Explore Sri Lanka Through Culture and Travel Insights
Jessica Cook shares her cultural experiences traveling through Sri Lanka.
Travel is in our DNA at Sojern. As a global company operating in the travel technology space, we seek new experiences that broaden our understanding of the world and the people who inhabit it. Working on the Travel Insights team here at Sojern, I’m thrilled to share a mix of culture and insights that I experienced traveling around Southeast Asia in Q1 2023, with my first stop in Sri Lanka! At each stop, I’ll be highlighting my experiences and travel trends in these new areas, so stay tuned for more blogs in the future.
Sri Lanka holds special meaning for me because my partner grew up in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city. We made this our first stop to spend some quality time with his family over the Christmas and New Year holidays. This being my seventh trip to Sri Lanka, it feels like coming home—yet, there is always so much more to see and explore.
Sri Lanka garnered a lot of media attention in 2019 as a top travel destination. Travelers come from around the world to gaze in awe at ancient sites like Anuradhapura and Sigiriya, hike Adam’s Peak, explore the old Dutch fort in Galle, visit the tea estates near Ella, elephant and bird watch in Yala or Wilpattu National Parks, and experience the diversity of Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo. It is a beautiful country with a vibrant culture. However, it’s important to understand how recent history has shaped tourism in Sri Lanka.
Global tourism to Sri Lanka is somewhat new. The country opened up in 2009 after a 30-year civil war. The rapid growth and development that followed were financed on debt as the country strove to rebuild roads, ports, and airports, and to restore national sites of interest. Originally a backpackers’ destination, Sri Lanka increasingly became a destination of interest for families and affluent travelers as more services and ease of transport improved across the country.
Sri Lanka heavily relies on tourism as a key source of income and foreign currency exchange. Even before COVID, the economy was showing signs of strain that eventually led Sri Lanka to default on its debt in 2022.
Reflecting its economic turmoil, Sri Lanka has experienced wild swings in tourism. In 2019, flight bookings fell following the Easter attacks and slowly improved throughout the year with a spike in bookings during the Christmas holiday. Then, in 2020, bookings sharply dropped in January as the COVID-19 outbreak in China gained media attention and Sri Lanka had its first confirmed case, reaching a loss of 99% by mid-March that remained nearly flat throughout the year. Sri Lanka’s hard lockdown in 2020 made it difficult even for Sri Lankans to return home. However, it created a near-zero COVID environment for domestic tourism to thrive.
Flights did not begin to recover until the fall of 2021. The economic situation reduced interest to visit in the spring of 2022, which slowly yet consistently improved since July 2022. This year is off to a great start with an 18% increase in flight bookings for the week ending April 1st compared to the first week of 2023.
Domestic tourism became vital to the tourism industry, peaking at nearly 90% of all lodging bookings in Q3 of 2020. The international market has been gaining back market share, a trend that is expected to continue as borders across Asia are now open.
Sri Lanka sees a lot of travelers from Europe, the Middle East, and India. Many Sri Lankans work in the Middle East, and work or study abroad in Europe while Sri Lanka is an easy hop from India for holidays or shopping. Notably, still absent is the presence of Chinese travelers, who are important, especially to luxury tourism in Sri Lanka.
Traveling around Asia is relatively inexpensive for US travelers, and first-class experiences are well within reach for average budgets. On this trip, we returned to my all-time favorite hotel, Kandalama Heritance, which is built into the hills surrounding Kandalama Lake with a view (on clear days) of Sigiriya. Grey Langur and Macaques are all over the property and provide entertainment while sitting on your balcony window. Just make sure to close the door so they don’t sneak in and take something from your room!
The sunrise bird-watching tour in Kandalama was gorgeous and a peaceful experience. The service is top notch and the buffet spreads are far more than you could ever eat, which was true for every place we stayed. Hotels are still clearly recovering and are not yet seeing full occupancy, so you’ll find good deals. Many of these charming places are in need of a little love after the past few years, and thankfully, we did see some construction projects beginning.
Sri Lanka should be at or near the top of everyone’s travel lists. Every time I visit, there is more to see and experience. The lush greenery and wildlife continue to amaze me. Elephants roam freely in many parts, monitor lizards skirt by even in urban areas, and the diversity in birds makes investing in a bird guide a wise decision. Sri Lankan food is delicious, and a distinct offshoot from North Indian food, with a different curry powder.
Finally, over a thousand years of history exists in places like Sigiriya (mountain fortress) and the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. There is absolutely nothing like standing among the grandeur built so long ago and wondering how long it would take a person to carve that single stone etching or the modern-day budget needed to build even a single structure. This is probably why Cambodia ties with Sri Lanka as my favorite country visited—but more to come on that soon!
For curious readers, head over to Sojern’s Travel Insights to check out travel trends for my next stop—Singapore.
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