Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Word from the ground: How is Sri Lanka doing two months after it reopened its borders?

After 10 months of pandemic-induced lockdown, Sri Lanka started welcoming tourists again in end-January. Before Covid-19, the country attracted an average of two million visitors each year – no doubt drawn by the island nation’s stunning coastlines and fascinating hinterlands – but currently, tourist numbers are still in the low thousands. If you’ve gotten your vaccination or are planning to get vaccinated soon and are scouting around for a holiday destination, why not consider Sri Lanka? But don’t take it from us, hear it from the people on the ground – we speak to industry insiders as to why Sri Lanka needs to be top on your travel wish list.

Zinara Rathnayake, a freelance travel writer based in Colombo, says while most small-scale and mid-scale businesses remain closed and some are permanently closed, “some luxury boutique hotels and chain resorts are still functioning and are actually receiving plenty of local travellers with their discounted rates. Foreign tourists are also slowly trickling in, and this will definitely increase as the authorities further relax the rules”. Below, see what travellers to Sri Lanka can look forward to in the upcoming months.

Sri Lanka
Sari Lanka is known for its enchanting natural beauty and incredible biodiversity

1. More socially- and environmentally-conscious travel experiences

Rathnayake says, “As travellers are now more likely to stay for a longer period, I think there will be a higher demand for more mindful and eco-friendly travel experiences. I hope this translates to more community-based, sustainable models that include locals in tourism as they have been the ones most affected.”

Rathnayake is not alone in her assessment. Other tourism industry insiders SilverKris spoke to echoed a need for a more sustainable tourism model in Sri Lanka.

Teardrop Hotels Lunuganga
Teardrop Hotels’ Lunuganga country estate allows you to get reacquainted with nature

Henry Fitch, Managing Director of Teardrop Hotels, says, “If there has been a silver lining to Covid-19, it’s the environmental benefit to the planet. Here in Sri Lanka, we’ve seen a huge shift towards a more sustainable product. Hotels and villas are striving to leave a positive footprint on ecosystems, cultures and the communities we live in. Many have started growing their own produce, while others have eliminated the use of plastics entirely.”

2. A comprehensive health and safety protocol

In order to safely welcome travellers back to Sri Lanka, the local tourism authorities have developed stringent health and safety protocols for travellers as well as tourism service providers. According to Malik Fernando, Managing Director at resort group Resplendent Ceylon, around 200 hotels have been awarded the Level 1 “Safe and Secure” certification, with more being added progressively. Under these protocols, you don’t need to serve a 14-day quarantine if you stay at a “Safe & Secure” Certified hotel. All hotel facilities can be used. All you need is a visa, Covid-19 insurance and to complete PCR tests on arrival. “The health regulations permit travellers to move between resorts and select attractions in a ‘secure bubble’, which makes for a more varied holiday,” Fernando explains.

Boutique accommodation providers like Srilax have pivoted to offering longer-term rentals to local residents

Shana Dandeniya, owner of boutique hotel Srilax located within the Cinnamon Gardens neighbourhood, shares, “While this certification doesn’t directly help smaller accommodation providers, it has helped the F&B industry with tourists staying over 14 days being able to visit restaurants and cafés.” In the meantime, boutique accommodation providers such as Srilax have pivoted to offering their spaces to local tourists for day use or even longer-term rentals. “As more tourists start returning to Sri Lanka, we hope this certification will soon extend to boutique B&B-type accommodation providers as well,” Dandeniya says.

For now, the hotels that have re-opened to tourists have stepped up hygiene measures by going digital as far as possible. Jack Eden, founder of Eden Villas, says, “We have rolled out an app that is free to download and we use this app to communicate with our guests during their stay so they have all the information they need at their fingertips.”

Resplendent Ceylon
Resplendent Ceylon’s Cape Weligama is perched on a rocky cliff and overlooks the picturesque Weligama Bay

3. Exclusive use of properties

Apart from hygiene concerns, travellers are also looking to avoid large crowds and communal spaces as much as possible. Eden shares, “With guests concerned about privacy and space, exclusive-use properties such as our fully staffed private villa rentals are proving a popular choice with travellers. Guests can look forward to extremely high levels of service in their own private retreat.”

Similarly, at Teardrop Hotels, they have rolled out “Exclusive Use” offers where families and groups of friends can book a minimum number of rooms and enjoy the entire property to themselves.

4. Flexible cancellation policies 

Because the Covid-19 situation is highly fluid and can change at any moment, the accommodation providers we spoke to say they are adjusting their cancellation policies in order to give travellers ease of mind when booking their future holiday. Before you book your accommodation, it’s worthwhile checking with the hotel what their cancellation policies are as plans may change at the last minute and lockdowns may reoccur.

willpatu elephant silkwinds
An elephant bathing in one of the watering holes in Willpatu National Park. Photo credit: Lauryn Ishak

5. Rise in nature-led tourism

The intrepid explorer Marco Polo once described Sri Lanka as being “for its size, better circumstanced than any island in the world”. In fact, it’s Sri Lanka’s wild natural beauty that continues to attract adventure-seekers from all over the world.

Mandi Daluwatte, Marketing and Communications Manager at resort Back of Beyond, says, “Sri Lanka has been recognised as the best destination for wildlife safaris outside of Africa and the best destination for nature-based travel in Asia. There is nowhere else in the world where one can see the largest terrestrial creature (the elephant) and the largest marine mammal (the blue whale) – all within the span of a few hours!”

Daluwatte adds, “Sri Lanka has always been a place where travellers can not only enjoy pristine natural landscapes but also immerse in our wonderful local culture, cuisine and traditions. With the strict health and safety measures put in place, travellers have the added bonus of travelling with peace of mind, no matter where they are in the country.”

Sri Lanka conservation feature
Back of Beyond was one of the pioneers of sustainable eco-tourism in Sri Lanka. Photo credit: Suda Shanmugaraja

6. Low impact, high value tourism

While the tourism industry is eager to get back on its feet, industry insiders also recognise the importance to do so at a sustainable rate. Eden says, “Nature has granted Sri Lanka its most beautiful status, and the onus is on us to protect her, nurture her and ensure short-term gain does not replace these natural resources. If we do this, the tourism industry will recover and be a net contributor to Sri Lanka for generations.”

The gorgeous Suriyawatta Villas, part of the Eden Villas collection of holiday properties in Sri Lanka

Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours as well as booking requirements before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about. 

The information is accurate as of press time. For updated information, please refer to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website.

To learn more about Singapore Airlines flights, visit singaporeair.com.

SEE ALSO: Sri Lanka’s eco-tourism efforts are paying off – here’s how

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