Tourism boom in post-war Sri Lanka

Tourism boom in post-war Sri Lanka

There were more soldiers than tourists on the streets of Colombo when Ms Stephanie Teng was in the Sri Lankan business capital in 2008, the year before the country's long-drawn civil war ended.

The overwhelming presence of machine gun-wielding soldiers and the constant fear of another attack by Tamil Tiger rebels made a relaxing retreat impossible, recalled Ms Teng, who was there to attend a friend's wedding.

"My local friends would tense up whenever there's a roadblock, and I would get all tensed up too seeing how anxious they were," said the clinical psychology researcher.

But her not-so-distant memory of a daunting city is a far cry from present-day Colombo, as this reporter found out during a recent sponsored trip there.

Now, its long beaches teem with laid-back sea gazers and its Odel outlet mall is filled with seasoned tourists shopping for brand-name wear at a steal. Even the grand beachfront Galadari Hotel, the site of a 1997 suicide attack that left 18 people dead and more than 100 injured, draws well-heeled travellers in droves.

Going by official figures from the Tourism Development Authority, the South Asian island nation - famous for its tempting beaches, rolling hills and succulent crabs - regained its shine soon after its 26-year brutal war ended in 2009. Tourist arrivals swelled by 46 per cent in 2010 to 654,476, and more than one million tourists set foot in Sri Lanka last year - a first for the country.

This year, the country received another shot in the arm when it was billed by Lonely Planet, the world's largest publisher of travel guidebooks, as the best destination to visit.

Following the glowing review, more than 800,000 tourists made for the lush green island in the first nine months of this year, 16 per cent more than the same period last year. The country's eight Unesco-listed World Heritage Sites, including the stunning Sigiriya rock fortress, are now rightfully travellers' hot spots.

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