Our driver pulls the car to the side of the road to let a convoy pass. “A minister,” he says, “best to keep our distance.”
This is Sri Lanka. A twenty year old civil war has taught its citizens to stay clear of government officials who might be targets of suicide bombs, and has scared travelers away. A real pity as tourists have never been targets.
Not much has changed since I last visited some fourteen year ago: the “lush green dream” I described in a story then or the little towns where a Christian Church, a Mosque and Tamil and Buddhist temples might share a city block. Nor the police barricades along the road except that they now have become so ubiquitous that they carry advertising.
[Note – this article was written in 2008, before the war ended in May 2009]
Traveling safely in Sri Lanka, or any other place, is mostly a matter of avoiding the wrong place at the wrong time: staying away from the northern regions and avoiding public events attended by politicians. Most Sri Lankans and visitors get along just fine, thank you.
I have a fondness for green places, especially the redwood forests of Northern California, where I live. What is different about Sri Lanka is its diversity of green. Driving out of Colombo, the nation’s capitol, you slip into a world which some might consider an hallucination, from emerald apparitions of lush wetlands and jungles where wild elephants roam, to above-the-clouds tea plantations and fusty old golf clubs where the Brits once took tea…and tee.
“Green,” in Sri Lanka, is now coloring political culture as well as the scenery. The county is aiming to become carbon neutral by 2018. Probably not as difficult as in nations without Sri Lanka’s lung-like ecosystem, a natural respirator with ample natural foliage to suck up carbon and puff out oxygen. We all know that tourism can do great damage to environments: jetliners and diesel buses pollute, hotel developments create waste. Led by Sri Lanka’s tourism community, Sri Lanka’s Tourism Earth Lung Initiative aims to aid that giant lung by creating best practice models for transportation, hotels, resorts and tourist attractions while planting even more trees. Yes, it is about saving the planet, but it is also about preserving an industry that depends upon natural attractions to survive. Anything that makes a traveler feel good about visiting has to help.
Would I go back to Sri Lanka today given recent incidents? I would, most definitely, as Sri Lanka is one of the most physically-beautiful and culturally-interesting places I have ever visited…and I haven’t seen it all yet. Tourists have not been targets. Frankly, I have always felt safer in almost all places in Asia than I do in almost all large cities in the gun-slingin’ US of A.