Boutique Hotel Investments Under Threat at Mawella Bay
By Ben Lloyd
Recent Media reports are overwhelming; it looks like Sri Lanka’s tourism will recover at least partially this season. From then on it is bound to be a steady climb upwards if it is not impeded by another COVID-19 lockdown or the like. This turnaround is clear proof of the resilience of this Island, which is mainly due to its diversity. Within just a couple of hours one can move from the cold environment of the highlands to vastly different ecosystems like rainforests or beaches. It is possible to travel fast from the city to remote areas through the network of highways.
Micro and Macro Economics of Tourism
Resilience notwithstanding, tourism and the development of it is an unceasing effort. In order to keep attracting visitors from overseas, the system needs to be constantly reviewed to hone and polish the overall experiences for the more discerning visitor. The mass market tourism sector in Sri Lanka is pushing through big investors, chartered tours and big tour operators, who bring large groups who would no doubt be a boom to the macroeconomics of the country.
However there is another more niche sector that often goes unnoticed in this grand tourism plan and that is Free Individual Travellers (FITs). Most often they are the big spenders and FITs are known to look for a more specialised offering than the mass market tourist and that is why they prefer to seek out the boutique hotels and surrounding communities. It is this connection that forms a vibrant ‘give and take’ micro economy in the surrounding communities which are mainly located outside the larger cities.
Mawella Bay, is such a location and one of the least developed tourism enclaves in the south. Recognising this, about 40 landowners both local and foreign have invested heavily in the area to secure beach properties for development. The calm and serene waters of the bay are a big draw to this area of outstanding natural beauty. However, these investors were in for a shock when sometime last year Government agencies i.e. the Ministry of Fisheries and the Coastal Conservation Department (CCD) announced that they had decided to plant some hard coastal structures in the pristine bay, ostensibly for the good of the surrounding community.
They have already gone ahead and built an anchorage in this beautiful bay, with some dubious results and it seems like they are planning to go ahead and build two breakwaters which will stretch into the now serene ocean. The only justification they have for such constructions is an IEE they performed in 2019, which they claim was sufficient and within the confines of the law. Most landowners now believe that it was a way of sweeping their responsibility under the carpet enabling them to just go ahead with the building of these stone structures, without following the proper procedure of carrying out a proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
In addition scientific research done by three separate coastal scientists say the main cause of the erosion in the coastal areas are hard structures jutting out into the sea. Kem Lowry of the University of Hawaii and H.J.M. Wickremeratne of the Coastal Conservation Department in their 1988 report on ‘Coastal Area Management in Sri Lanka’ say some of the structures built by the CCD were without any scientific understanding of the local coastal dynamics, resulting in the ‘solution’ to prevent erosion in one area, causing considerable erosion elsewhere. The report cites several examples where this kind of construction has proved disastrous.
Coastal Scientists against breakwaters
The Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) in their March 2021 research entitled ‘Are coastal protective hard structures still applicable with respect to shoreline changes in Sri Lanka?’ refers to human influence on nature. It says the application of hard structures is least able to control coastal erosion in a large area because while it may be good for the site it is not helpful for adjacent areas. It says the environment will remain under its natural conditions as long as humans introduce no alterations.
While both reports point to hard structures doing more damage than good, another report by Professor Charitha Pattiaratchi, Professor of Coastal Oceanography at the University of Western Australia, points specifically to the proposed hard structures for Mawella Bay. He says the construction of the two 60 m offshore breakwaters is not recommended because they are located in a region with high waves and ocean current activity. ‘The region for the proposed breakwaters is a highly complex region in terms of hydrodynamics and sand transport. The breakwaters will retain sand in the lee which will interrupt the long shore transport of sand. As the sand retained would be from regions along the ~1.5 km length of beach there is a strong probability of extreme erosion in other regions of the Bay.’
While the already built anchorage has begun to cause some negative results for the bay area landowners and residents, they believe any more man-made structures may well be the ruin of the Mawella Bay and the neighbouring beaches.
Local communities and boutique hotels
It needs to be understood that tourism cannot survive merely on the mass market operations. While chartered tourism creates predictable fixed incomes for this sector, it is the big spender FITs who also add a vital injection to the economy: That being the case, picturesque boutique hotels have a vital role to play in the survival of tourism. There are in fact lots of advantages in boutique tourism especially because it is very much interwoven with the local environments. For example they engage more closely with communities to maintain their supply chains for fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and meats, as well as staffing their establishments creating social sustainability. In some cases services such as security, laundry and even entertainment come from the local communities.
Boutique hotels are fashioned and formatted to blend into the local environment so that they add value to their offering in terms of adding a local flavour to their guests’ experience. This creates a win-win formula as there is a trickle down of dollar earnings to the ordinary people who make up these communities.
Particularly in Mawella, there is a situation concerning the fishermen in the area. The talk on the beach more and more these days is about the catch becoming smaller and smaller, dwindling to almost nothing during some seasons. The reasons for this could be that according to statistics, there is a rise in fishing families in the Tangalle area. It might well mean that more people out of desperation are turning to the sea to make a daily living and as a result fish stocks are depleting.
The big question is what do we do to supplement this? If the Mawella Bay boutique tourism is given the opportunity to develop as planned the situation can change for this community.
Through their direct engagement with local communities, boutique hotels are known to create new, vibrant market segments. According to recent research, more than fifty per cent of tourists prefer informal boutique hotels and an entirely different holiday experience. Most of them use online travel portals to make their bookings directly, bypassing the whole travel agency and tour operator routine. This provides an ideal opportunity for the boutique tourism sector.
Apart from contributing to the overall tourism earnings, the development of boutique hotels in Sri Lanka is vital due to the impact they have on social sustainability i.e. the microeconomics of their surrounding communities. This is a vital aspect of the overall development of tourism in a Sri Lankan context. In light of this, the fishing communities of Mawella bay, whose daily wage is hanging in the balance, may well have a solution to their problem if boutique sustainable tourism in the area develops.
Investors in Quandary
However, all these ambitious plans by the boutique hotel investors in the Mawella Bay area may come to naught owing to the wild plans of the Coastal Conservation Department, which may throw a spanner in the works for them. They are concerned that the bay may lose its original form, becoming volatile during various seasons where erosion may occur, causing the beach frontage of their boutique hotel establishments to wash away, which would in turn erode their investment in the area.
Could it suffer the same fate as Unawatuna which became a disaster after a similar intervention? In a recent report the Minister of Environment has promised to intervene and stop these unsustainable structures from going ahead.
(Ben Lloyd is an investor in local boutique hotels for the last 10 years. Originally from the UK he has lived in many parts of Asia during his adult life and now made his home in Sri Lanka with his family.)