Welcoming the tourists back

Andrew Mourant

Last year a million holidaymakers visited Sri Lanka, which is being rediscovered as an attractive destination. With major investment being ploughed into hotels and transport infrastructure, numbers of visitors are set to rise

Within recent memory, a holiday in Sri Lanka would have been unthinkable for any apart from the intrepid. As if a vicious civil war against Tamil separatists wasn’t enough, the island had been deluged by the tsunami of Boxing Day 2004. An island regarded as paradise by many of its past visitors was emphatically off-limits. But recovery has been rapid since peace finally came to the island in 2009 after decades of strife. 

Even the war zone itself has become an attraction, though more for domestic Sinhalese tourists than those from abroad. Visitors in increasing numbers are discovering – or rediscovering – Sri Lankan splendours. The island is a compact package of scenic riches: sandy beaches; ancient remains; hills and lakes; rainforest teeming with wildlife. 

Now there is major investment in tourist accommodation. Prices may be rising, yet the travel guide Lonely Planet feels Sri Lanka is sufficiently blessed to merit being listed as its number one country to visit in 2013. SriLankan Airlines offers daily direct flights from London’s Heathrow and recently BA resumed services three times weekly from Britain’s other major airport, Gatwick, to Bandaranaike Airport via Malé. 

Last year, arrivals numbered around a million – a 17 per cent increase on 2011. Earnings of more than US$1 billion in 2012 were 16 per cent up. The Sri Lankan government is hungry for more – its target is 2.5 million visitors by 2016. The Board of Investment (BOI) has been directed to woo well-heeled visitors and high-end hotel investors. Already in situ are luxury hotel chain the Shangri La Group (Hong Kong/Singapore), India’s ITC Group, Thailand’s Minor Group and the Mustafa Group of Singapore. Others, such as the Sheraton brand of Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Marriott International, Hyatt Hotels Corporation and Onyx Hospitality Group have signed management agreements with local hotel companies. 

The government has designated 15 tourism zones to attract local and multinational investment, and is promoting these for hotel and resort projects. Among coastal destinations are Kuchchaveli in the Trincomalee district in the north-east; Passikudah in the east; Kalpitiya, north-west; and Dedduwa, south-west. New roads, airports and seaports are being built, backed heavily by foreign investment, especially from China. Sri Lanka’s first expressway from Colombo to the southern hub of Galle opened in November 2011. The Colombo – Katunayake Expressway, connecting the capital and its international airport, was due to open in October at the time of writing. Many more projects are underway or in the pipeline. 

To develop tourism in the south and east, a second airport opened in March 2013 at Mattala in the southern Hambantota district. An expansion of passenger terminal and cargo-handling facilities at Katunayake is also planned. Backed by a loan from the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA), the work is due to finish in 2015. Some airline operators have almost doubled the frequency of flights to cater for rising demand as Sri Lanka casts its net to attract more visitors. The government’s eye is especially fixed on China, where it recently held its first big promotional event, inviting politicians, government officers and members of the travel trade and media. A bus branding campaign took the message beyond Beijing to other cities such as Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou. The Sri Lankan government sees vast potential in the Chinese outbound market, last year estimated at 83 million tourists.

Sri Lanka’s attractions are almost innumerable, but among its interior highlights are the fifth-century Sigiriya rock fortress, the ruins of King Kashyapa’s palace. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site, as is Dambulla, a Buddhist cave-temple complex continuously occupied since it was established in the third century BCE. Minneriya National Park is said to have the world’s largest gathering of Asian elephants, and Yala the world’s largest concentration of leopards. 

“Sri Lanka has absolutely everything in a small land area – friendly people, food, wildlife, culture, beaches,” says Tom Armstrong of Experience Travel, who has guided numerous trips there. “It just needs to maintain those things in the right way and not trash them – a fine balance needs to be struck at World Heritage sites.” 

He attributes the surge in tourist numbers to “pent-up demand”. “Maybe a lot have travelled now and it will even out,” he says. However, new areas and new attractions continue to open up. “What has been done in the north-east is really quite impressive – a huge amount of infrastructure work in terms of facilitating development,” Armstrong adds. “Passikudah Bay has had massive investment – a lot of hotels have been built by chains in the hope of driving tourism to the area.” 

One ambitious project unfolding on the north-west coast is a development of 14 islands along a lagoon in Kalpitiya’s region. Once off-limits because of the civil war, the government has claimed up to 37,000 jobs could be created directly and indirectly in an area of poor land where fishing has been the staple economy. But the plans have caused friction – critics accuse them of being too grandiose; and some local families, wanting to preserve their way of life, feel they’ve been ignored. With the civil war ended, visitors are starting to explore the far north, Jaffna and its nearby attractions such as a renovated Dutch-built fort, and the giant 18th century Hindu temple at Nallur. Some landmarks of war have – not without controversy – been turned into attractions by the government. 

Along Elephant Pass, remnants of a makeshift Tamil Tiger tank can be seen raised up on a platform. Many local tourists have flocked to the command bunker at Mullaitivu, once occupied by Prabhakaran, leader and founder of the Tamil Tigers, found dead in May 2009 floating in water amongst mangroves. Despite the dash to build new tourist complexes around the Sri Lankan coast, Armstrong believes scope remains to exploit established national parks and cultural treasures. “The whole country suffered due to the war and a lack of confidence, though the more established areas are developing quickly,” he says. “The next five or ten years will be very interesting.”

About the author:

Andrew Mourant is a freelance journalist whose specialisms include international business and renewable energy


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