What you need to know:
- Where in the world are you likely to find amazing wildlife — leopards, elephants, water buffalo and fish eagles — alongside spectacular palm-fringed beaches and beautiful mountainous tea estates, all within a 100km radius?
- The answer, surprisingly, is not Kenya or Tanzania but the Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka, fast becoming one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
- Last year, Sri Lanka was named the number one destination for 2013 by the world’s most respected guide book, Lonely Planet; visiting the country it’s easy to see why.
Where in the world are you likely to find amazing wildlife — leopards, elephants, water buffalo and fish eagles — alongside spectacular palm-fringed beaches and beautiful mountainous tea estates, all within a 100km radius?
The answer, surprisingly, is not Kenya or Tanzania but the Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka, fast becoming one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
Tourist arrivals in 2013 broke all previous records at 1.1 million visitors, a 17 per cent increase on the previous year, earning the Colombo government over $1 billion in revenue.
The largest number of tourist arrivals are from India, closely followed by the UK, with increasing numbers from China, Japan and Russia.
Classified as a lower middle-income country, Sri Lanka has had an extraordinary tourist boom since May 2009, when the country’s civil war with the Tamil Tigers ended.
Last year, Sri Lanka was named the number one destination for 2013 by the world’s most respected guide book, Lonely Planet; visiting the country it’s easy to see why.
20 MILLION PEOPLE, 22 NATIONAL PARKS
About 20 million people — mostly concentrated around the capital Colombo — live on the island, which at 62,710sq km is less than a tenth of the size of Tanzania.
However, Sri Lanka has an array of tourist destinations including 22 national parks, numerous ancient historical settlements like the rock temple of Sigiriya and the ancient former cites of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, and thousands of palm-fringed sandy beaches that are excellent for surfing, snorkelling, diving or swimming.
Sri Lanka had a huge setback in its tourist development in 2004; the Boxing Day Tsunami that aside from causing widespread loss of life, devastated much of its coastal infrastructure. It has recovered well.
The country has a well developed, if ancient rail system, introduced in colonial times by the British. It also has a growing air and road network, including the recently opened international airport at Matala that has opened up the Yala and Bundala national parks in the south to more tourists.
This is not to say that there is no chaos on the roads and the crowded trains, but Sri Lankans exhibit an element of being unflustered by it all possibly because of the calming effect of their Budhist faith.
NOT WITHOUT PROBLEMS
Sri Lanka is not without its problems, notably issues such as freedom of the press and concerns over high-level government corruption, but the country does not have the feel of a repressive state.
Travel is easily arranged, and with short distances between different types of terrain — from savannah in the south to cool hill country tea plantations in the centre, to the hot central plains of the north — it is possible to visit a wide variety of destinations within a short time.
Moreover, unlike the increasing charges in East Africa, the cost of visiting the national parks is relatively low. For example, we visited Yala National Park (world renowned for its elephants and leopards) for a day at a cost of less than $82 for our family.
Hotels also are reasonable, a mid range hotel will cost around $30-$40 per night for bed breakfast and evening meal, and while there are some exclusive boutique hotels from around $600 per person per night most top range hotels are $80-$160.
Sri Lanka is a year-round destination because of the way the monsoon wet season hits different parts of the country at different times.
With the exception of the far north, the countryside is green and verdant with hundreds of watering holes for wild animals and many inland lakes or ganga, with crocodiles and giant monitor lizards.
Sri Lanka has a wide-range of visitors and most people speak some English.
Some sections of the coast are similar to areas in Kenya and Tanzania — in danger of being overdeveloped — but others like Bentota have been protected by international agreements to preserve endangered turtle sites.
MARINE TOURISM A NEW DEVELOPMENT
The country is developing its marine tourism through boat trips from Mirissa and Tricomalee to see various whale species found off the southern and eastern coasts, and in the west around Kalpitiya to see wild dolphins.
White water-rafting is also popular in and around Horton Plains National Park.
To the north, around Jaffna, where the memory of the civil war remains poignant, the reopening of a key section of the country’s rail network last September has made more tourist sites accessible.
Sri Lanka is a relatively safe destination with few incidents of crime; an encouragement to tourists to explore the sights. The people are friendly and welcoming, business is booming, and the government is happy with the returns from tourism that are providing revenue for development.
This story was first seen in Business Daily.