(Anjali Prayag) — Visiting Sri Lanka recently, one found that a country that had lived in the shadow of terrorism for over 30 years surprisingly showed very little bitterness. Except for a few check-posts, there were few reminders of the recent violent past of this island-nation. “There was never a day when we didn’t either read or hear of an attack. But we have put it behind us and look forward to a phase of economic growth,” says an employee at Taj Samudra in Colombo. This property of the Taj Group of Hotels is bustling with tourists, seeking both business and leisure.
We were a group of journalists visiting Sri Lanka on the invitation of the Taj Group of Hotels and Sri Lankan Airlines.
Clearly, this naturally endowed country is all out to woo international tourists. Voted the top holiday destination by The New York Times (The Place to be in 2010), the country is eager to figure on the itinerary of the globetrotter.
“Yes, we are gung-ho about tourism, especially Indian tourists,” says Senaka Fernando, Regional Manager, Asia Pacific, Sri Lankan Airlines. The airline is optimistic about increasing its tourist traffic from inland India — places such as Bangalore, Hyderabad and Delhi — through its ‘sea and beach offering’, although “Indians like to shop here more than beach-surf”, says an official from the Taj Group of Hotels in Sri Lanka. In fact, the airline has increased its capacity out of Tiruchi, Thiruvananthapuram, Bangalore and Chennai.
Tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka have increased by over 30 per cent over the past year, with over 80 per cent coming from India. In the last six months, 49,000 Indians have visited the island and they included leisure, pilgrim and corporate travellers.
Blessed with natural beauty, the country hopes to make tourism its top revenue earner after textiles and tea exports.
It is trying to create the right mix of infrastructure and conveniences for tourists. Visitors will be struck, for instance, by the ease with which one can obtain a local SIM card for a mobile phone. Various service operators have set up booths right outside the airport and offer SIM cards on the spot. The smooth road traffic is a welcome change from the chaos back home.
Hotel tariffs are comparatively low. With tourism picking up, business has been good in the last six months, says V.K. Prasad, General Manager of Taj Exotica, another sea-facing property of the Taj Group at Bentota. He expects the improving situation to favour the hospitality sector. “Tariffs which were at $70-80 a day are expected to shoot up to $120 soon,” agrees a tourist operator.
From sunrise over a clear blue sea and shopping for global brands to the glitzy casinos and clubs under a night sky, Colombo packs enough to keep visitors engaged the whole day through. Adventure enthusiasts can look forward to water sports at Bentota, while those seeking a religious sojourn can visit Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth Relic, which is believed to house Lord Buddha’s tooth brought secretly from India.
Shopaholics can find global apparel brands at unbelievable prices at stores like Odel and Fashion House. Incidentally, the island country has over 900 textile export units supplying to leading global garment brands.
Boasting nearly 30-35 tea variants, tea shopping becomes an art in Sri Lanka. Tea accounts for about 15 per cent of the country’s GDP and is a major export product.
Those looking for indigenous products can stop at Paradise Road, Barefoot and Dankotuwa Porcelain. Though the prices seem steep at first, the conversion rate (Rs 100 fetches almost 220 Sri Lankan rupees) takes the sting off the pricing.