Making Sri Lanka’s Post-war Tourism Boom More Environmentally-Friendly

Monthly updates on the significant increases in tourist arrivals have been topping the news headlines, ever since the end of armed conflict five years ago, this week.

The statistics show that arrivals have been continuously on the rise, though the rate of growth has been varying over the months due to seasonality and other factors. Consequently, Sri Lanka has been in the spotlight among the emerging tourism destinations worldwide, has received many accolades, and has been featured prominently in several of the world’s premier ‘must visit destinations’ lists and popular travel shows. Yet, as a recent article on Al Jazeera points out as well, the future of Sri Lanka’s tourism necessarily lies in making the sector more environmentally conscious and sustainability-oriented. As the writer of that article summed up, “An economic renaissance for South Asia’s ‘finest island’ hinges on a visionary green tourist policy”.


Tourism Growth


The Government of Sri Lanka has recognized tourism as an important growth sector, having the potential to contribute considerably to the country’s post-war economic development. It is even being listed as an add-on to the original ‘Five Hubs’ – “Five Hubs Plus Tourism”. In 2013, Sri Lanka welcomed nearly 1.3 million tourists, as per official statistics. The government’s target is to attract 2.5 million tourists by 2016. Together with the increasing number of arrivals, it is expected that more jobs will be created, and tourism’s contribution to the national economy will grow, as we stated in an IPS policy brief in 2011.


Yet, an important but less visible aspect of this is the environmental and natural resource impacts it has, as was emphasized in an IPS policy brief in 2012. Though there is heavy emphasis on promoting tourism and increasing its economic gains, there appears to be concurrently less emphasis on the environmental implications of the accommodation sector, including the efficiency with which natural resources, like water, is used.


Environmental Management


Efficiency in energy and water use as well as responsible waste management, are important aspects of making the accommodation sector more environmentally sustainable. However, as highlighted in one of our blog articles in 2012, there was an absence of comprehensive research-based information on these areas, and this was proving to be a major barrier in formulating better policies.


Only 37% of hotels in the sample were found to be maintaining proper energy, water and waste records


An on-going IPS research study[1] is bridging this information gap. The study is based on a comprehensive survey of SLTDA-registered hotels in the Western Province, to assess their energy, water and waste management practices. The interim findings of the survey were highlighted in an earlier blog article. It appears that efficient water management is constrained due to a lack of records at hotels and a lack of awareness on proper water management practices. The lack of records has been an issue for energy management too. Only 37% of hotels in the sample were found to be maintaining proper energy, water and waste records.


The study also attempts to understand why some hotels are making efforts to improve their environmental (energy, water, waste) management voluntarily, while others are lagging behind. The statistical analysis shows that the size of the hotel, in terms of the number of rooms, is a major determinant of environmental-orientation. Accordingly, larger hotels (over 50 rooms) as well as chain-affiliated hotels were found to be more likely to adopt better environmental management. This finding is interesting because, of 11 new hotels that have come up in the Western Province during the post-war period (2010–2013), almost half (6) are in the ‘small’ category (less than 50 rooms) and most (9) are not chain-affiliated[2].


It was also found that hotels that are involved in projects and schemes promoting environmental management show a significantly higher number of environmental management practices, when compared to other hotels. This indicates that awareness, technical guidance, and training could go a long way in better environmental management in the accommodation sector. Meanwhile, the study is currently assessing energy consumption aspects, and will aim to provide incremental consumption/cost of electricity due to increasing tourist arrivals to the country, which will be an important fact for policymakers.


New Opportunity


The tourism industry in Sri Lanka has always held much promise. Yet, because of years of conflict, tourism in Sri Lanka grew at a modest pace and it did not have the destructive environmental impact that many other countries in the region experienced, where unplanned and unsustainable tourism has led to many problems. Starting from a relatively cleaner slate, Sri Lanka now has a unique opportunity to do things differently and give rise to a sustainable tourism sector.


This will not only be beneficial for the country from a pure environmental standpoint, but will also help better position the industry globally, at a time when foreign tourists are becoming more environmentally-conscious.


Sri Lanka now has a unique opportunity to do things differently and give rise to a sustainable tourism sector


As the Al Jazeera article noted, “It is in Sri Lanka’s gift to lay the foundations for a visionary green tourist policy, unlike no other in the region. Now is the time to make it happen.” Tourism businesses – especially the accommodation sub-sector as highlighted in our study – must become more environmentally-oriented, through efficient energy, water and waste management. The efforts are internal and voluntary, and there needs to be greater awareness among hoteliers on moving towards greener practices. Meanwhile, the government must support it with appropriate ‘green tourism’ policies. The post-war tourism boom should not come at the cost of environmental degradation.


Here are other articles around the same theme of sustainability and tourism:

‘Tourism and Water Management: Is Sri Lanka Paying Enough Attention?’ –

‘Forest Attraction: Can Sri Lanka Use Eco-Tourism for Sustainable Forest Management?’


[1] Funded by the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE)

[2] This refers only to hotels which participated in the survey.