Sigiriya, sustainable wonder to the world


Sigiriya, considered to be one of the most valuable historical monuments in Sri Lanka, has long been renowned as an architectural wonder of urban planning and engineering, and a UNESCO world heritage site since 1982. Converted into a royal palace following King Kashyapa’s flight from the then capital Anuradhapura, the inner-city tiers, water gardens and moats are credited for their advanced, ingenious design.

The richly decorated frescoes and mirrored wall have also led Sigiriya to become one of Sri Lanka Tourism’s most prominent archaeological attractions. The latest addition to Sigiriya’s accolades is the recent announcement by Bloomberg, that listed the Lion Rock fortress, as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

Bloomberg’s announcement is timely for Sri Lanka, as the island plans to take advantage of the new behavioral patterns that are expected to emerge among post-pandemic travelers. According to experts from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), travelers are now more likely to demand a focus on sustainability, connections with local communities, open-air and nature-based cultural experiences—in other words, the ethos of travel in our little island home.

Before global travel restrictions, the tourism sector in Sri Lanka was the third-largest export earner accounting for around 5% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2018 with the sector directly employing 250,000 people and up to 2 million, indirectly. The number of tourists visiting Sri Lanka nearly doubled from 1.5 million to 2.3 million from 2014 to 2018. Revitalizing this sector through a speedy, clean and green recovery has the potential to provide tangible benefits to the Sri Lankan economy and communities across the island.

Building Back Tourism

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Sri Lanka in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) has been focused on just that, building back tourism as a resilient and sustainable sector. The newly developed Tourism Roadmap, ‘Putting People First: Building a More Resilient Tourism Sector in Sri Lanka’, aims to rebrand Sri Lanka which, for decades, has been pegged as a mass low-spending market, to an unmissable, signature experience recognized for its niche, indigenous products and services around nature, wellness, culture and adventure.

It also aims to redesign the industry to protect its people. Sri Lanka’s tourism is still reeling from the devastating Easter Attacks in 2019, and are only just getting its bearings together from the global travel collapse and effects of COVID-19. This roadmap for Sri Lanka, aims to provide social protection nets for those in the industry to withstand such untimely events in the future. UNDP will continue to assist the Government of Sri Lanka in updating the Tourism Development Strategic Action Plan 2021-2024, while also enabling Sri Lanka to transition to sustainable tourism by creating guidelines and standards for nature-based tourism.

Prior to the pandemic, SLTDA put sustainability at the core in reviving this sector, by launching the National Sustainable Tourism Certification in 2018 with financial and technical assistance from the Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN).

Such programmes are essential, as tourism is often a source of pollution and biodiversity degradation with the benefits of tourism not trickling down to local communities. This certification scheme is geared towards promoting sustainable accommodations, destinations and tour operators.

The first phase of obtaining certification for accommodations was successfully completed, while SLTDA and UNDP are currently focused on obtaining Sustainable Destination Certifications for 9 destinations across the 9 provinces in the island. This certification scheme enables tourist destinations to be rated based on the overall quality of service and exclusiveness of the experience. Currently, 28% of total revenue from visiting international tourists is generated through biodiversity related attractions.

This certification will further contribute to tourism, by attracting more eco-conscious tourists which will generate more revenue to help improve the biodiversity of these destinations.

Despite the high value of these attractions, hardly any revenue is put back into developing and conserving these attractions and its surrounding habitats. The Destination certification looks at sustainably managing the existing biodiversity, by encouraging key tourist destinations to invest 0.5% (equivalent to 5 million USD per annum) back into biodiversity management. The scheme injects cash back into conserving natural resources and the surrounding local communities, ensuring tourism will be for the people and planet, leaving no one behind.

Path to sustainability

Sigiriya, already a popular attraction amongst tourists, has been targeted for the sustainable destination certification particularly given issues noted by tourists such as overcrowding, congestion, and plastic pollution among many others.

Ramitha Wijethunga, National Project Coordinator of the Climate and Environment Team at UNDP Sri Lanka also notes, “The importance of protecting Sigiriya for future generations is very clear now. Under the Sustainable Destination Management Certification programme, the Ministry of Tourism and SLTDA together with the UNDP-BIOFIN project has taken steps to develop a plan to support the implementation, to ensure the sustainability of this cultural excellence and looks to extend this beyond Sigiriya into other wonders across the island”.

Nature based solutions

Some of these plans include the creation of a plastic free zone, upskilling neighboring communities to be interpreters, management of tourist flow through digital technology, development of neighboring attractions such as Pidurangala and Kaludiya Pokuna for visitor overflow and distribution. Tourism depends on the preservation of an attractive environment and certification acts as an incentive to tourism providers to rebuild these locations to be more eco-conscious.

The National Sustainable Destination Certification is a first step in promoting nature-based solutions for the country’s green development. As flagged by the UNWTO, a green recovery is essential post-pandemic, in catalysing the responsible recovery of the tourism industry, balancing the needs of the people, and the planet for Sri Lanka’s green growth.

UNDP partners with people at all levels of society to help build nations that can withstand crisis, and drive and sustain the kind of growth that improves the quality of life for everyone. On the ground in 170 countries and territories, UNDP offer global perspective and local insight to help empower lives and build resilient nations.