Tourists threaten Sri Lanka’s golden beaches

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

TOURISTS have flocked back to Sri Lanka’s palm­fringed beaches since a bloody civil war ended in 2009, but en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists warn unchecked devel­op­ment means some ar­eas are now so pol­luted that swim­ming there is a health haz­ard.

Sewage from thriv­ing ho­tels and guest­houses pours, of­ten un­treated, out into the wa­ter pol­lut­ing the sea and shore.

Even the coun­try’s own tourism min­is­ter says he has stopped swim­ming in the seas close to cap­i­tal Colombo be­cause of the dirty wa­ter.

More than 2 mil­lion vis­i­tors now head to the tiny In­dian Ocean is­land ev­ery year, more than four times the num­ber that came in 2009.

Yet there are fears it is be­com­ing a vic­tim of its own suc­cess.

Guest­houses have sprung up to cater for soar­ing num­bers of vis­i­tors – but of­ten with lit­tle thought for how to deal with the waste they pro­duce.

Many sim­ply dis­charge raw sewage straight into the sea, ex­pos­ing bathers to po­ten­tial health is­sues.

The prob­lem is most acute just south of Colombo at Mount Lavinia, an up­scale neigh­bour­hood and re­sort known for its “Golden Mile” of beach.

En­vi­ron­men­tal engi­neer­ing ex­pert Mahesh Jayaweera said the bays in Mount Lavinia were now so pol­luted that peo­ple should not bathe in them.

“When you look at the wa­ter you won’t no­tice it. But at cer­tain times of the year, the wa­ter in Mount Lavinia is so filthy it is worse than tak­ing a dip in a cesspool,” he said.

Lev­els of fae­cal con­tam­i­na­tion at Mount Lavinia are 60 times higher than max­i­mum safe lim­its, said Jayaweera, of Sri Lanka’s Univer­sity of Mo­ratuwa.

Many vis­i­tors are un­aware of the dan­gers, but lo­cals are more aware of po­ten­tial is­sues.

“We just come here to play,” said lo­cal res­i­dent Har­sha Swadesh, 26, en­joy­ing a game of vol­ley­ball with friends. “The sea is rough and it is not very clean.”

Unawatuna, just south of the his­toric port city of Galle, is pro­moted as a pris­tine beach per­fect for snorkelling and is fa­mous for its coral reefs.

But re­searchers say it is among the most pol­luted, with many guest­houses dump­ing their raw sewage into the ocean, es­pe­cially at night.

“Some­times the cur­rent brings back most of the stuff back to the beach in the morn­ing and it is aw­ful,” said one tourism in­dus­try fig­ure who asked not to be named.

Tourism min­is­ter John Amaratunga said vis­i­tor num­bers have soared since the end of Sri Lanka’s 37-year-long Tamil sep­a­ratist war.

“This year, our tar­get is 2.2 mil­lion tourists, but we may end up with 2.5 mil­lion,” Amaratunga told AFP.

But he con­ceded unchecked growth could be hav­ing a neg­a­tive im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment, ad­mit­ting that he has stopped swim­ming in the coastal wa­ters off Colombo af­ter see­ing sewage flow­ing into it from a south­ern sub­urb of the city.

“I also used to go and bathe at Wellawatte ... I stopped it when I saw the canal bring­ing in all the sewage into the sea,” he said.

He in­sisted the gov­ern­ment was try­ing to get the tourist in­dus­try to clean up its act.

Au­thor­i­ties have started reg­is­ter­ing guest houses to try to en­sure they dis­pose of their waste with­out harm­ing the en­vi­ron­ment.

Beaches in the for­mer war zone in the is­land’s north, where tourism is still rel­a­tively new, re­main cleaner.

But Jayaweera said the sit­u­a­tion was de­te­ri­o­rat­ing there too – no­tably at the pop­u­lar Ni­laweli beach in the east­ern dis­trict of Trin­co­ma­lee. Of­ten hailed by travel guides as one of Sri Lanka’s “most per­fect beaches”, vis­i­tor num­bers have jumped in the past few years.

In­dus­try ex­pert and en­vi­ron­men­tal spe­cial­ist Sri­lal Miththa­pala be­lieves Sri Lanka needs to make ur­gent changes to en­sure the tourism in­dus­try sur­vives long term.

“A few years ago, we tried to shift the fo­cus from beaches to eco­tourism, but the vast ma­jor­ity still vis­its us for our beaches,” he said.

“The beaches pre­dom­i­nate the tourism in­dus­try and that is why it is ab­so­lutely im­por­tant for us to clean up and pro­tect the beaches.”

Photo: AFP

Sri Lankan pedes­tri­ans walk near an open sewer drain off Mount Lavinia beach on the out­skirts of Colombo.

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