Eco-tourism for the city

Posted: 20 February 2003

Author: Harriet Festing

A popular guidebook on Sri Lanka describes Colombo (the capital) as an 'odorous crush that will either instantly repel or draw you in by its charms'. If you're only on a short trip to Sri Lanka, the book goes on to say, 'you may wish to pass Colombo by'. The message is clear - get out of the city and onto the beaches if you want to enjoy your visit. But, says Harriet Festing, the most sustainable tourism is in the cities.

The Pettah in Colombo. Main Street.Here lies the problem of tourism, and eco-tourism in particular, in the developing world. The truth is that the most sustainable forms of tourism are urban. It is the towns and cities that have the systems (transport, retail, accommodation) and the diversity and stability of people to cope with tourist influxes.

Yet the demand for and image of eco-tourism is almost exclusively rural: fragile lands, native people, and wilderness. The rural image is one supported by The International Ecotourism Society in the US, which defines eco-tourism as: 'responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people'.

For Sri Lanka, the false promises in the name of ecotourism have had worrying consequences. Nirmalan Dhas, leader of the Indian Tamil Network, describes the impact: 'Teams of prospectors equipped with luxurious four-wheel drive vehicles and gear have begun scouring the countryside in search of every last little nook and cranny... some are speedily positioning themselves to purchase the lands and homesteads of peasants who have lived for years along the borders of the rainforests.'

The claim, so often made, seems justified: eco-tourism has the potential to distort and pollute the very cultures it purports to be concerned about.

Embracing urbanism

But does it have to be that way? Why aren't the tourists flocking to Colombo city? What makes it less of an attraction than New York, London, or Paris. Just as importantly, why doesn't the ecotourism movement embrace urbanism?

Earlier this year, the New York based non-profit organisation, Project for Public Spaces (PPS), hosted a high-level delegation of Armenians for a ten-day training course in New York City on 'placemaking'. The delegation came from a beautiful, historic, but devastated area of the country.

They were dealing with the large-scale rehousing of earthquake victims, the rebuilding of their towns and cities, and the problems in attracting tourists to their country.

'Placemaking' is the current buzz-word in the world of urban renewal, planning, and real estate. The buzz is created by people's realisation that if you want to attract investment in your towns and cities, you need to create places where people want to be - places that people want to visit, live, and work in; places that are walkable, lively, and diverse, where life spills out onto the streets, parks, plazas, and markets.

Project for Public Spaces has been helping cities and towns to make places for 27 years. Their experience has taken them to 12 countries, 46 US states, and 1,000 neighbourhoods. Their programmes stretch from transport to public buildings; from parks and civic squares to street markets.

Places for people

'People come to us wanting to mimic what they perceive to be the Western model,' says Fred Kent, President of PPS. 'Their major concerns are about moving traffic, design aesthetics, and security. They're more concerned about getting people off the streets than keeping them there. We help them rethink what they're doing so that the emphasis is on creating places.'

To help place-making practitioners in their work, PPS has produced the Great Public Spaces website highlighting case studies, good and bad, across the world. The site gives guidance on what makes a successful place. Colombo, for example, would rate well in terms of 'access and linkages' - its street life is overflowing and public transport superb. But it would rate poorly in terms of 'comfort and image' and 'uses and activities'. The car-dominated roads eliminate any desire to linger, and there's little in the way of benches, cafés, or civic squares. It's not a bad city to visit; it's just not great.

Central Park, New YorkCentral Park ranks among the world's outstanding public places.© Project for Public Spaces

On the other side of the world, New York City couldn't be a better example of a great place, and it's also one of the premier tourist destinations in the world. As one travel guide so aptly explains: 'When it comes to throngs, controlled chaos and in-your-face audacity, the Big Apple ranks right up there with Hong Kong and Mexico City. When it comes to opportunity and adventure, this apple is uncontested.' Central Park, Union Square, and Coney Island - the city gives its places over to the people. The city is a perfect setting for a course on place-making.

New York is also one of the most sustainable tourist attractions in the world. With the lowest level of car ownership in the US, one of the highest housing densities, and a rich diversity of culture, it's an unlikely but worthy case of genuine eco-tourism.

Theme park

So what can Sri Lanka learn from New York and its place-making advocates? The peace settlement in Sri Lanka opens the doors for increasing tourism in the country. Most significantly, it won't be long before investors head up to the previously closed, but highly desirable landscapes of the northern region.

The temptation for the government to ease the way for this investment, encroaching on more land to make way for tourists, will be enormous. The end product could be that of a giant theme park based on ancient rural traditions in which the travellers enter, stare shyly at the native people, and pay the bills.

The alternative for Sri Lanka and its growing eco-tourism sector is to embrace urbanism, and help towns and cities to create places where people want to be - to create a city that has the ownership of the local people, and a tourism sector based on that sense of ownership. When future guidebooks say 'Stay in Colombo, drink tea in the cafés, cruise the markets and amble along the waterfront', we'll know that we're just about there.

This article first appeared in Town and Country Planning, the journal of the Town and Country Planning Association. Harriet Festing is Assistant Vice President of Project for Public Spaces. She runs Sri Lanka Insider Tours with her husband Kumar with the aim of supporting sustainable development in Sri Lanka.