OVER time, Sri Lanka has come to means many things to many people. To the medieval explorer Marco Polo it was “the finest island in the world”.
To the ancient Moorish merchants it was “Isle of delight”. To the early Arab traders it was “Serendib”, the land of happy surprises. And, what’s more, Mahatma Gandhi was convinced that its natural beauty was “unsurpassed on the face of the earth”.
For someone who flies into this small tropical island with these glowing tributes in mind, the best part is that Sri Lanka doesn’t disappoint. No small achievement that.
In fact, most visitors come away overwhelmed with the many surprises that that this beautiful island set in the sunlit surf of the Indian Ocean springs at them at every corner. From the sea-port commercial capital of Colombo to the hill country capital of Kandy to the hill-top town of Nuwara Eliya,which is better known as Little England because of incessant rain, the geographical contrasts and variety that this land provides is amazing.
But what’s most amazing is the love and respect that Sri Lankans have for wildlife. It is not uncommon to see a mother elephant and her babies holding up traffic. Elephants are, in fact, part of everyday life on this island where legend has it that these massive animals bring luck.
A trip to the infamous elephant orphanage in Pinnewala is proof enough of why the island is known as Asia’s elephant capital. Feeding is a big attraction and tourists from all over come to watch the world’s biggest orphans gorging on coconuts or being bottle fed with milk. But the fun doesn’t end there. The crowd can then follow the gentle giants with great delight as they are herded through the town to the river. There, the spectators watch the elephants lumber into the water and play and fight much to their amazement.
For those who want to follow the trunk call and have more of ‘elephant entertainment’, there’s the elephant safari park. Many tourists prefer to break there journey from Sigriya to Polonnaruwa to venture an elephant ride. The hour-long jaunt into the jungle led by the elephant’s mahout (trainer) is, most often, one of the highlights of the Sri Lanka trip.
But there’s more to the island than elephants. Among the must-see tourists attractions are the 200-m high Sigriya rock fortress, the four breathtaking Buddhas of Gal Vihara carved out of rock, Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth, the ancient city of Anuradhapura, the Dambulla caves and the Hikkaduwa beach resort.
Indeed, nature has also endowed Sri Lanka generously and it boasts the world’s tenth richest biodiversity. From all the fragrant staples of the ancient spice route – clove, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mace and paper – to every kind of tropical fruit and more than 500 species of medicinal herbs, you name it, Sri Lanka has it. What’s more, this small tropical island boasts 170 species of indigenous orchids and 242 species of butterflies, a staggering 441 species of birds, many brilliantly plumaged, and wildlife from massive elephant to tiny Loris. Not surprising then that it is emerging as the preferred destination for eco-tourists
No matter where you are – in the dramatic mountain rifts like Hapulate and Ella or the thunderous cascades of Diyaluma or, for that matter, the magnificent harbour of Trincomalee – you are sure to be under the magical spell of this wonderful island.
For adventure sports enthusiasts, its many beach resorts – especially in the south and west – have superb leisure and recreational facilities and professional services for wind-surfing, water skiing, scuba diving, snorkeling, sailing, surfing, boating, jet scooter and fun-tube riding and deep-sea fishing. Resort hotels also offer good in-house entertainment facilities and many have fitness centres and ayurevedic therapy as well.
Underscoring the importance of the industry to the overall development of the country, Sri Lanka’s government has moved swiftly to support the current momentum in the tourism industry. The resumption of the peace process is a key focus to ensure that tourist arrivals surpass the half-million mark achieved last year.
The Sri Lanka Tourist Board, for its part, has identified and registered more than 50 gracious Manor Houses located in many scenic parts of the island for development as boutique hotels and resorts. In addition, the adoption of an open skies aviation policy by the government has also opened the door to a number of new airlines using Colombo as part of their regional and global route network.
For travellers from the Middle East, it is worth mentioning that Sri Lanka offers a very Muslim-friendly atmosphere and synergies, thanks its historic Arabic links. Mosques are located throughout the country and halal food is widely available.
Since it’s less than a five-hour flight from much of the Middle East and there’s an increasing number of direct flights to Sri Lanka, people from the region have two more reasons why they should include this land surprises in there travel plans.