A popular beach destination in Sri Lanka, Unawatuna started losing its competitive advantage to neighbouring beach destinations with the end of the country’s 30-year civil war. Multiple factors influenced this shift in popularity, including overcrowding of the beachfront and the emergence of new destinations along the coast (with novel activities like whale watching and surfing). The area was also badly hit by the tsunami that struck the island in 2004, although this resulted in a large constructed public beach. Unawatuna has mostly boutique hotels, homestays, and guest houses, hence the involvement of the community in the region’s tourist trade is very high – and the coast is lined with seafood restaurants, bars, and discos for the adventurous to try.
Social context is key
A key learning MDF has gained from its work in Sri Lanka is that social context plays a vital role in everything from scoping for partners, to actual project design and implementation. Unawatuna is a prime example of this. Historically, the community was segregated according to caste (an occupation-based social stratification that harks back to the island’s Colonial era), uniting in more recent times to develop Unawatuna into the holiday destination it is now. A common cause – in this case, capitalizing on the freely available natural resources – with high incentives and returns seems to have appealed to the people of Unawatuna, with everybody in the region wanting to be a part of the larger tourism value-chain. This turned the tide for the previously divided community. One could imply from this that the approach of using economic advancement to achieve sustainable and inclusive growth proved successful in Unawatuna.
More recently, the coastal economy is doing well, but a lack of cohesion among the many market actors has meant that Unawatuna is not really achieving its potential. A naturally appealing destination due to a calm sea swimmable by anyone and a beautiful reef ideal for diving and snorkelling, this small village off Galle draws a constant stream of visitors. With the increase in numbers of tourists and tourism stakeholders, the tourism map became fragmented. This in turn led to parties with common interests forming associations to ensure their business was safe, resulting in multiple bodies being created for all types of tourism operators including the larger hotel chains, small-scale hotels and homestays, vendors and shop owners, and even the tuk-tuks (auto rickshaws) that transport tourists up and down the coastal stretch. However, a lack of coordination among these stakeholders has resulted in the decline of Unawatuna as a tourist destination.
Working with change-makers
MDF is interested in working in Unawatuna because it welcomes private sector growth and is conducive to the market systems development approach. Moreover, the presence of multiple businesses and business bodies allow for interventions to look beyond individual enterprise gains to a broader impact on the overall tourism economy of the region. MDF was approached by Sri Lankan Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), the apex body for tourism in the country, to collaborate on developing Unawatuna as a micro-destination. This is the pilot project of a larger programme SLTDA plans to implement across the island, if Unawatuna is successful. MDF is working with SLTDA to align the scattered industry bodies towards the common goal of boosting the tourism industry in Unawatuna to maintain its prominence. The unifying platform is a proposed ‘night market’ concept that draws in the participation of all players to create a combined tourism offering with integrated tourism products and services.
Stimulating the private sector
Given the community’s history of division and unification, revisiting the approach of unity for economic advancement has the potential to be a pillar of success for tourism in Unawatuna, MDF believes. During the team’s scoping work, it emerged that although the associations are unwilling to work with each other, they are more than open to working with an external player, especially an overarching authority like SLTDA. Particularly, a programme like MDF is well-positioned – and welcomed – to facilitate this, since it is a neutral party able to link the relevant higher-level authority to the requirements at the grassroot level.
To kick off the effort, MDF will be assisting SLTDA with a feasibility study of the area, assessing the possibilities and constructing a viable business model for the night market. For this, MDF has got onboard a consultant to meet with all stakeholders and understand the current market dynamic. So far, the experience has been positive.
Unawatuna is good example for ‘messy’ markets with potential. While the private sector is present, it has not been channelled appropriately to bring about a sustainable positive change to the surrounding community, despite opportunities existing. With SLTDA, MDF hopes to make Unawatuna a success story for existing and emerging tourism communities to follow and look on as an example.
Hashim Nazahim, with Tharindri Rupesinghe