While it was named Lonely Planet's top travel pick for 2019, Sri Lanka is a country that has been free from civil war for only a decade, has had to deal with the mass devastation caused by a tsunami in 2004 and will now have to overcome the deadly bomb attacks on Easter Sunday. Resilient is one word to describe the country, but there are many more superlatives that can be used to illustrate what is one of Asia's most sought-after holiday destinations.
In less than 10 years, Sri Lanka has transformed itself from a war-torn country to Lonely Planet's top country to visit in 2019. Travel experts point to its eclectic blend of cultures, accessible wildlife and a growing surf scene as major selling points. Last year, the teardrop nation welcomed a record-high number of visitors, a testament to how much has changed since the end of a war that spanned almost three decades.
When asked why the country was named number one on its list of places to visit this year, Lonely Planet spokesman, Chris Zeiher, said: "Sri Lanka is decidedly having its moment in the equatorial sun. Whether you're a family traveller or an adrenalin junkie, a wellness seeker or a foodie, in Sri Lanka you'll find all the magic you'd expect from South Asia, bundled into a resurgent, medium-sized island-nation that's friendlier – and with improved tourism infrastructure and transportation – more accessible in 2019 than ever before."
As President Maithripala Sirisena calls on people to remain calm in the aftermath of the devastating attacks, it is hoped the blasts don't dim what has been a brightly shining tourism industry and that the people whose livelihoods depend on visitors are not made to pay for these atrocities. We look at some of the things that have helped establish Sri Lanka as a top travel destination in recent years, and those that will hold it in good stead as it rebuilds again.
The train routes in Sri Lanka are some of the most scenic in the world, and since the civil war that started in 1983 ended in 2009, many routes have been repaired or expanded. The eastern train route from Kandy to Ella and Badulla offers travellers lush views of forests and tea plantations, and the chance to cross over the famous Nine Arch Bridge. Major renovations to the railway system have made parts of the country that were previously shut off to tourists accessible again, including the route from Colombo to Jaffna. Reopened in 2013, the track is a gateway to the northern province.
Cinnamon Air was also established in the postwar period, offering domestic flights from Bandaranaike to Koggala and Dickwella, and making many places in the country’s beach-laden south coast easier and quicker to reach.
Improved highways all across the country have made travelling by road much easier, and have cut journey times from capital Colombo to other destinations on the island. Motorways have been built as far south as Matara.
While December to April is considered peak season in terms of visitor numbers to Sri Lanka, the country welcomes visitors all year, offering consistently pleasant temperatures driven by two different monsoon seasons. While this means plenty of rain, it also means there is always nice weather somewhere on the island. In the west, south-west coasts and the hills, it is rain-soaked from April to September, while the rest of Sri Lanka basks in sunshine. The Maha monsoon hits the east coast from November to March and the whole country enjoys temperatures of around 26°C to 30°C all year, thanks to its location close to the equator.
Kandy and the tea country are influenced by two monsoons, making the region much cooler than the rest of the country, even in the height of summer. Keen surfers can chase waves around the coastal regions, with the best surf in the south-west seen from November to March, and then again on the east coast from May to September.
A good night's sleep
As travellers have flocked to Sri Lanka, the number of places to stay has increased significantly, with major international hotel chains establishing a presence in the country. The seaside capital of Colombo, which was targeted in the Easter Sunday attacks, has undergone the most substantial transformation, with Taj, Movenpick and Hilton, all opening hotels in the city. New properties from InterContinental, Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons are also set to open soon, too.
There is also a plethora of accommodation options on offer, from wellness resorts to wildlife-immersed lodges. Travellers can take their pick from the luxury villas at Anantara's tropical clifftop Peace Haven resort in Tangalle or opt to soak in a bit of history in a tea factory-turned hotel in Nuwara Eliya. Tri, a sustainable wellness resort on the shores of Lake Koggala, welcomes travellers seeking a bit of breathing room, while the bubble-like tent lodges in the jungles of Yala National Park appeal to those with a sense of adventure.
With free-roaming elephants, Sri Lankan leopards, purple-faced langurs, jumping tiger spiders, and more, Sri Lanka is a wildlife haven that is home to many animals that exist nowhere else in the world.
The three-decade war inadvertently protected much of the country's natural reserves by preventing mass industrialisation, and tourism is now developing with conservation and eco-values in mind.
Yala National Park is home to around 30 leopards, while Udawalawe National Park boasts more than 500 wild elephants that roam across huge stretches of grassland, jungle and forests. The country's best rainforest is found at Sinharaja Forest Reserve, a birdwatcher's paradise, while the Horton Plains National Park in the central highlands has forests rich in endemic animals that have adapted to the region's cooler climes.
Sri Lanka’s largest park, Wilpattu National Park, reopened in 2003 after being closed for more than 15 years and ocean enthusiasts can partake in a wildlife watching triangle taking place in Mirissa (best for whale spotting), Kalpitiya (best for dolphins) and Trincomalee (best for blue whales).
Surf and more
The country’s coastlines, jungles and beautiful beaches are not its only draw, there is also an abundance of unique activities and experiences for travellers to indulge in.
When it comes to history, Sri Lanka is home to eight Unesco World Heritage Sites, including the Sacred City of Kandy, where tourists can see the Temple of the Tooth, believed to hold a tooth of Buddha. There is also the much-photographed rocky outcrop of Sigiriya, which has remains of a palace and stunning views of a jungle.
The island nation is also a rapidly growing surfer's playground with decent swells. While the waves can't compete with those in Australia or Hawaii, Sri Lanka's tropical location means pleasantly warm waters with year-round surfing opportunities. Best known for being a party town, Hikkaduwa also offers plenty of surf, and more advanced boarders can hit Arugam Bay, Weligama and Mirissa.
Sri Lanka shares more than proximity with its neighbour India, including its love for all things Ayurveda. The leader of these retreats is Santani, nestled high in the hilltops of Kandy, here you can experience yoga, cleansing therapy, relaxation techniques and detox escapes. Similar wellness-based retreats can be found across the country.