Travel Sustainability In Sri Lanka: How To Make A Difference

In Sri Lanka, elephant and human interaction can present challenges. GETTY

The travel industry can—and often does—play a large role in sustainability in countries across the world. In a country like Sri Lanka, where there are many factors involved—social, cultural and economic—it’s a delicate balance between thriving tourism and protecting the land and people on it. Here’s how one company handles the challenges.

Coastal Conservation

Sri Lanka is known for its beautiful beaches. GETTY

The Challenge: Climate change is affecting Sri Lanka’s coastlines. Rising sea levels will affect one of our primary assets which are our tropical beaches. Therefore coastal conservation is of primary importance. Erratic and unpredictable torrential rains cause flash floods which result in displacement and disruption to all sectors of the economy. Increasing dry spells and droughts affect the production of electricity forcing the government to cut power supply during increasingly longer periods of time. This in turn affects the productivity and the economy of the country at all levels. Mitigation strategies include retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient; adopting renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and small hydro.

Creating Change: Approximately 50% of all electricity in Sri Lanka comes from renewable sources, particularly hydro. From the inception and conceptualization of the Uga luxury hotel brand, there’s been a massive investment in solar. Solar accounts for approximately 20% of total energy consumption bringing the use of renewable energy across the hotel portfolio to 60%.

Social Human Challenge

The Challenge: Chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) is an increasing health concern. It is the 8th leading cause of in-hospital mortality in Sri Lanka and the leading cause of death in Anuradhapura, near Ulagalla, the flagship property of UGA. Heavy metals are present in fertilizer commonly used in paddy cultivation and significant levels have been detected in vegetables and rice from these areas. Absorption of pesticides through skin and inhalation occurs in those employed in the agriculture sector.

Creating Change: The villages situated within the immediate vicinity of Ulagalla are some of the worst affected areas in Sri Lanka. Earlier this year the hotel established a Reverse Osmosis plant in the village of Athungama in Anuradhapura, near Ulagalla. In a region where poor water quality has contributed to a high incidence of kidney disease, this life-saving plant is a crucial source of safe drinking water for 250 families.

Wildlife Conservation

Elephants are a major tourist draw, but they can also present challenges to local villages. GETTY

Creating Change: Over the last three generations, the Sri Lankan Elephant population has declined by as much as 50%. Listed as endangered by the IUCN, current estimates suggest there are about 6,000 Sri Lankan Elephants left, with just under three-quarters of these majestic creatures living outside protected areas. Habitat loss, and in particular, deforestation, has squeezed elephant ranges and brought them into conflict with rural communities. In 2019 alone, over 350 elephants perished as a result of an intensifying human-elephant conflict (HEC).

Creating Change: In 2020, Uga partnered up with Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, Chair of the Centre for Conservation and Research – Sri Lanka to better understand the pachyderms living within this part of the island. At Ulagalla, there is a trained team of individuals – in-house guides and members of our local community – dedicated to tracking elephants in the wider vicinity of our hotel. They are gathering data such as where elephants congregate, their seasonal movements and their feeding grounds, and sending this information to Dr. Prithiviraj and his team at CCR to help prevent human-elephant conflict.

At Ulagalla, there’s an on-site Elephant Research Centre (ERC) with maps, photographs and information on the Sri Lankan Elephant and the work of the CCR that guests are welcome to visit.

Diversity and Inclusion

In Sri Lanka, most hotel positions are occupied by men. Uga is looking to change that by increasing … [+]GETTY

The Challenge: Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is facing a lack of skilled human capital yet it has been estimated that 25,000-30,000 additional employees will be required each year to cater to the projected increase in visitor arrivals over the next few years. Women are highly underrepresented in Sri Lanka, with females accounting for less than 10% of the workforce, compared to the 54% globally. Moreover, female enrollment in hotel schools in Sri Lanka is disturbingly low. These figures do not bode well in the context of a growing sector and the country’s already low female labor force participation rate (33.6% compared to 73% for men).

Within Sri Lanka’s hospitality sector, men outnumber women in most occupational categories, except for Guest Relations, Front Office, and Marketing functions. Thus, attracting more women into the sector will help to address the growing labor shortage, a crucial deterrent to the industry’s growth.

Creating Change: In two years Uga has increased the number of female employees in the company by 2% – from 11% to 13% with the biggest increase at Ulagalla, their flagship property. The goal for Uga is to increase that number to 20% across all Uga hotels by 2024. In order achieve this goal UGA is actively pursuing and prioritizing the employment of women through training, outreach and communications.