Is Sri Lanka a victim of overtourism?

By Jithendri Gomes

It was not long ago when Sri Lanka put all its efforts toward promoting the island and its magnificent beauty to attract tourists from around the world. In 2009, with the end of the civil war, the country was able to shift gears back to tourism, all guns blazing.

According to the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), 2018 recorded an influx close to 2.3 million tourists. This is expected to increase upto 3 million in 2019, with the recent endorsement of the popular tour publisher Lonely Planet and several new promotional campaigns. Evidently, Sri Lanka’s economy largely depends on the income generated from the industry. But there is little knowledge on the country’s capacity to hold such a large number of travellers.

We chose to explore this topic with the recent hype created over the word “overtourism” and some local media institutions suggesting its relevance here in Sri Lanka.

The Telegraph, in its article titled “Dear dictionaries, this is why ‘overtourism’ should be your 2018 word of the year”, notes that defining over tourism was first attempted it August, 2016. The article refers to Skift Founder/CEO Rafat Ali’s foreword written to an article about tourism in Iceland, which says: “We are coining a new term, “Overtourism”, as a new construct to look at potential hazards to popular destinations worldwide, as the dynamic forces that power tourism often inflicts unavoidable negative consequences if not managed well.”

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation in 2018 warned against overtourism in many countries and regions, with Europe and Asia being its main victims. The study titled “Overtourism? – Understanding and Managing Urban Tourism Growth beyond Perceptions” mentions: “There is no one-size-fits-all solution. It is essential a common strategic vision among all stakeholders is involved, bringing residents and visitors together and adopting careful planning which respects the limits of capacity and the specificities of each destination.” The study also presents 11 strategies to tackle this issue.

However, according to an article published on, revealing the top 10 countries under the categories of overtourism as well as undertourism, Sri Lanka stood at No. 9 in the latter, with a ratio of 2,168,000 tourists to 21,203,000 locals (10.22%). So, the obvious problem is that the majority of tourists only tour and explore popular sites.

So, undertourism?

Agreeing to this statement, SLTDA Chairman Kishu Gomes remarked: “I don’t think there is a problem of overtourism in Sri Lanka, it is rather the congestion in certain popular destinations, and I think the experts will agree with me. Tourists are mainly attracted to the metropolis Colombo, down South all the way to Arugam Bay, and sites of historical value such as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, and Kandy.”

“Sigiriya in particular attracts a large number of tourists and there are many concerns raised regarding this matter. Mirissa also attracts a large crowd resulting from whale watching expeditions. The Yala National Park attracts quite a considerable amount, but is mainly dominated by locals. We found that most of the locals visiting Yala are travellers en route to pilgrimage to Kataragama, taking the safari to kill time. So, we have focused our efforts to build and redirect the focus to an open zoo, a bird park, and a botanical park in the area – other interesting destinations available at a lower cost. This way, the locals can visit these places instead of spending five to six hours trying to spot a leopard,” he noted.

He also stated that there are two solutions on which the SLTDA is focusing to address this matter. “Efficiently managing all of these popular sites and dispersing the tourists to other areas is one. For an example, with Sigiriya, we are trying to automate the ticket generation, so that people can book in advance and the authorities can have a control over the crowds. The same solution is being looked at for whale watching expeditions as well. As an effort to disperse tourists to other areas we are currently looking at developing products in Kuchcheveli, Mannar, Kalpitiya, and Jaffna, so that tourists can stay longer and have a better experience.

“The World Bank also currently works with the SLTDA to address this problem and build a better experience for the tourists visiting the island. We want to build better products, minimise the inefficiencies, and work towards having an increased quality of satisfaction,” Gomes concluded.

Hospitality industry speaks

The Sunday Morning Brunch then spoke to John Keells Holdings PLC Vice President and Cinnamon Holidays CEO Chitral Jayatilake about the congestion of tourists in these popular destinations. “We had over 2.3 million tourists visiting Sri Lanka last year and we are expecting close to 2.7 million this year. That is not the problem – we can still handle those numbers. But the authorities must work together with the industry in order to create better experiences for the tourists,” he stated.

“The Yala National Park boasts to have the highest density of leopards in the whole of Asia, and it certainly has the potential like the national park in Botswana and Sabi Sands in South Africa. But during the high season from January to March, over 175 jeeps are found lined up at the entrance till the gate opens. This doesn’t provide a good experience to thousands of guests and the many that arrive to explore the country’s wilderness comfortably. As more growth is anticipated, Yala seems like it has become a victim of its own popularity.

Overcrowding takes away the wildlife experience and the country seem to keep adding more guests to an already packed location, points out Jayatilake. To control congestion, much of the park’s roads have been made one-way, making the keen wildlife lovers frustrate over the difficulty to see what they yearn to witness in the wild.

“Exit times of Yala have been brought forward to 6 p.m. from a traditional system of varying times based on available sunlight. All these restrictions make Yala almost impossible to be enjoyed by serious nature lovers, both Sri Lankan and foreign. While there is great concern among western European guests regarding the overcrowding, the increased visitors from the Chinese market is compensating the drop, making the congestion ever more in the jewel of a park in Sri Lanka. If this continues, we will not succeed in attracting the high paying clients to such locations, as they will compare how we run our parks with those of other nations.

“Sigiriya has a similar problem. I was there this week and there were close to 1,000 people on top of the rock, with at least a similar number making its way to the top. Sigiriya is as a big marvel like Machu Picchu and it is something that needs to be admired with some solitude, not while walking in a line of hundreds of people around,” he commented.

Jayatilake also elaborated that when they first approached Mirissa back in 2007 and 2008, it was just a rural town. However, now it has a transformed into a full blown industry with multiple entrepreneurs every corner, and is known to be the whale watching capital in Asia.

“It is great to see the local people benefiting from this new industry, but the Wildlife Department along with other government authorities should control the number of boats and ensure visitors book their slots in advance,” he said, adding that ideally, the Government must have a mechanism through which they can have some control from every wildlife experience becoming completely overwhelmed by overcrowding.

Further touching on the matter, Jayatilake remarked how Sri Lanka as a nation is truly blessed to still have so much of wilderness left, with over 21 million people living on this tiny island. He stressed that, unless we regulate our visitation and ensure our natural assets are sustainably used, we will cause damage to the very attraction and take away the quality of the experience which intelligent and truly enthusiastic travellers look for.

Commenting on the topic, Russell Cool, Area General Manager, ONYX Sri Lanka, said: “No, I don’t think that over-tourism exists currently, other than to say that much of Sri Lankan infrastructure is not geared to accommodate the expected tourist numbers. If you look at BIA, it is operating at over 50% above its capacity with expectation of visitor arrivals to grow again in 2019. This is a major concern for tourism as it does not create a good impression for international tourist when they arrive into the country.”

The obvious negative impact, he added, is on the natural resources of the country such as wildlife with increased footfall in main tourist areas like Yala. “And the danger of Sri Lanka losing its authenticity as development occurs.  For the positives, investment in infrastructure, increased salaries and benefits to the people and opening up the borders to new ideas, all creates wealth and therefore a better standard of living for the population,” Cool said, adding, however, that all efforts need to be planned and monitored to ensure balance over the long term.

Commenting on Kandy, he said: “I would agree that at certain times of the year there is congestion. However, the occupancy levels over the past 12 months counter the suggestion that there is over tourism, as the star classed hotel sector experienced a decline from the previous year.  That said, events such as perahera do attract increased traffic and this does have a negative impact on the overall experience and the peacefulness that Kandy offers.”

Environmental impact

The Sunday Morning Brunch also spoke to the Environmental Foundation (Guarantee) Limited (EFL) about the environmental impact tourism or congestion will have in these popular destinations.

“Sri Lanka as a destination is currently on a pathway of facing overtourism. This is already apparent in terms of specific locations within the domestic tourism scene. Places of religious and cultural importance such as the Sri Pada, Madu Church, and Anuradhapura, as well as national parks such as Yala face this threat from time to time. It is obvious by the recent instances of overcrowding at the aforementioned locations that the relevant government institutions are clearly incapable of handling large numbers of tourists.

“Quite evidently, overtourism creates an impact on the environment in different ways. The most significant impact would be the generation of garbage through the large populace that gather at these locations. Due to the absence of proper waste management systems, tourists often litter the entire area, polluting waterways and forested areas that are habitat to endangered and endemic species. Further, overtourism within wildlife-related destinations such as Yala and Mirissa disrupt the natural behavioural patterns of the species concerned and pose a threat to their survival.

“The vehicles or vessels used for such viewing of wildlife cause pollution by the harmful chemicals they emanate to the immediate terrestrial and marine environments. The increase in the number of tourists also aggravates the demand for infrastructure facilities within environmentally sensitive areas. Such facilitation often fragments or completely destroys ecosystems, unless executed in a sustainable manner,” EFL elaborated.

It further stated that the Yala National Park and Mirissa are popular destinations for Sri Lanka’s keystone terrestrial and marine mammals.

Confined to a relatively small land area, these species totally depend on these habitats for their survival. Therefore, it is proven that heavy congestion in such areas combined with intimidating behaviour of the tourists and tour operators alike – when viewing – affects the behavioural patterns of these animals. Such impacts could result in changes in foraging, mating, and reproduction depending on the type of species as well as the level of impact.

In conclusion, it is only safe to say that we are not classified as a tourist destination at critical risk of overtourism overall, but it is also important to raise concerns over certain places that are already in the process of being victimised of this growing problem. If our country is to benefit from the tourism industry whilst prioritising and safeguarding our wildlife and sites of heritage, the authorities must step forward to put an end to the existing harmful practices and trends.