Sri Lanka: the paradise of the Indian Ocean free of tourists | Trip

YYou will find Athula Nandana in the car park of the Dambulla cave temples. He comes every day to greet tourists as they arrive and invite them to lunch at his family restaurant down the street. A man bear with a gaping smile, is offering a good deal: authentic home-cooked food for tourists; a free lunch for the guide; and a livelihood for himself. Except, he tells him, there are no tourists.

“Before, we had about 600 tourists a day, 40 percent British,” he says. “Today only six, all Spanish, none hungry. I come every day because it’s all I can do, but I can only last about three months.”

Half an hour away, there’s more monkeys than tourists in Sigiriya. The 5th century rock fortress is The Machu Picchu of Sri Lanka: a hideout of kings on a volcanic outcrop that sticks out of the plain like a beggar’s tooth. Last year, 700,000 visitors came to make the steep climb to the top. This year? “We, ahem, don’t have the exact figure yet,” says a ministry official, which is a diplomatic way of saying we do, but it’s so low you’ll laugh.

In the parking lot for foreign visitors, 15 official guides wait for the groups that never arrive. Their leader, Saman Bandeira, tells me: “We had 700 British visitors a day back then. Now maybe 10 or 15 will come. Many guides have already left the industry.” Suddenly he and his colleagues are distracted when the sound of a bus, possibly with a group of tourists, comes through the jungle. His breath turns into a collective sigh as a beat-up bus pulls into the parking lot to drop off the smartly uniformed children for a school field trip.

“Maybe next time,” says Bandeira, smiling.

Sri Lankans always smile, despite their problems. Nearly 30 years of civil war, the 2004 tsunami, the Easter Sunday attacks, sectarian violence and covid-19 have hit the island like late-season hurricanes, claiming lives, destroying livelihoods and devastating the tourism industry. .

A golden Buddha in Dambulla

A golden Buddha in Dambulla


But the most destructive force has been Sri Lanka’s leadership: successive governments that have treated electoral success as invitations to personal enrichment.

The last one was by far the worst.

Using a combination of ego and incompetence, the Rajapaksa Gotabaya brothers, Mahinda and Basil – one a former president, the other prime minister and the third finance minister – have brought this nation of 22 million to the brink of collapse.

In November 2019 Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced massive tax cuts. The goal was to ingratiate himself with the electorate by putting money back in people’s pockets, but his ill-conceived plan went disastrously wrong, emptying the Central Bank and throwing the island into a maelstrom of inflation, shortages and debt.

History can record that the Rajapaksas’ only success was uniting Sri Lanka’s disparate communities into a gentle but unstoppable force that on July 9 stormed the president’s home and stripped the regime of power, or so it was reported.

A macaque monkey touch on the rock at Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

A macaque monkey touch on the rock at Sigiriya, Sri Lanka


A friend in Colombo showed me images that suggested otherwise: an orderly line of thousands on Chatham Street, waiting as patiently as visitors to a Cotswolds stately home. However, tabloid reports misled governments, and soon France, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and the UK were among the nations advising against all but essential travel to Sri Lanka.

In late August, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office rescinded that advice, effectively reopening Sri Lanka to British travellers, but tour operators found that customers feared being caught up in civil unrest and felt guilty. for taking scarce food out of the mouths of Sri Lankans.

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And who in their right mind would want to vacation in a failed state with no social security, no gasoline, businesses closing daily, store shortages because no one can pay for imports, and a central bank on the brink of collapse?

Guide to the best time to visit Sri Lanka
17 amazing things to do in Sri Lanka

I’ve visited dozens of recovering destinations to report on their suitability for tourism, including Myanmar, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and the hurricane-ravaged Caribbean, but I’ve never encountered a tropical storm in a cup of tea . such a triumph of panic over reason, as in Sri Lanka in 2022.

Not everything is good. Inflation is 69 percent and foreign exchange reserves are critically low; consequently, hotel accommodation must be paid for in US dollars to replenish the coffers. Power outages happen every night, but hotel generators kick in within seconds. Some businesses have closed (beauty salons, for example, can’t get imported supplies) and there’s a growing brain drain in the professional classes. In some areas, patients face a three-year wait for operations, and a recent report by the International Monetary Fund places Sri Lanka 44th on a list of 48 countries most vulnerable to food price spikes. and fertilizers in 2023.

But hotels, attractions, shops and restaurants are open. A QR code allocation system has effectively ended fuel queues, and as for food shortages, you’ll see worse at your local UK supermarket. Merchants at the Kandy Central Market were discounting to change stocks; at the Dambulla wholesale distribution center, acres of fruit and vegetables were being loaded onto hundreds of trucks; and on the side of the road in the fertile mountain town of Nuwara Eliya, Tharindra Langeshwaran posed with her brothers next to the perfectly arranged stalls of her produce.

Tharindra Langeshwaran and her brothers at their stall in Nuwara Eliya

Tharindra Langeshwaran and her brothers at their stall in Nuwara Eliya

But it’s sure? In an empty hotel on Bentota beach, I met Colombo-based filmmakers Shehaan Thahir and Shenelle Rodrigo. They had just completed day 42 of a 43-day, 1,050-mile bike circumnavigation of the island to find out.

“When we left Colombo, friends told us to watch our backs,” says Rodrigo. “But wherever we went, we found only kindness and concern. We have been invited to tea by policemen, tractor drivers, rice workers and teachers and nowhere do we find hunger”.

I had to drive another 75 miles, past the empty sands of Unawatuna, Weligama and Matara, before I found the first British tourist. Backpacker Jay Milner, 22, from Essex, had arrived in the idyllic tropical cove of Hiriketiya two weeks earlier and, after consulting with bikini-clad Dutch travelers at the £10-a-night Lazy Monkey hostel, had decided to stay until that the money ran out. outside. “It’s literally paradise,” he told me.

Obviously I hadn’t been to Arugam Bay on the east coast: Sri Lanka’s surfer’s paradise. Right now, A-Bay should be packed with novice surfers, here more for the parties than the end-of-summer waves. The bars are open and the music is blaring, but there are only Israeli tourists, a handful of Spanish backpackers, and Dutch wave chasers Henrik and Karin in town.

“It’s crazy,” said Henrik. “We have had perfect waves for ourselves. We shared crab curry for 2000 rupees [£5] and walk along the most empty and beautiful beaches that we have ever seen”.

He did not mention hotel rates, up to 40 per cent cheaper than in 2018. Discounts will fall to around 20 per cent in December, and if tour operators pass on the savings they will almost cancel out the increases incurred by the pound sterling. to collapse.

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There are no discounts on airfares. As of October 2017, you could find direct returns with Sri Lanka from £493 and indirect returns from £499 with Emirates. Today, they cost £769 and £706, 55 per cent and 40 per cent more respectively, with the only mitigation being that the holiday cost of living (tuk-tuks, souvenirs, entrance tickets and dinners) is in rupees. Around this time last year, you got 270 rupees per pound. This year, it’s 411, so your money goes a lot further.

The Central Bank estimates that tourism could bring in £135m a month to Sri Lanka, providing the means to pay for urgently needed imports of fertilizers, medicine and cooking gas. Meanwhile, Sri Lankans improvise and look to their natural resources for answers.

In Pottuvil I met a 70-year-old doctor who had come out of retirement. “Schools are open, we have water, and if people have a jackfruit tree, a coconut palm, or a rice paddy, they will never go hungry,” he said. “I think Sri Lanka will be stronger after this ordeal.”

Last Friday I climbed Pidurangala, a lesser-known volcanic outcrop next to Sigiriya. Beyond the empty tourist trap, wisps of smoke rose from villages hidden in the jungle, and beyond it, Pettigala and Erawulgala Peak jutted out of the plain like spikes on a crocodile’s tail. That way Kandy. The other, Colombo. Behind me, Jaffna, and somewhere in that vast landscape there had to be some British tourists. Wherever they were, they had this land of elephants, temples, tea, and kindness practically to themselves. It’s hard to think of a better time to visit.

Chris Haslam was a guest of Jetwing ( and Sri Lankan Airlines (

Keep an eye out for leopards on the Kulu Safaris expedition

Keep an eye out for leopards on the Kulu Safaris expedition


Three of the best holidays in Sri Lanka

1. Family wildlife viewing
Sri Lanka can be a quiet yet exciting destination for children. An 11-day family adventure gets you a couple of days by the pool and then takes you cross-country to Yala for two nights at Kulu Safaris tented camp and expeditions in search of leopards, deer and sloths, before back down the south coast. for four nights on the east-facing beach of Mawella, one of the safest beaches in Sri Lanka for swimmers.
Ten nights mixed board from £4,000 per person including flights (

2. Southern getaway in style
The Jetwing Lighthouse hotel near Galle was designed by celebrated Sri Lankan modernist architect Geoffrey Bawa. Now 25, it has a grande dame style with a clubby bar, an excellent fine-dining restaurant, two pools, and plenty of beach. Galle’s museums and design shops are £2 by tuk-tuk.
Seven nights bed and breakfast from £1499 per person including flights (

A train ride through the tea plantations

A train ride through the tea plantations


3. Tea and history tour
A two-week private guided tour of the Cultural Triangle and tea country, visiting the ancient city of Polonnaruwa; the rock fortress of Sigiriya; the cave temples of Dambulla; elephants in Minneriya and leopards in Yala; plus the Heritance Tea Factory with a scenic train ride from Kandy to the mountainous city of Nuwara Eliya. Accommodation is in high-end hotels, including the Notary’s House in Makandura and Kahanda Kanda by Lake Koggala.
Fourteen nights bed and breakfast from £3,450 per person including flights (

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