Last month about 40 properties on the beachfront in Unawatuna, a mile from Galle, were left in disrepair after being earmarked for removal by the country’s Coast Conservation Department (CCD). According to the CCD, the buildings were illegally encroaching upon the beach, under a 1981 conservation law.
The majority of the hotels were only partially destroyed, with a number of sea-facing restaurants razed, but the financial implications are expected to be considerable, and there are concerns that further development could follow.
The Tartaruga guesthouse, which was fully occupied when the bulldozers arrived, had its bar and restaurant demolished. Neil Pryantha, the owner, said that although a warning was given by the CCD, no deadline was imposed and no compensation offered. “I still don’t understand why they demolished my place,” he said. “Other hotels the same distance from the sea have been left standing.” He estimated that the destruction could cost him £50,000.
Other hoteliers claimed the incident was a ploy to push tourists into larger resort hotels – a claim supported by human rights groups, but denied by the Sri Lanka tourism ministry. It is also feared that Unawatuna, chosen by Telegraph Travel in 2008 as one of the world’s best beaches, will lose the laid-back character for which it is popular.
Last September, dozens of hotels on the beachfront in Arugam Bay, a surfers’ haven on Sri Lanka’s east coast, were bulldozed in a similar incident.
Liz Hayllar, the British owner of Gecko, a hotel partly demolished in that incident, said that plans to develop the bay were ongoing. She claimed that proposals had been made to build a railway terminal close to the beach at Arugam Bay, which could require the removal of all beachfront properties there.
“We have heard they are going to start developing after the rainy season, which is any time now,” she said. “It’s very hard to put your heart and soul into something when you have no idea of the future.”
Criticism of the government’s strategy for developing the island’s tourism infrastructure has grown since the end of the civil war in 2009. Visitor numbers have soared since then, with much of the island only now safe to foreign visitors.
Fred Carver, campaign director for Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, said: “The Unawatuna incident seems to fit into a pattern we have frequently observed. Rules are bent, misused or broken to suit the interests of the friends and family of the Rajapaksa regime, be they private or those of the state, and in particular the Sri Lankan military. The pattern is clear – make way for the assets of our friends and the military, or get bulldozed.”
He said that much of the country’s tourism industry – including several hotels in Jaffna, and a large number of whale- and dolphin-watching operations – is now run by the military. He also criticised “morally dubious” tourism projects in Hambantota and Kalpitiya, on the south and north-west coasts, respectively. The charity Tourism Concern claims that such developments are displacing communities, ruining the livelihoods of fishermen, threatening food security and wreaking havoc on the environment.
Mr Carver urged British travellers to practise responsible tourism by staying in independent, family-run hotels, avoiding military-run elements of the tourism industry, and steering clear of recently completed developments, particularly in the north.
The Sri Lankan tourist board was unavailable for comment.