Sitting just above the equator, Sri Lanka is the pearl of the Indian Ocean: this small island has everything a traveller could wish for. On one hand, tropical golden palm fringed beaches stretch for over 1600km around the coastline, on the other hand, cool highland interior featuring lush green landscapes of paddy fields, world-famous tea plantations, scenic waterfalls and mountain passes.
Then there’s the abundant and varied wildlife – you’re practically guaranteed to see a wild elephant (or even a herd) if you know where to go, and could catch sight of an elusive sloth bear or leopard. And it is an absolute dream for bird lovers. Throw in the chance to lose your head with adventure and water sports, eat yourself silly on exotic dishes, experience colourful festivals and indulge in the national obsession – cricket (if that’s your cup of tea!) – and you’ll understand why a visit to this country sticks forever in the mind.
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The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka) is located to the South-east of India, separated by the Palk Strait. Lying between the Sri Lankan island of Mannar and Indian mainland is a natural formation of limestone Shoals – know as Adam’s Bridge (Rama’s Bridge or Rama Setu). Adam’s bridge is mostly submerged and geographical evidence suggests that this ‘natural bridge’ used to connect Sri Lanka and India.
Sri Lanka comprises of nine provinces. Colombo is the capital, which is located in the Western Province. Sri Lanka has been a member of the Commonwealth since 1948 and was the first Commonwealth state to have a female prime minister – Sirimavo Bandaranaike served for three periods of office commencing in 1960.
As of the beginning of 2015 the Sri Lankan population was 21,660,000 people, with 15% of the population living in urban areas. Sri Lanka has a network of roads and rail connecting the nation, along with several international ports. Traffic drives on the left and ~80% of roads are paved. Major sea ports are at Colombo, Galle, Talaimannar and Trincomalee. Bandaranaike international airport is 32km from Colombo, major domestic airports are at Ratmalana (near Colombo) and Jaffna. The national currency is Sri Lankan rupee (SLRs).
As a brief history; Sri Lanka was formerly known as Ceylon – a colonial name for the island national until 1972. It is believed that Sinhalese settlers arrived in the 5th and 6th centuries BC, Sri Lankan Tamils settled mainly from the 10th century onwards. Indian Tamils arrived later, brought in by the British in the 19th century as labour for the plantations. During the 16th century the country was frequented by the Portuguese, Dutch and British – however after 1815 the entire nation was under British colonial rule. Independence was finally granted in 1948, but it wasn’t until 1972 when Sri Lanka assumed the status of a Republic. Sri Lanka provides a ‘Cultural Triangle’ rich in historical interest, encompassing ancient ruined capitals, rock fortresses, cave temples, giant Buddhas and the sacred city of Kandy.
But, of course, Sri Lanka has also experienced a civil war and extensive political unrest in recent times. In 1978, Sri Lanka introduced a democratic republic with an executive president and prime minister – the Sri Lankan Civil War followed – beginning in 1983 and ceasing in 2009. Today, the Sri Lankan tourism industry is starting to thrive after the civil war and devastation of the Asian tsunami in 2004.
Ethical Travel Issues and advice
Historical Political Instability: The people of Sri Lanka are very political by nature – the volatile electoral politics over the last half a century has rendered the spate of unrest and wavering national policies. However, 2015 indicates a firm step towards political stability that fosters cohesion and consensus. From a tourism perspective, the number of visitors travelling to Sri Lanka is growing annually and it is an exciting time to visit the island nation. With the growth of the tourism sector, national tourism policy is continually developing and receiving greater attention – this results in fragmentation towards achieving collective goals for the country. Most notably, the end of the conflict in the north has opened up new unexplored areas for tourism.
According the Sri Lankan tourism board, there were slightly over 1.5millions tourist arrivals in 2014. This figure was based on tourist arrivals and hotel occupancy – December experienced the highest number of tourists with 178,672 visitors, May was the quietest time with 90,046 tourists.
Displacement of local peoples:
Tourism development has caused many communities to be forcibly displaced. Indigenous groups, people living in informal settlements, or people who lack official title deeds to their lands are particularly vulnerable to displacement or loss of access to lands and waters essential for their livelihoods. This often happens with little or no warning, compensation or alternative provision.
Governments and private companies have forced many tribal peoples from their ancestral lands to make way for national parks and so called ‘eco-tourism’. Fishing communities are removed from their coastal villages and blocked from accessing the sea as hotels are built and beaches are privatised, destroying livelihoods and traditional ways of life. Informal settlements are bulldozed under beautification projects in the lead up to major international sporting events.
After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, coastal communities in Thailand, Southern India and Sri Lanka were permanently relocated inland while their traditional lands were earmarked for tourism development.
To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles on Land displacement:
Locally Sourced souvenirs and gifts: There have been several cases of trophy hunting in Sri Lanka. The penalties in Sri Lanka are severe for illegal hunting, including deportation or arrest for smugglers, which aims to limit the threat to local fauna. Visitors do collect shells and other organic materials to adorn the mantelpiece in their homes – which is a concern with increasing tourism numbers. Animal bones, teeth and other parts (such as skins, fur and skin) are used for various medical uses and rituals – especially in South East Asian Countries. When you are considering gifts and souvenirs, consider the source of the product.
Ethical Photography: Travelling presents an opportunity to photograph in lots of different destinations and situations, but sometimes there may be culturally sensitive issues to think about before reaching for the camera or other photo-taking device. There are lots of people in the world who do not have clean water, electricity, schooling or enough to eat, let alone access to mobile telephones, the internet and printed media, so they have no idea where their photograph may end up or how it could be used. Sadly, in this day and age, child prostitution, child trafficking and other crimes against children are facilitated via the Internet, and photography can play an unwitting and innocent role. Photography and its use is no longer straight forward, so perhaps it is time to stop and think a little about the ethics of photography – Responsible Photographers tips.
Elephant Welfare: Animal rights in Sri Lanka have been a much talked and debated subject in recent times. Elephants in particular are considered sacred in the Island nations 2500 year history and treated with much pomp and glory. But processions employing these creatures (for religious purposes) have come under severe criticism from activist and animal rights groups. Elephant orphanages have also come under scrutiny due to rampart abuse – whilst keepers in question deny any wrong doing but cases of credible physical torture are quite well known. Elephant rides are also available in Sri Lanka. Most tourists are unaware that they are unwillingly endorsing abuse by going on rides. Most of these ride happen during the peak of the day where elephants labour under simmering hot sun.
“Photo-prop” Animals: Like many countries, Sri Lanka offers tourists the chance to have their photograph taken with wild animals. This may include monkeys dressed in clothes, or performing elephants. Whenever an animal is away from its natural habitat, or is being asked/forced to perform non-natural behaviour (however cute), then there is likely to have been abuse or cruelty.
Sea Turtles: Sea turtles are a great tourist draw, and many can be seen at hatcheries or ‘projects’ around the coast. However, there has been concern that these projects are simply to make money through tourist interaction and photos, rather than being focused on the welfare of the turtles.
Water Scarcity: Water Scarcity is one of the biggest issues facing Sri Lanka today. Currently 91% of the population uses an improved drinking water source, however there is a growing concern regarding water contamination due to the excessive use of agro-chemicals. The north central and North West regions are the worst affected areas at present. As of 2015, a mysterious Kidney disease has claimed 20,000 lives and continued to baffle health authorities. High level of cadmium in the drinking water has been found partly responsible for this situation. Sri Lanka is one of the worlds highest fertilizer users, with many fertilisers and pesticide containing banned substances (such as mercury). Recent droughts in August 2014 have further worsened the situation and many local people are forced to go in search of drinking water in neighbouring districts.
Tourists are commonly not advised to drink tap water, which has added to a rising issue of plastic bottle waste. The existing scarcity of safe drinking water, added with the woes of present day agriculture contamination of wells and reservoirs, has resulted in one of the major issues to be aware of in Sri Lanka today.
Tourism Concern has extensively campaigned on water equity and have published reports & articles on the topic. To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles:
Deforestation: Forest covers 29% of Sri Lanka’s land mass. However, Forests have been declined at a rate of 1.2% per annum during the period of 1990–2010. Reduction of the natural tropical hardwood forest due to deforestation is endangering endemic animal species. Whilst 10% of the country is protected by national park, there is still a real issue in regards to illegal logging.
Litter & Plastic Waste: The Influx of tourist to the country after the civil war has invariably added to the issue of plastic waste, which Sri Lanka is struggling to contain. The indiscriminate disposal of these materials (especially water bottles) poses serious health risks and death to local wildlife and livestock. The Knuckles region in the central Sri Lanka is experiencing greater levels of plastic waste left behind by tourists. Even guesthouses that cater to foreign tourists, struggle to deal with mounds of plastic bottles and other plastic materials. Sri Lanka has had what we call “a throwing culture” until recently, and is now attempting to mitigate waste disposal by implementing social awareness campaigns and strict policing by councils. But in certain local tourist sites, bins are found overflowing with plastic attracting dogs and cattle – posing a danger to motorist and pedestrians.
In Kandy, there have been reports of hotels and guesthouses releasing effluent to local lakes and waterways. These areas boasts of rich bird life and a watering hole for walkers and tourist alike – as a visitor please avoid using plastic where possible and ensure you dispose of your waste responsibly.
“Eco Tours”: Sri Lanka is fast becoming a popular eco-tourism destination thanks to its growing number of safaris and adventure tours focusing on wildlife watching responsibly. Only 5% of tourists to Sri Lanka are currently counted as wildlife tourists so the Sri Lankan government is keen to increase income from this sector and has even allocated funding to assist with promotion. Many supporters believe an increase in wildlife tourism will increase security within national parks and provide funding to preserve natural resources. However, there is a growing trend that eco-tourism can be exploited by companies wishing to make money from the stunning local wildlife, without giving something back conservation and welfare projects.
Nick Clark – pre-eminent Sri Lankan specialist.
Nick is Experience Travel Group’s Sales Manager and our pre-eminent Sri Lankan specialist. Nick loves exploring life in Asia and has spent a great deal of time in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Laos over the past decade. Most recent adventures have included a comprehensive ‘recce’ of the forgotten nooks and crannies of southern Cambodia, an exploration of the little known Mannar Island in north-west Sri Lanka, a hotel inspection visit to the Maldives and exhaustive tours of Bali (twice), Java, Flores (and Indonesian Borneo).
Sri Lanka has a Tropical climate. The lowlands and coastal areas are always hot, particularly from March to May. The highlands are cooler; you may even find occasional frost on very high ground during December and January. Sri Lanka experiences two monsoon seasons:
The south-western monsoon season brings rain to the south-west of Sri Lanka between May and September, while the dry season in this region runs from December to March. The north-east monsoon season lasts from November to March. This brings wind and rain between October and January, and dryer weather between May and September.
The most significant environmental issues in Sri Lanka are deforestation (causing soil erosion), coastal degradation (as a result of mining activities), pollution of freshwater resources (by industrial wastes and sewage), air pollution (mostly in Colombo city), and the threat to wildlife populations (due to poaching and urbanization).
In regards to renewable energy in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority (SLSEA) is responsible for licensing and promoting renewable energy developments in Sri Lanka. Currently hydropower is the most common renewable source in Sri Lanka; this is due to several fast-flowing rivers sourced from the central mountains – The Mahaweli Ganga is the longest river at 322km. There are also several wind farms and a commercial solar installation. The most common fossil fuel based energy forms are coal, fuel oil and natural gas.
The Sri Lankan mountain range is made up of gneiss rock – the highest point in Sri Lanka is Pidurutalagala at 2,524m. One of the most violent earthquakes ever recorded occurred on 26 December 2004 in the Indian Ocean west of Sumatra generating a tsunami that swamped the east and south coasts of Sri Lanka causing approximately 31,000 deaths and devastation of the coastal area.
Forest covers 29% of Sri Lanka’s land mass, arable land comprises of 19% and permanent cropland 15%. Nature reserves now cover 10% of the island. Vegetation in Sri Lanka is rich and luxuriant, with a diverse range of flowers, trees, creepers and flowering shrubs. Most common flora include the rubber tree, palm, acacia, margosa, satinwood, Ceylon oak, tamarind, ebony, coral tree and banyan. Flowers and shrubs include the orchid and rhododendron. There are about 3,300 species of plants, of which some 280 are threatened with extinction.
Common fauna found in Sri Lanka include Elephants, Leopards, more than 400 species of birds and 250 species of butterflies. Dragonfly watching is also growing in popularity as the country has 117 species, with an amazing 53 of these endemic to the island. Sri Lanka is also a great place to sport blue whales.
Nature reserves now cover 10% of the island. Wilpattu National Park in the north-west (813 sq km) is best known for leopards; Yala National Park in the south-east (112 sq km) is home to large elephant populations, the Uda Walawe National Park is the closest rival to an African game park (elephant sightings are also very common). However, reduction of the natural tropical hardwood forest is endangering several animal species.
Religion and Caste: Whilst there are various religion beliefs in Sri Lanka, the main religions are Buddhism and Hinduism which both have large influences on political, cultural, business and social life. Most predominant is the shared acceptance of fatalism (that a higher force is in control). As a result, people will turn to religion when making decisions. It is recommended that you understand the foundations of these religions, as respect to the local people that you are visiting:
Generally speaking, Buddhists believe people are reincarnated and have several lives. In each they learn lessons and should try to better their conduct in each life until they reach what is known as “Nirvana”. Hinduism has two important beliefs, “samsara” (reincarnation and that actions in this life determine the status of the soul in the next incarnation) and “dharma” (caste or social class). Hinduism has many deities including Ganesh, Shiva, Vishnu, and Parvatand Kali, all of which are aspects of Brahman (the eternal source of everything).
The influences of Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as the caste system, have created a culture that operates within a hierarchical system.
Keeping Face: ‘Face’ can be described as honour or personal dignity and is extremely important to Sri Lankan people. In business, publicly criticizing someone would lead to a loss of face for both parties. Many Sri Lankan people will not feel comfortable making immediate decisions; since this may lead to failure, which then leads to loss of face. Similarly, if asked a question to which the answer is “no” many Sri Lankan people would prefer not to be so blunt and may give rather vague or uncommitted answers in order to avoid losing face.
Social Contact and Communication: Typical greetings depend on the ethnic group people belong to, but as a foreigner you will not be expected to be aware of such differences. The main styles of greeting in Sri Lanka are outlined below:
- The older generation of Sri Lankans: will use “namaste” (palms clasped together as if in prayer at chin level with a slight nod of the head).
- The Sinhalese: may say “ayubowan.” (may you be blessed with a long life)
- Tamils: would say “vanakkam.” (may you be blessed with a long life)
- In informal settings: you may also hear “kuhomadu” (How do you do?).
- The younger people: generally shake hands.
- Many Sri Lankan women: will refrain from physical contact with a man outside their family – wait to see if a woman extends her hand or not.
Sport: Sri Lanka has a passion for Cricket and have produced several international tallanets. In the last 20 years various players have recived the ‘Leading Cricketer in the World’ award; including Sanath Jayasuriya in 1996, Muttiah Muralitharan in 2000 and 2006, and K C Sangakkara in 2011.
Curry is a typical dish in Sri Lanka – however Sri Lankan curries can take on various forms and cooking methods. Curries can be served as soups, with meat, seafood, lentils and vegetables. Curd and Treacle made from Rice flour and palm treacle is served with various types of fruits as a dessert. Sri Lankan curries are known for their fiery hot spicy flavors and coconut milk is very distinct feature of Sri Lankan cuisine. Typical curries come in many varieties of colours and flavours – such curries are blended in Sri Lankan Hot Spices that provide an Ayurvedic value (the ancient Hindu art of medicine and of prolonging life).
Different regions of Sri Lanka specialize in different types of dishes. Dishes from the South can be Spicy, Hot or Mild. The meals of the southern region typically include fish due to the proximity to local fishing villages. Certain types of fish such as Balaya and Kelawalla are native to Southern seas. Common flavours to keep an eye out for include “Ambulthiyal” (a spicy fish dish which uses a thick “Goraka” paste), “Lunu dehi” (lime pickle) and ‘Jaadi’ (Pikled fish).
The Western region of Sri Lanka has more of a foreign influence than other regions – the western coastal region is dry, which means fish is dried with salt as a preservative; called “Karawala”. Cuisine from the central regions include spices such as Cloves, Cardamoms, nutmeg and pepper – these species are found in abundance throughout Kandy and Matale District in Central region of Sri Lanka.
The official languages in Sri Lanka are Sinhala and Tamil. English is used in commerce and government and very widely understood. Sinhala (also called Sinhalese or Singhalese) is the mother tongue of the Sinhalese ethnic group, which is the largest in Sri Lanka. It belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages.
Sinhala is spoken by about 16 million people in Sri Lanka. Tamil is a classical language and the oldest of the Dravidian language family and spoken by the Tamil population of Sri Lanka. Tamil is also spoken by people in India, Malaysia and Singapore. Tamil is the eighteenth most spoken language in the world, with over 74 million speakers worldwide.