White sand beaches, wildlife safaris, tropical rain forests, ornate temples. Welcome to the latest Asian hot spot.
E manuel Adikaram likes to meet people; it warms his heart. The 43-year-old runs the concierge desk at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, where he started as a bellboy a year ago, and who will soon graduate from Sri Lanka’s hotel service school.
“One customer happy, a thousand customers come to us,” Adikaram said with a smile.
And come they have. Over the last six years, the island has recorded a 300 percent increase in visitors. As nearly 30 years of violence and religious conflict died down in 2009, the country’s tourism numbers spiked. Now, more American travelers flood the country than ever before, arriving into welcoming arms.
“Tourism never died here,” said Hiran Cooray, chairman of Sri Lanka’s Jetwing Hotels chain. “One of the reasons for that is the people here.”
Sri Lankans embrace visitors. They’ll pour you some tea, tell you a story. Sri Lanka has a colorful and raucous culture that its people want nothing more than to share.
In history-laden Galle Fort on the coast, families live next door to one another in homes built by the Dutch and British, like they have done for seven or eight generations. Kandy in the central highlands is home to Esala Perahera, a 300-year-old Buddhist festival highlighted by a gaudy, drum-driven, three-hour parade celebrating the Buddha’s lost tooth, protected from prying eyes in the city’s renowned Temple of the Tooth.
The highlands are also home to Adam’s Peak, a 7,000-foot conical mountain with an oversized footprint in a boulder at the top. Some Christians consider Sri Lanka to have been the site of the Garden of Eden and the footprint to have been left by Adam when he was forced from paradise. Buddhists call it the footprint of Buddha. Hindus say it is the footprint of the Shiva. In a sense, the mount and its footprint has become Asia’s version of Jerusalem, a holy place worshipped by different faiths for different reasons.
“Most people don’t know what’s in Sri Lanka,” Kandy native Ravindra Kumara Herath said during the Esala Perahera festival. “Sri Lanka is a small universe.”
A small but deeply flavorful universe. The young nation is enjoying its new place atop lists of international vacation spots, with new hotels and villas opening their doors every day.
I am very happy. Mostly about 99 percent of foreigners are happy.-Fazal Badurdeen
Cooray’s late father, Herbert, founded the now-dominant tourism organization Jetwing 40 years ago, in what Cooray describes as the golden age of Sri Lanka tourism. Before the civil war, Sri Lankan tourism was on a constant rise. The year 1982 saw unprecedented growth with more than 400,000 visitors, but the war between rebel Tamils and Sinhalese that broke out in 1983 kept those numbers from climbing. Fighting lasted for 26 years. But before it stopped, a tsunami struck the island in 2004 and killed 35,000 people.
Out of the industry’s dark and stagnant realities, Herbert Cooray helped his nation become the tourism powerhouse it is today. In 2012, the island recorded more than 1 million tourist visitors for the first time in its history, surpassing the targeted 950,000 visits.
Tourists visiting Sri Lanka come hoping for a bright and historic country, brushing off the threats from nature or terrorist groups. Maya Steinberg, from Israel, traveled to Kandy in August for the Esala Perahera with her two children. When you travel, you don’t see the politics, she said.
“We didn’t expect the people to be so nice, so polite,” Steinberg said. “It’s very clean and organized. I thought it would be more dirty.”
A block down the Perahera parade route, 18-year-old Emma Palà and her family waited for the festival to begin. The Spanish trio echoed Steinberg’s infatuation with the vibrant locals. Palà said it all looked like a film.
“They are a narrative people,” Palà said.
One Galle Fort man, 64-year-old Fazal Badurdeen, makes a living off of his narrative ability. Seven generations of Badurdeen’s family have lived in Galle Fort, where he tells stories at the Royal Dutch Café, which he owns. He sits on the front porch, clutching a teacup. When he gets into a story, a stern look in his eyes tells you he can still see the streets as they were when he was a child. Badurdeen’s wife and daughters run a souvenir shop in the back, which he said was not there 30 years ago.
“People got smart to do business here,” he said.
Badurdeen said that 30 years ago, Galle Fort’s streets were home to old people reading newspapers instead of tourists picking through jewelry shops and hailing tuk-tuks, the three-wheeled taxis. It used to be quieter. He’s lived through the tourism boom and has seen the foreign traffic’s good and bad. To him, it’s mainly good.
“I am very happy,” Badurdeen said. “Mostly about 99 percent of foreigners are happy.”
Cooray said just as the number of yearly tourists has changed over the last 30 years, so has the type of tourist.
“Today’s traveler is more savvy than 30 years ago,” Cooray said. “Nowadays people will try the local curries. They also might learn a few new things. Sometimes they might learn some bad habits, too.”
He thinks visitors sharing in a little bit of Sri Lankan culture can help everyone involved. When his father founded the business in 1970, Cooray said he established a standard for high-quality hospitality across the nation. He said his father’s belief in honesty still drives the company today.
Since stepping in as chairman, Cooray has used the company to bridge his need to uphold the family business to a passion to help rehabilitate his country. He said in areas where life is still getting back to normal, he opens doors for those in poverty who need it. Jetwing was one of the first companies to operate hotels in the ravaged north after the civil war, and Cooray said they have hired six former terrorists as a form of redemption.
“Wherever we go and open a hotel we have to make sure the local community benefits,” Cooray said. “We go as strangers to that community.”
Tourism has helped Sri Lanka recover both economically and socially since the government ruthlessly ended the conflict in 2009 by nearly annihilating the last remnants of the once-feared insurgent force known as the Tamil Tigers. Cooray said the industry is almost 90 percent owned by the private sector, and it has been the responsibility of individual businesses and CEOs to steer the ship in a positive direction. Without political disruption, Cooray said he’s been able to hold onto the same standard of business his father founded Jetwing to provide.
“We’ve had absolutely no political pressure. We thought, ‘We’ll just ride the wave,’” he said.
Riding the wave alongside Cooray and his network are local businesses that have expanded with the boom in tourism. Madawa Marasinghe has worked with Kadugannawa Tea for 24 years and now serves as manager of the Kadugannawa Factory and Promotion Centre. He said between 500 and 600 tourists visit both of the company’s factories each day, coming to see the tea process.
“We are promoting the tourism,” Marasinghe said. “If they are promoting Sri Lanka, they are promoting tea and our elephant orphanages.”
Cooray said tourism is a unique industry because success at the top almost guarantees success for employees working day to day. If more tourists come, more Sri Lankans will get jobs working in the field. Some locals are drawn to the hospitality business because they know it means they will meet new visitors every day, and maybe hear a new story.
Twenty-two-year-old Dinesh Selladhurai has worked as a bellboy at the Grand Hotel outside of Kandy for almost five years. He said he started there because the industry had few job requirements and lots of on-the-ground training.
“It’s good because really Sri Lanka is all tourism,” Selladhurai said. “I’m very happy to be seeing tourists.”
As travelers from across Asia and elsewhere pour into Sri Lanka, the local people are discovering more ways to benefit from the rampant cross-cultural connection. The more chances they have to sell a souvenir, explain their life story or share what makes them happy, the quicker Sri Lanka will return to its pre-war golden era. Tourism thrives in Sri Lanka because its people know that empathy is what drives travel.
“Mostly the thing is the friendship,” said Herath, the Kandy native watching the Esala Perahera parade. “That is a special thing.”