reciprocal 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 compared to similar tourist complexes elsewhere in the world. The proposed areas along the coastline can then be surveyed to identify naturally formed beaches that may be suitable for inclusion. The impact on the sand dunes and mangroves need to be carefully factored in.

Examples of creating beaches by reclaiming the sea are seen in many parts of the world. This is done for different purposes. Over a third of Singapore is on reclaimed land which 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 of land from the sea has been accomplished. 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 thriving on the reclaimed land.

Nationally, the tourism belt between Beruwela and Galle could be reclaimed where appropriate to expand 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, reclaim the sea to give greater frontages for hotel development and other tourism related activities. However this may not be possible in Hikkaduwa due to the presence of coral reefs and would be so in a few other locations. In addition, as Sri Lanka is a small island with coastal populations that have for generations earned their living from the sea and coastal formations (fishing, fisheries harbors etc.) it is best that these people are consulted in the early stage of project formulation. Otherwise conflicts between the tourist facility and the community as in the Kalpitiya Tourist Zone at present could dampen the ultimate vision of this exercise.

Secondly it would be necessary to move the railway and road further inland. It can be done but there may be some resistance from the villagers. 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 extent could be released for large scale tourism development.

Sri Lanka should take a cue from other Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and even Vietnam that have maximized tourism development potential. In these countries they have strategic regional plans for the different regions exploiting individual strengths and providing facilities that are lacking such as entertainment, shopping, restaurants, sports and recreation including highways, railways, airports and IT infrastructure etc. to be competitive not only with other regions in their own countries 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 tourist hotels in the Eastern region. There are hotels but getting tourists to them given existing traffic congestion is a big problem. It takes hours to get to these destinations. Once you get there, there are few organized activities for visitors other than the beaches. Hence the high end tourists avoid such locations and mostly low end tourists and "backpackers" are seen at guest houses at these locations. Much more must be done to maximize the potential of the East.

In addition to the traditional attractions such as, the beaches, wildlife and 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 and hiking to keep tourists occupied.

Another area that Sri Lanka has not yet commercially exploited is cruise tourism. Cruise ships are getting larger in size and the numbers of passengers in many are between 2,500 –3,500. If Sri Lanka is to attract cruise ships the Port of Colombo must be able to provide an exclusive area in the harbor for this activity by providing better docking and terminal facilities to accommodate larger ships.

We now get around 50 passenger ships per year with most of them carrying between 500 to around 2,000 passengers. The objective should be to double this number initially and promote larger ships with more passengers to visit Sri Lanka.

The concept in Singapore and Hong Kong is for cruise ships to use their ports as a hub. Singapore handles over 1.5m cruise passengers per year. Tour operators and tourism in general will get a huge boost if this concept is successfully replicated here.

There are other benefits that Sri Lanka could exploit by bringing in large number of high spending tourists as countries in Europe, North America, the Caribbean, and East Asia do. We could also compete if tourism oriented infrastructure is provided with duty free shopping and other commercial activities.

Harnessing the locally available reservoir of knowledge, experience and enthusiasm to grow tourism is necessary. Policies of different agencies must be harmonized to facilitate the achievement of sustainable tourism and economic development. The way forward is for the Ministries of Megapolis and Western Development, Tourism Development, and Ports and Shipping to mobilize local expertise and prepare viable development plans for implementation on a Public Private Participation (PPP) model.

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