There are so many ways to enjoy - and contribute to - the beauty of this rich island country, writes Zinara Rathnayake
Morning sun appears over the mangrove-dotted flatwater lagoon, which is separated from the Indian Ocean by a thick sandbank. Inside my cabana, I wake to the sound of lapping waves. The thatched-roofed structure is nestled in a palm-fringed garden in Kappalady, a small village in northwestern Sri Lanka. Nearby, the hotel's restaurant looks over the aqua sea.
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Hashan Amith serves me two sunny-side-up eggs. Amith is an IKO-certified assistant kite instructor for Kite Centre Sri Lanka, the kite school of Elements Beach & Nature Resort. But today, he happily helps the kitchen department in the absence of another employee.
Easter Sunday attacks in April 2019 were a huge blow to Sri Lanka's tourism. In May, only about 38,000 people visited Sri Lanka, which was a massive 70 per cent decrease from the previous year.
"The first couple of months was extremely hard for us, but we got together during the toughest times," says Sylvia Bobay, managing director of Elements Resort. Soon after the attacks, many hospitality businesses closed down, resulting in loss of employment and a lack of financial security for many workers in the industry. But not at Elements.
"During the months that followed, it allowed our team to work and grow together," says Bobay. The eco-resort provides employment and skills training to people from the local community.
"I joined Elements as a gardener," Smith says. "Before that, I was a fisherman and there was no regular income. Everyone at Elements encouraged me to learn kitesurfing." Now the 23-year-old teaches visitors from around the world with his senior, Kumar, who also hails from the village.
In 2020, tourist arrivals are expected to grow. Fortunately for Sri Lanka, there are several other responsible travel organisations across the island like Elements, which focus on sustainable tourism. If you are visiting Sri Lanka soon, there are many ways to be a responsible traveller and help the local economy. Here's what you can do:
Stay in community-run, sustainable accommodation
For those who are on a budget, homestays are a great way to give back to the community. Mahasen by Foozoo and Mahasen Terrace by Foozoo are located in the heart of Colombo. Run entirely by locals, the two properties carry the tagline, "We are for everyone." Foozoo properties cater to mid-range travellers and they are two of the few LGBTQ-friendly spaces in Colombo.
"We try to create a warm, welcoming vibe and a homely ambience for our guests. Everyone's welcome here," says Dinesh Perera, co-owner of Foozoo. Perera and his colleagues work closely with Common Grounds Sri Lanka to help establish LGBTQ rights in the country. "We also try to employ locals from the LGBTQ community," he says.
Sri Lanka's fragile economy heavily depends on tourism. In 2017, a total of 359,215 employment opportunities were generated by the tourism industry. However, Perera believes there's a lack of financial and promotional support for the unofficial sector.
"Small hospitality businesses like ours try to create a unique experience beyond the conventional hotel surroundings, but there's little or no encouragement from the Government and policymakers," says Perera.
In Tissamaharama in southern Sri Lanka, Gaga Bees Yala offers nine eco-friendly mud chalets overlooking sprawling fields of paddy. Local staff handle the hotel operations. This agro-eco resort also sources vegetables and fruit directly from the village farmers. Amba Estate is another responsible travel accommodation in the hill country near Ella.
Support local brands
You can now purchase ethical, organic supplies – fresh vegetables, vegan brownies, shampoo bars, wooden toothbrushes, zero-waste straws – from the Good Market Shop in Colombo.
"There's a global movement of individuals and organisations who are choosing to prioritise people and the planet in their daily lives and their work," says Amanda Kiessel, co-founder of Good Market. Other than the everyday shop, Good Market Saturday also houses a large community market of more than 60 vendors. It takes place every Saturday at Colombo Racecourse.
This do-good initiative, which began in Sri Lanka, now provides a platform for ethical organisations around the globe.
"You can stay at Good Market-approved hostels, guesthouses, and hotels, eat at restaurants and cafes that source healthy local ingredients and minimise waste, shop at fair trade retail outlets, visit organic farms, and support local social enterprises," says Kiessel.
One of the fair-trade initiatives under Good Market is Selyn. Founded in 1991, this sustainable fashion brand aims to uplift the living standards of rural artisans in Sri Lanka. Selyn has 16 workshops in the remote corners of the island. Similar to Selyn, in the Unesco World Heritage City Kandy, Sthree employs women and differently-abled individuals, providing them with the necessary skills to create handicrafts, batik garments and stationery.
Walk into the Hela Bojun outlet next to the Department of Agriculture in Colombo early in the morning for a plate of kiribath (rice cooked in coconut milk) and lunu miris – an onion relish made with Indian Ocean spices. Here, women dressed in their bright green aprons dish up some delicious Sri Lankan dishes using locally sourced ingredients. There are now more than 20 entirely-women-run Hela Bojun outlets across the island promoting authentic, healthy eating. Popular in the north as Ammachchi, these outlets give skills training and employment to war widows and single mothers.
Buono is another quaint cafe in Kandy. This community-run space hosts social events and is the best place to get your daily caffeine fix in the city. There are also refreshing smoothies, chocolate doughnuts and other snacks on the menu. The cafe contributes its full profit to support underprivileged kids in Sri Lanka by providing them with school supplies and daily meals.
If you want to visit an organic farm, Indian Medhini Igoor and Abhishek Devaraj run Us On Earth in the suburbs of Colombo. The couple employs local farmers and surplus produce is used to prepare chutneys and jams. Named earth jars, these are available for sale. Take home a few, full of pineapple jam and sundried tomatoes, as souvenirs.
Participate in ethical wildlife experiences
Venture into the rural countryside of Sri Lanka and you will see sleepy crocodiles dozing off in grass-fed paddy fields. On village pathways, dancing peacocks shy away from human visitors. Vibrant kingfishers while away the time atop a lakeside tree. Sri Lanka is home to abundant wildlife. The island is also one of the best places in the world to see Asian elephants.
One of the most ethical ways to see wildlife is to visit them in their natural habitats. Luxury hospitality service provider Leopard Trails organises wildlife safaris in Yala and Wilpattu National Parks. If you get lucky, you can spot the elusive Sri Lankan leopard in these locations.
An initiative by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, The Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe looks after orphaned baby elephants before they are ready to be released back into the wild. Visitors can see elephant calves being fed milk several times a day.
Sameera Madushanka - or Raja, as he's popularly known - founded Raja & The Whales in Mirissa in 2008. Today, this responsible family-run organisation conducts whale and dolphin watching trips throughout the year. Hop on a boat with the crew to see blue whales, the largest creatures on earth. You can also see pods of spinner dolphins a few miles off the coast. The crew are well trained and knowledgeable about the marine wildlife in Sri Lanka. The organisation also adheres to international whale watching regulations.
Cathay Pacific flies from Auckland to Colombo, via Hong Kong. cathaypacific.com