It’s time for budget beauty Sri Lanka to be embraced by tourists again

Foreign tourists at the Demodara Nine Arches Bridge near Ella, Hill Country of Sri Lanka
The Nine Arches Bridge in Demodara is also known as the 'Bridge in the Sky' - Pradeep Dambarage/Getty

It’s unheard of for loyal supporters to wear their rival team’s colours. So, when Sri Lankan fans turned up to Colombo’s R Premadasa Stadium dressed in yellow for a match against Australia in June 2022, the gesture resonated loudly around the globe.

Grateful to the foreign players for touring at a time when others had turned their backs on the troubled country, local audiences held handwritten banners with the words: “Thank You Australia. We Love You.”

Known for its warm-hearted, welcoming spirit, the pearl of the Indian Ocean has steadily embraced tourism since recovering from a 26-year civil war that ended in 2009. The country has a lot to offer: eight Unesco world heritage sites, rich biodiversity and a coastline sparkling with surf-kissed sands.

Sri Lankan cricket fans dressed in yellow while cheering and holding a banner thanks to the Australia cricket team
Grateful cricket fans salute Australia's test team in Colombo - Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty

But hit by multiple setbacks in recent years, it hasn’t been an easy ride. In December 2004, the island was hit by a devastating tsunami, followed by the Easter terrorist bombings of 2019 and the inevitable collapse of businesses caused by Covid. In 2022, confidence in the country plummeted even further when a debt default led to power cuts, protests and spiralling annual inflation of around 60 per cent.

Yet despite the odds, interest in the destination has been growing; new hotels are in the pipeline, more attractions are opening and tour operators have reported a rise in enquiries for holidays. Although far too slow to materialise, the FCDO’s recent decision to soften its advice for UK nationals is further proof that it’s time to go back.

A street food vendor by the beach in Colombo
A street food vendor selling roti, crabs and prawns by the beach in Colombo - Getty

Escorted tour company Explore, which has been selling holidays to Sri Lanka for more than 40 years, has seen a 174 per cent increase in customer bookings over the last 12 months. Intrepid also saw a 130 per cent increase from 2022 to 2023 and now plans to run 350 departures to meet the growing demand.

“We’ve championed the destination for a long time and we really believe there are more good reasons than ever to travel to Sri Lanka,” says Venetia Cox, the head of Asia, Australasia and the Middle East at the luxury travel experts cazenove+loyd, who are reporting a 30 per cent increase in enquiries. “The impact of tourism as a force for good here should not be underestimated.”

Foreign tourists visit the Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple in Dambulla
The Rangiri Dambulla cave temple in Dambulla is another highlight - Ishara S Kodikara/Getty

Given tourism accounts for around 5 per cent of the country’s GDP and 15 per cent of the population depend on the revenue it generates, returning visitors have a role to play in helping a nation desperate for an injection of foreign currency to get back on track.

“Tourism is the largest sector in Sri Lanka, with a big trickle-down effect, so that all important spend will hugely benefit many members of society, down to tuk tuk drivers and coconut sellers,” says Dee Gibson, a British Sri Lankan who owns the Kalukanda House boutique hotel, a short drive from the coastal city of Galle. “It makes the difference between eating and not eating, educating children or not sending them to school. The impact is enormous.”

Beyond feeling good about their actions, travellers can also benefit from cheaper prices and fewer crowds. “The exchange rate is strong and so holiday budgets stretch further to offer amazing properties and experiences,” she adds.

Foreign tourists visit the ancient rock fortress in Sigiriya
The ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka's many breathtaking heritage sites - Ishara S Kodikara/AFP

Despite concerns from the outside world, conditions within the country have been stable for some time. Many argue that – even with revisions made – the FCDO advice is still out of touch.

“The sentiment here in Sri Lanka is very positive,” says Marcelline Paul, the vice-president of sales and marketing at Uga Escapes. “There has been good progress with the IMF and other international donors. Inflation is down to single digits compared to the 2022 average of 44 per cent.”

The company, which operates a portfolio of six boutique properties, plans to launch a new hotel, Uga Halloowella, in the tea-growing region of Ella at the end of this year. It sits within easy reach of the Pekoe Trail, a new hiking route running through the central highlands. Resplendent Ceylon and Teardrop Hotels, both established players in the destination, also have new properties opening in 2025.

Sadly, feelings of optimism are tempered by political realities and ongoing violations of human rights. Bills to decriminalise homosexuality are still under discussion and a report by Human Rights Watch earlier this year expressed concerns about freedom of speech. But a willingness to work through problems suggests change is possible.

ella sri lanka
Walkers exploring the tea-growing region of Ella - Getty

“Sri Lankans are resilient. They are also accepting,” says Jean Marc Flambert, the former UK director of Sri Lanka Tourism, who took the brave step to launch a tour company Secrets of Ceylon in June 2022 – the same month the Australian cricket team made headlines for simply visiting the country. “Nothing ever holds us down for long. We bounce back.”

Recalling those difficult days when imports dried up and shop shelves were bare, he describes the resourcefulness and ingenuity of local people who switched to cultivating their own produce.

“My mother started growing beans and exchanging some for a neighbour’s vegetables,” he says, adding that he hopes she will continue the practice even now conditions have improved. “Sri Lankan soil is so fertile. You can drop a mango seed and expect to return in 12 months and see a plant.”

It’s an appropriate metaphor for a country with the capacity to rapidly flourish once again.