Photo: beach cricket Sri Lanka

Locals play cricket on one of Sri Lanka's southern beaches, a part of this island nation that has been recovering well from the devastating 2004 tsunami and shows promise as a sustainable-tourism destination.

Photograph by Richard Taylor, SIME

By Jay Walljasper

From the November-December 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

(Score: 59)  Emerging in 2009 from more than 25 years of civil war and still rebuilding from the deadly 2004 tsunami, the tropical island nation of Sri Lanka acutely needs to heal its ethnic divisions and revive its economy. Tourism figures prominently in plans to achieve both goals, including leveraging the assets of the strife-free south coast: beaches, colonial cities, temples, and wildlife.

“I believe war-ravaged Sri Lanka, with help from people elsewhere, can use tourism to realize the promise of a peace dividend,” says sustainable-tourism expert Lelei LeLaulu. Elizabeth Becker, a former New York Times correspondent who is writing a book about global tourism, sees Guatemala—where opposing factions collaborated on tourism projects to revive their war-torn land—as a model for Sri Lanka.

“The best way to get past the war is to give everyone jobs,” adds LeLaulu, “to ensure that the social benefits of tourism are spread around.”

Typical sun-sea-sand package tourism made incursions in Sri Lanka before the civil war flared in 1983 but never took hold in the south. Becker notes that the civil war and the devastating 2004 tsunami have presented Sri Lanka with a prime opportunity to transform itself into one of the world’s finest coastal destinations.

“War shielded the island from the worst excesses of industrial tourism,” she says. “It’s one of the last great unexploited regions.” This may apply in particular to the south coast, which was spared much of the conflict. Her concern, looking ahead: “Will a few well-placed people make a lot of money—or will there be a community-focused model, where many people benefit from the prosperity?”

Long stretches of the palm-fringed, gold-sand coastline are in foreign hands, with uncertain implications for sustainability. Most accommodations are guesthouses, only some of which are sensitive to ecotourism concerns. Many guesthouse owners at Unawatuna beach, for example, rebuilt just feet from the tide line after the tsunami—despite the demonstrated perils of building close to the water. At Mirissa Beach, in contrast, development blends with the environment. Oil exploration along the coast raises worries, as do the effects of a new international port and new airport at Hambantota—although LeLaulu reports every effort has been taken to make the airport ecologically friendly.

The lagoons of Bundala National Park and the savannas of Yala National Park, both near the coast, elicit praise for their conservation management. Yala remains one of the best places in the world to watch leopards stalk through underbrush and Asian elephants graze in grasslands. The region’s cuisine—“an alluring fusion of Southeast Asian and South Indian,” LeLaulu says—is another attraction.

The countryside is dotted with stupas and other religious shrines, both Buddhist and Hindu, which provide hopeful symbols for a rapprochement between the brawling Sinhalese and Tamils. “These days you can go to a Hindu temple,” LeLaulu reports, “and find Buddhist priests looking around.”

Then there’s the fortress city of Galle, which the Dutch developed in 1663 after seizing this strategic ocean outlook from the Portuguese. Celebrated for its blend of European architectural styles and South Asian traditions, this World Heritage site draws visitors to wander its web of narrow streets and enjoy its open-air cafés—but many buildings need substantial renovations.

“Sri Lankans need to knuckle down and do some real planning for sustainable tourism,” concludes LeLaulu. “The potential benefit for them, their environment and economy, and for world travelers, is enormous.”

Contributing editor Jay Walljasper writes about sustainability issues.

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