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Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - 6.07 GMT
Sri Lanka peace brings tourists back


Our aircraft is full. A man across the aisle, a tour director, is smiling. Members of his group speak excitedly about dream holidays, set to begin in about 30 minutes when we land in Sri Lanka - where, I later discover, hoteliers are happy, too.

My, how times have changed.

A mood of doom and gloom, caused by 25 years of bloody civil war, has been replaced by optimism.

Tourists have returned in large numbers to a tropical island enjoying its third year of peace.

Sri Lanka - with roughly the same number of people as Australia on an island just south of India, slightly smaller than Tasmania - is back in the tourism game. Like tea production, tourism is a key economic activity.

Even during the civil war's darkest days, tourism continued. Conflict was confined to the north and east. Foreigners went mainly to the south and centre.

Tourists were never targets - and this helped. But industry officials complained that many potential visitors heard about unrest and decided to go elsewhere. People don't go looking for trouble.

After a quarter-century's war, the country (formerly Ceylon) is at peace. Most observers see scant likelihood of renewed troubles. Sri Lanka is once again a heavily promoted holiday isle.

It boasts a well-developed tourist infrastructure with excellent hotels and resorts, memorable restaurants and good service by English-speaking staff.

The capital, Colombo, seems designed for on-foot exploration since it's more or less a grid pattern. British-colonial facades have received licks of paint with some becoming offices or restaurants. The city's two tallest buildings are the World Trade Centre towers, housing important companies.

Places to stay include one of Asia's grand old hotels, the Galle Face, a 140-year-old landmark attracting visiting royalty and showbiz celebrities. Even if you aren't checked in, it's arguably Colombo's best spot for sunset cocktails. Tip: try an arrack sour, made from a coconut spirit. Modern hotels include the Cinnamon Grand and Hilton Colombo, both adjoining upscale malls.

Whatever travellers say, shopping is a major holiday activity. The good news about Colombo is that shopping is often cheaper than in Bangkok - a truth largely unknown, except to airline crews and Sri Lankans living overseas.

Head for Odel - an air-conditioned complex with sushi bar, ice-cream parlour, coffee shop plus three levels of clothes and homeware.

Prices are low but Odel insists it doesn't sell fakes. Instead, it stocks "over-runs" and clothing with almost imperceptible flaws from a Sri Lankan garment industry making clothes for many foreign designer brands.

Even visitors who aren't cricket fans (by the way, the game is a local passion) usually visit a memorabilia-laden villa called the Cricket Club Cafe, a trendy but very casual place to end a day's Colombo sightseeing.

It's owned and operated by an Australian couple, James and Gabrielle Whight, who arrived in Sri Lanka on a surfing holiday 13 years ago and opted to stay.
"Why would we leave?" asks Gabrielle. "It's such a gem."

The main beach resorts are at Negombo (on the southwest coast, close to Colombo) and near Galle (a southern town steeped in British, Dutch and Portuguese colonial history with Hikkaduwa and other surfing beaches close by).

Sri Lanka's attractions include World Heritage-listed ancient ruins, rolling tea country, Buddhist and Hindu temples, game reserves and elephant experiences.

Arrange a driver-guide at your hotel (even though some group tours are excellent) for inland exploration. Distances may seem short but progress is slowed by narrow, winding (though paved) roads through hilly tea country.

A must-do activity for anyone with children is visiting Pinnewalla Elephant Orphanage. Handlers take more than 50 elephants - orphaned or abandoned - on daily processions to a nearby river where the pachyderms frolic in shallow water as tourists take pictures.

Several smaller-scale elephant experiences operate nearby, offering elephant rides or opportunities for children to scrub elephants which lie placidly on their sides in streams.

Ruins of ancient settlements are a major lure: a so-called "cultural triangle" of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya (which includes neighbouring Dambulla's Golden Cave temple with 1500 Buddha images).

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka's most-visited attraction, is the country's equivalent of Uluru - an enormous rock sprouting from flat surrounds.

The summit, reached by stairways, offers splendid views of the surrounding countryside. Sigiriya was a temple fortress ancient times. The walls of a couple of its caves are adorned with 1500-year-old paintings of bare-breasted women who were part of a royal entourage.

Cool and lofty Nuwara Eliya, a destination favoured by perspiring British colonial officials, is time-warp territory. Quaintly old-fashioned lodgings include one where women weren't allowed to use the front door. The best hotel is St Andrew's, with tea served on sweeping lawns.

Nuwara Elya is close to Kandy, Sri Lanka's second-largest city which drapes itself along an artificial lake's edge. A line often forms at the town's Temple of the Tooth where a gold casket is believed to contain one of Lord Buddha's teeth.

Tourism officials recently raised the profile of Sri Lanka's wildlife reserves. Though lacking Africa's diversity, they're a worthwhile destination.

The best, say local authorities, is Yala National Park, beyond Galle and 340km from Colombo. Birdwatchers are attracted by the presence of numerous species - but I'm hankering to see bigger game.

Almost everyone encounters wild elephants, says my guide. Sure enough, I spot 24 in as many hours. Few get the chance to see leopards, known to be elusive - but I'm lucky and see two.

In between, I eyeball ugly sloth bears, cute deer of several varieties, misleadingly motionless crocodiles - as well as buffaloes, boars and monkeys.
"Ours is a small island with so much to see," says my guide over a pre-dinner Lion beer.

It would be churlish to disagree. Besides, he speaks the truth.

Courtesy: AAP




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