Sri Lanka, Asia's authentic and compact island, provides a diverse array of natural and other attractions — has been listed among the five new emerging travel destinations by the World Travel Market's industry report, following a dramatic turn-around of its tourism industry. There is no doubt that pent-up demand for the destination, which has been inaccessible for many years, is driving growth. Almost everyone talks about Sri Lanka tourism being the engine of growth, and expects it to play a pivotal role in the island's economy.
A very high per centage of foreign tourists choose Sri Lanka as a holiday destination to enjoy the "sun and coconut-fringed beaches" and other attractions, such as its colourful culture and excursion trips to the very green misty hill country area that harks back to its colonial heritage. Visitors are instantly embraced by the warmth of the country and swept away by its serenity. There are many tourists who return to the island's warm shores to find rest and relaxation, as they are pampered by hospitable locals. Time comes to a standstill as you absorb yourself in the country's history, seaside, wildlife or trek through the green plains in the up country region.
As one of the most sought after tourist destinations in the world, Sri Lanka has all the attributes to become one of the world's finest tourist destinations, with its stunning beauty, natural resources, absolute peace, political stability, climatic changes within a few hours of driving past beautiful waterfalls, scenery, rivers, tea estates, UNESCO approved world heritage sites and over 250,000 archaeological sites, along with many other attractions. It is nearly impossible to find all these attractions on a compact island, in addition to the warmth and friendly nature of the people who are still not infected by commercialisation.
Anyone who has visited this wonderful destination will not hesitate to return, and those who venture to this island are amazed by its beauty. Tourism is really booming in Sri Lanka, which is reaping the harvest of peace and stability as it aims to soon become the wonder of Asia.
Once known as "the Granary of the East" and 'Serendib' by Arab sailors who sailed through the silk trade route, Arabs today are re-visiting Sri Lanka as tourists and also to engage in trade and business.
Sri Lanka expects 2.3 million tourist arrivals per year by 2016. Judging by the influx of tourists today, there is no reason to expect why this target cannot be reached, as things are moving fast in the right direction. Sri Lanka has become one of the top tourist destinations, which are served with daily flights by most major airlines. With state-of-the-art hotels and friendly people, meeting the target of 2.3 million and also becoming the 'Wonder of Asia' within a few years using tourism as a vehicle, is definitely a reality.
Also, a newly introduced online visa procedure has encouraged and enhanced visitors, as immigration officers are alert and professional, friendly and quick.
New highways and expressways have been developed and Sri Lanka's first access-controlled 96-kilometre expressway from Colombo to Galle, built at a cost of approximately US$700 million, opened in November 2011. This has made the city of Galle more accessible for both local residents and tourists, with the travel time between Colombo and Galle reduced to two-and-a-half hours from five hours, resulting in hotels and resorts located on the Southwest Coast of the country witnessing an improvement in their performance due to the opening of the expressway. The remaining stretch of highway linking Matara is expected to be completed this year.
The construction of the Colombo-Katunayake Expressway connecting the international airport in Katunayake to Colombo city is in progress and to be completed by the second half of this year. This expressway is expected to reduce travel time to Colombo from the airport to approximately 40 minutes from the current one to one-and-a-half hours. Further, highways from Katunayake to Anuradhapura (153 km), Colombo to Kandy (98 km), and Anuradhapura to Jaffna at the northern tip of the country, are currently in the planning stage.
To provide an alternate to the only existing international airport in Colombo and to enhance accessibility to other parts of the country, Sri Lanka is building its second international airport at Mattala in the southern Hambantota district. Construction is underway for the first phase of the airport, which will include one runway and one taxiway to enable a passenger handling capacity of one million. The project is expected to be completed in the last quarter of this year. The government's plan is to increase the total passenger handling capacity to 12 million by 2016.
To meet this goal, the expansion of the existing airport in Katunayake is also planned, with the addition of another passenger terminal and expanded cargo handling facilities. Several airlines have expressed interest in offering flights to Sri Lanka and have increased their frequency to cater to the rising demand from tourists and Sri Lankans residing in other countries.
The past year also saw Sri Lankan Airlines introduce their seaplane operations. Seaplane services currently connect Colombo to 12 destinations within the country, while another six routes are being planned. These services, which are utilised by tourists and locals, are a step forward in making tourist destinations across the country more accessible.
For wildlife enthusiasts, packed into this tiny island is an abundance of nature starting from the famous endemic species of elephant, the elusive leopard and sloth bear in their natural habitat, in addition to having the unique experience of seeing the largest land and sea mammals in one holiday destination. The country has nine national parks and seven bird sanctuaries. In fact, 43 of the endangered species listed by the World Conservation Union can be found in Sri Lanka's national parks. Sri Lanka is also home to Minneriya, which is famous for having the largest gathering of wild elephants.
With the aquamarine waters of the Indian Ocean gently lapping its pristine shores, Sri Lanka's beaches are covered with soft warm sand. Home to tropical fish and living corals, the waters surrounding Sri Lanka are warm thanks to the tropical climate the island enjoys. With over 1,300 km of beach, all tourists have to do is spend hours of fun in the sun and get the perfect tan, unless they are looking for more action, such as surfing, diving or jet skiing.
Also, the country has recently grown in fame as being a hotspot for whale and dolphin watching. Mirissa in Southern Sri Lanka has now established itself as the world's top spot for watching the Blue Whale, the largest creature to have inhabited the planet. During the season, Blue Whales can be seen nearly every day at a strike rate of over 95 per cent just a few nautical miles from the shore, which is unprecedented when compared to sightings of these animals in other parts of the world. Sperm Whales, too, may occasionally be seen in pods numbering as many as 50 individuals, and on a good day you may have views of both Sperm Whales and Blue Whales in the same field of view. Acrobatic Spinner Dolphins may also be seen, sometimes in super pods that can number over one thousand. Other locations one the island famous for sightings include Kalpitiya and Trincomalee.
Whale watching in Mirissa has emerged as one of the biggest and most positive stories for Sri Lanka's growing tourism industry in recent years, thanks to the efforts of Jetwing.
Jetwing Lighthouse, an icon in Galle, has been the home of whale watching for over four years and played a pivotal role in researching, promoting and branding the activity to the world since its inception in May 2008. Now, Jetwing Hotels joins SriLankan Airlines and John Keells Group in a drive to boost conservation efforts of the whale, in a programme named Project BLUEprint, along with Whale and Dolphin Conservation UK.
Additionally, for thrill seekers Adventure now takes on a whole new meaning, as adventure seekers silently drift in multi-coloured hot-air balloons above the forest, as a couple of peacocks take flight directly below the balloon's basket, their outrageously long iridescent blue and emerald tail feathers streaming behind like a psychedelic jet stream. Several deer dart nervously across a clearing below, but the small herd of elephants continues feeding, unfazed by this aerial intruder.
Balloons that travel with the wind make for one of the most surreal and tranquil sensations of flight. Following the initial adrenaline rush of the take off, passengers settle down to absorb the wonders of the colourful earth below.
Other outdoors experiences include white water rafting in the picturesque Kelani River in Kitulgala, covering five major and four minor rapids that flow over some five kilometres. White water rafting can be coupled with adventurous confidence jumps and water sliding, technically known as canyoning.
Sri Lankan ecotourism gives you the opportunity of enjoying multi-faceted attractions, such as the highest mountains, the longest sea beaches, magnificent civilisation, glorious traditions, artistic monuments, incredible diversity of landscapes, climates, flora and fauna, unparalleled bio-diversity, topographical variations, and much more.
Jetwing Vil Uyana, Sri Lanka, won the award for Sustainable Project Design at the 2012 Hotel Investment Conference Asia Pacific (HICAP) Sustainable Hotel Awards.
Jetwing Vil Uyana needs no introduction; as its status as the country's finest eco-luxury resort is well earned. Set amidst a man-made wildlife preserve, and a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Jetwing Vil Uyana strives for efficiency in all ways and has been successful in both providing guests a stay in the embrace of Nature herself, as well as providing a home for 80 species of birds, 17 species of mammals, 36 species of butterflies and 21 species of amphibians – all found within the hotel premises.
Jetwing Vil Uyana embodies what can be accomplished in providing a luxurious resort guest experience in a truly environmentally friendly and sustainable manner.
Twenty-seven luxurious dwellings are integrated into a wetland reserve in an area of just three acres, despite the property spanning 24 acres.
Two years prior to hotel construction were spent solely on the creation of the private nature reserve on neglected slash and burn agricultural land, which now comprises a wetland ecosystem with lakes, reed beds and forests. Only indigenous plants were utilised and grown naturally, including butterfly and bird attracting flora to enhance the richness of the species.
Paddy is grown using traditional harvesting methods and careful monitoring of flora and fauna reveals a tremendous increase in both numbers and diversity.
"We revolutionised the field of traditional hotel design with Jetwing Vil Uyana, and the property continues to amaze. Being a refuge for nature, as well as a getaway in luxury, Jetwing Vil Uyana certainly deserves such a prestigious award" said Hiran Cooray, Chairman of Jetwing. Other winners include Radisson Blu Resort, India, Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa, Thailand, and Song Saa Private Island, Cambodia.
Sri Lanka is Asia's authentic and compact island providing a diverse array of natural and other attractions to experience.
(The contributor of this article, Clifford Lazarus, is a Personal Assistant to His Majesty the Sultan's Advisor for Environmental Affairs).