Fuelling Sri Lanka’s Tourism Sector to Achieve SDGs

Since the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, the number of tourist arrivals to the country has increased significantly, from 448,000 in 2009 to 1.8 million in 2015. By 2015, tourism had already become the third main foreign exchange earner (US$ 2.98 billion) in Sri Lanka. According to the Sri Lanka Tourism Strategic Plan 2017-2020 of the Ministry of Tourism Development, the tourist arrivals have further increased to 2 million, and revenue from tourism has risen to US$ 3.5 billion.  In 2015, the Forbes Magazine placed Sri Lanka among the ‘top ten coolest countries to visit’. These facts clearly show the huge potential of the tourism sector and how it can bring in more foreign exchange to the country. Tourism can improve the overall economy, and thereby make a substantial contribution to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) brochure, Tourism and the SDGs, and the revised list of SDG indicators, tourism could improve performance in all SDGs; this alone is reason enough to harness benefits of tourism.


Interrelation between Tourism and SDGs


Tourism creates jobs countrywide, by offering direct and indirect employment opportunities, particularly for youth, in both urban and rural communities. Domestic tourism accounts for a significant share of the sector’s income, while expenditure by international tourists counts as exports for Sri Lanka. Thanks to its heritage and culture which dates back to thousands of years, unmatched biodiversity, beautiful beaches, and some of the world’s best marine resources, beautiful mountain ranges, and other natural resources, Sri Lanka boasts of a huge potential for tourism-led growth. As such, if tourism is promoted more effectively, it would be one of the most important sources of foreign exchange earnings for the country. As tourism encompasses a wide range of goods and services, it generates multiple positive effects across other economic activities, penetrating the local economy and expanding the growth impact from trade. That said, while it is important to maximize on the economic benefits and other positive effects of tourism, it is equally important to develop strategies to ensure that the possible evil effects of tourism, such as the prevalence of drugs, prostitution, child abuse, are effectively controlled and minimized, so that Sri Lanka’s social and cultural values can be kept intact.


Tourism sector is linked to all 17 SDGs and it would be useful to give due consideration to those links when developing strategies to improve the tourism sector, while taking a closer and more coordinated look at its contribution to achieving SDGs. To this end, it would be essential for the Ministry of Tourism Development to collaborate with all Ministries, Departments, other governmental agencies, as well as with the private sector agencies, involved in planning and implementing strategies to achieve SDGs. Some of the ways in which tourism could make useful contributions towards achieving SDGs by 2030 are discussed in this blog.


Reduction of poverty and inequality, and indirect contributions to agricultural, health, and education sectors: Tourism fosters economic growth and development at all levels, as it promotes and helps entrepreneurship, especially among small businesses, and the creation of employment opportunities, which reduces poverty and the grassroots level. It can spur agricultural productivity by promoting the production, use, and sale of local produce in tourist destinations, resulting in higher and more stable incomes, which leads to more resilient and sustainable agricultural communities. Tourism can be a powerful tool for developing communities and reducing inequalities, if it engages local populations and all key stakeholders in its growth. It can reduce regional disparities by giving communities various opportunities to prosper in their own regions.


Tourism’s contribution to economic growth and development can also have a knock-on effect on health and education sectors in the country. Foreign exchange earnings and tax income from tourism can be reinvested in healthcare and services and in improving the educational facilities. As a well-trained and skillful workforce is crucial for tourism to prosper, the sector should also provide incentives for training and skill development among the employees.


Improvements in water and sanitation: Tourism can play a critical role in achieving access to safe water, as well as hygiene and sanitation for all. The efficient use of water in the tourism sector, coupled with appropriate safety measures, waste water management, pollution control, and technology efficiency, can be the key to safeguarding water resource, which should benefit all.


Conserving and preserving the environment:Tourism contributes to and is affected by climate changes. As such, it is in the sector’s own interest to play a leading role in lowering energy consumption and shifting to renewable energy sources, especially in the transport and accommodation sectors, in-order to minimize any adverse effects to the environment. As a sector that requires substantial energy input, tourism can accelerate the shift towards renewable energy, and thereby contribute to innovative energy solutions. Sustainable tourism has the potential to advance urban infrastructure and universal accessibility, promote regeneration of the area, and preserve cultural and natural heritage sites – the assets on which tourism sector depends. Greater investment in green infrastructure, such as efficient transport facilities with minimum air pollution, conservation of heritage sites, and greener open spaces, will result in smarter and greener cities, which benefit locals as well as the tourists. As coastal and maritime tourism is important for Sri Lanka’s tourism sector, any tourism development activity in these regions should serve as a vehicle to enhance economic growth, improve livelihoods and create jobs, while ensuring the sustainability of the oceans and coastal areas. Sustainable tourism can also play a major role, not only in conserving and preserving biodiversity, but also respecting the terrestrial ecosystems.


Improving public-private partnerships: Tourism development relies on excellent infrastructure and an innovative environment. Making infrastructure more sustainable, resource-efficient, and clean could attract more tourists and other sources of foreign investment. Due to its cross-sectoral nature, tourism has the ability to strengthen public-private partnerships, and engage international, national, regional, and local stakeholders to work together to achieve the SDGs and other common goals.