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Sri Lanka Revisited

Author: Brian W Fisher
Date of Trip: March 2013

Sri Lanka (post war)

Having toured Sri Lanka many times over the past two decades, I thought that to return now that the war between the government forces and the ‘Tamil Tigers’ had ended, would be a good idea.

Choosing three distinct regions to visit would give me the best overall impression of the present situation (tourist wise) and how they and the local population viewed it.

Every ethnic (non-Tamil) Sri Lankan I spoke with, held strong beliefs that their government had acted correctly and that the charges of genocide cited by the UN and other World bodies, were wrong. They became quite incensed when the subject of the Channel Four documentary film was mentioned, protesting to ‘yours truly’ that it was all faked by the British cameramen, sound recordists and journalists.

Many opposite views were expressed by tourists of certain nationalities, opining that the film must have some merit but the war was over and would be best forgotten.

Immediately following the end of that conflict (and when Tourist numbers dropped sharply) the Sri Lankan authorities, together with a number of ‘developers’, made high value assets available for the acquisition of land vacated by the indigenous Tamil population. Hotels and amenities have sprung up and a concerted effort is being made to encourage tourists to return.

The official number of tourists into Sri Lanka during 2012 showed a marked increase over the previous two years. However, those numbers need to be scrutinised carefully as the same figure quoted for ‘Tourists’ is identical to the total number of passengers arriving at Colombo airport, irrespective of nationality or purpose…quite a weird comparison?

On then to the subject of the regions and the hotels within them at which I’d elected to stay.

First, I based myself north of Negombo at the north western coastal area of Marawila and made various excursions from that village.

To sample what the growing number of All Inclusive Hotels had to offer and measure the standards, I’d chosen Club Palm Bay as probably being typical.

This is a large, sprawling resort covering many acres and is set in a landscape dotted with lagoons. All accommodation is single storey bungalows. Being fully air-conditioned, spacious and boasting excellent bathroom and bedroom storage facilities, no fault could be found as to their suitability.

Meals, as expected, were all ‘buffet style’ and taken in the hotel’s only restaurant – a large, open sided building overlooking the swimming pool. With so many nationalities of guests, the food on offer was varied to suit and was plentiful. The quality also lived up to expectations. Waiters and overseers performed their tasks with slick professionalism, ensuring tables were quickly prepared and drink orders were produced with a minimum of waiting. The only ‘grumbles’ I overheard and witnessed, were from guests being ‘ousted’ from their place in the buffet queue by those who’d gained the title of ‘Sri Lanka’s Cyrillic Invaders’. It was indeed unpleasant to observe such bad manners but on speaking with ‘The Management’ I learned that the hotel and many like it, were increasingly reliant upon bookings from that part of the world, as the traditional and oft-returning guests from the UK and Europe had taken their custom elsewhere. As for actual statistical factual ratios, I have no knowledge.

There was no doubting that the centre of attraction was the large swimming pool and its very pleasant garden surroundings. Every sun-bed was occupied by early morning (at least by books, towels, newspapers or some article of clothing). However, not the usual Germanic suspects this time…I’ll let you guess which nationality had superseded them. Overlooking that specific, the pool was great and squeaky clean.

Evening entertainment varied from traditional Sri Lankan dance shows to fire eaters. All were enthusiastically received and applauded.

Other facilities offered by the hotel were tennis, mini-golf, an Ayurvedic centre, snooker and other indoor games.

Although being sited on the beach, most hotel guests shied away from it. I wasn’t surprised, as the sand is streaked with ‘black whatever’ littered with rubbish and not in the least inviting. The steepness of the shoreline would make the average bather, very wary of stepping in the breakers.

There were some incidents within the hotel and its gardens during the hours of darkness due no doubt to the consumption of copious amounts of free alcohol (mostly Vodka). The security personnel were certainly stretched on occasions.

Some 154 Kilometres (95 miles) north east of Marawila is the famous Sigiriya Rock. This region is popular because of its cultural heritage and the nearby attractions of Dambulla, Kandalama and two wildlife reserves containing many families and herds of wild elephants.

On any ‘normal’ road, a car averaging say 60 kilometres an hour, should take 2.5 hours to make the journey, but Sri Lanka’s roads are anything but ‘normal’. It took my experienced driver over 4 hours to make the trip and how the car’s suspension coped without complete failure, I’ll never understand.

I was to base at the Kassapa Lions Rock Hotel.

Very different indeed to the one I’d just left. This hotel, built on the flat plain which surrounds the Sigiriya Rock, makes the best use of the natural habitat. It’s a haven of peace and tranquility. Individual chalet bungalows are dotted here and there, each with its own veranda and comfortable chairs. Relaxing in one, drink in hand watching the antics of Chipmonks and the flitting of birds from tree to tree makes time pass and one’s mood mellow.

Guests can select any board basis, many opting for half board, as on each of the days I spent there, almost all guests boarded minivans, cars and coaches immediately after breakfast, and set-off in all directions to their chosen excursion destination. Those wanting to laze in the sun instead, headed for the well cared-for swimming pool.

Unlike the almost ‘frenetic’ atmosphere of Club Palm Bay, the ambience here was exactly the opposite. The much smaller guest number led to a much quieter experience, even at evening dinner, when all guests were seated in the restaurant, normal conversation could take place. There were no complaints over food…it was ample, well prepared and tasty.

The only downside to the resort was the absence of a WiFi connectivity, which is (and was) irksome for those people who relied upon it for whatever reason (in my case, to access the dozens of e-mails which bombarded my in-box daily). Still, that was a small price to pay in exchange for a delightful few days at ease.

Conversations with guests from three continents did not highlight any particular worries over the political situation in Sri Lanka…all seeming to be enjoying their experiences immensely.

On then to my final destination, Colombo, 171 kilometres (106 miles) southwest. Again by car, again a torturous journey, this time taking all of five hours. The road was invariably blocked with overloaded trucks belching black smoke, dilapidated and battle-scarred busses, cars being driven by what could only be described as ‘suicidal maniacs’ not to mention tractors, bullock carts and darting motorcycles.

There is no doubting that Sri Lanka’s transport infrastructure is totally inadequate for the amount of traffic trying to use it. Road surfaces are, quite frankly, appalling and very, very dangerous. Accepting that it is a ‘Third World Country’ others in the same category (such as Thailand) have far outstripped Sri Lanka and are benefitting hugely by increasing numbers of tourists.

When the inexplicable decision by the Sri Lankan government to introduce a visa requirement for tourists entering the country, is added to the state of the roads, it is little wonder that I heard protests time and time again from tourists, especially those with children, that such is an added expense and will only do damage to that country’s tourist industry. Only India adopts the same visa policy within the region. Is it any wonder that nearby countries are benefitting? The system could be compared to a high street shop in the UK displaying in its windows what it has to offer and then, when wishing to enter, a big, burly bloke holds out his hand and demands £25 before letting you in.

Arriving at The Galle face Hotel on Colombo’s Indian Ocean shoreline was a very different event indeed. This imposing building dates from an age when austerity was limited to the very poorest in society. Its grand, its big, its imposing and styled in the old ‘colonial’ fashion.

Its two wings (the old and the not so old) are nearly always fully occupied and it’s little wonder why. Space melds perfectly with style and one’s feelings blend with a mixture of modernity, facility and grace. Its guest list is truly multinational and of the class able to afford its five star – but not overpriced room rates.

Sri Lankan weddings take place regularly and are a perfect example of how things used to be. Highly decorative and colourful costumes are seen everywhere (and that’s just the MEN!) The women and girls of course, outshine them, their delicate beauty enhanced by their apparel as well as the radiant looks on their faces.

At this hotel, the staff outnumber the guests. Nothing is too much trouble and those in managerial roles do just that…manage. Like clockwork, all parts of the hotel function as designed, whether merely requesting a sandwich, a gourmet seafood platter under the stars, an ‘extra’ towel at the poolside or an the answer to a question.

Its location is truly stunning. The ocean waves roll and break against the western boundary of its huge gardens and swimming pool and opposite the imposing front entrance lies Galle Face Green, a half mile swathe of grass, where, when the sun goes down, a myriad of local folk of all ages gather to buy and sell their wares.

A couple of hours strolling along here, gives all-comers a flavour of what Sri Lanka’s citizens are like when hair is let down and children are not kept on tight leashes. Just do it if you can and don’t be afraid to sample a cooked delicacy from one of the many food vendors.

So there we have it. Three regions, three very different hotels, three ‘bundles’ of experiences. Will Sri Lanka’s tourist industry grow and thrive? Without a crystal ball, I can’t say for certain but there are lurking doubts.

Those in governmental decision making roles, need to stare at the reality of what they offer visitors to their country and compare it with what the likes of Thailand has, and is doing.

An important fact should be borne in mind by those responsible for Sri Lanka’s tourism…that is, that Russians hardly ever revisit a holiday destination whereas British and other European tourists invariable do so, if their first experience has been a good one.

Competition will become more severe, no doubt about that and when viewed with the present economic situation in the Euro Zone in mind, radical changes and investment will be required.

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