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While the government sets a target of 2.5 million tourists in 2016, it is yet to focus on preventing beaches from becoming a dump yard
While India feels glad about "largest beach cleanup in history” at Mumbai’s Versova beach that removed close to 0.3 million kg of trash, its neighbouring country, Sri Lanka is concerned about the pace at which its beaches are becoming filthy.
The island nation now receives over two million visitors every year, four times the number that came in 2009, when the Civil War ended. The unabated development to accommodate more tourists has taken a toll on the health of the golden beaches.
Pollution tethered to development
Hotels and guesthouses have mushroomed, but often without a foolproof plan on how to deal with the waste they generate. Most of them discharge raw sewage directly into the sea, making tourists and locals vulnerable to potential health issues. The bays in Mount Lavinia, located just south of Colombo, are unfit even for bathing. According to Mahesh Jayaweera, an engineering expert, faecal contamination levels at Mount Lavinia are 60 times higher than the safety limits.
The “pristine beach” in Unawatuna, located close to the port city of Galle, is promoted as a perfect snorkelling destination and its coral reefs are also mentioned to draw more tourists. But in reality, it is among the most polluted beaches, with adjoining guesthouses dumping their raw sewage into the ocean, especially at night.
Hikkaduwa, a small town on the south coast of Sri Lanka, sees its beaches littered with dead coral, beach debris and floating plastic waste. Beach bars across the coast add to the problem by disposing of broken glass and food waste on the beach.
Government officials admit to beach pollution
While conceding that unchecked growth could have a negative impact on the environment, tourism minister of Sri Lanka John Amaratunga says that even he has stopped swimming in the coastal waters off Colombo after seeing sewage flowing into it from a southern suburb. "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 says.
The government insists that it was trying to get the tourist industry to clean up its act. They claim having started registering guest houses to ensure they dispose of their waste without polluting the environment.
Deterioration of northern beaches
Despite tourism being relatively new in north Sri Lanka, the former war zone, situation is deteriorating there as well. The Nilaweli beach in the eastern district of Trincomalee, regarded as one of the "most perfect beaches", is no stranger to pollution. Discarded plastic bottles and wrappers clutter along the beach. A part of the problem is the absence of waste bins along the beach. The same is the case with the Pigeon Island.
Asserting that the vast majority of tourists coming to Sri Lanka visit country’s beaches, environmental specialist Srilal Miththapala says that the government needs to make urgent changes to ensure long-term survival of tourism. "Beaches predominate the tourism industry and that is why it is absolutely important for us to clean up and protect the beaches," he says.
While the government sets a target of 2.5 million tourists and eyes at billions of dollars in revenue, it is yet to focus on preventing beaches from becoming a dump yard. Riding high on the new wave of tourists, the tourism ministry has set a target of increasing average daily expenditure of a tourist up to $200 and increase the revenue to $2.75 billion from the current $2.25 billion.
As the Sri Lankan government is aggressively working towards improving country’s brand value through marketing campaigns and focusing on main product offerings, it should also think about deploying tourist police on beaches and arrest the practice of sewage disposal into the ocean. Recently, exporters of tropical fish decided to launch a cleaning campaign to protect the coral reef—the fish habitat— around the country’s coast from getting destroyed. Steps such as these can collectively create a nationwide resistance against ocean and beach pollution.