Earlier today in New York, Mahinda Rajapaksa told the United Nations General Assembly that he aims to make Sri Lanka ‘one of the top 30 countries for doing business by 2014’ (while focusing also on recovery, peace and equality for its society overall).
That goal might have seemed farfetched even just a couple of years ago, but with its economy growing this year at its fastest rate since 2002, the situation for Sri Linka is clearly improving. Moreover, Rajapaksa claims that ninety percent of those who were displaced during the three decades of devastating civil war have returned to their villages and are resuming ‘normal’ lives.
These days, the economic plans of smaller, developing Asian nations often seem to place considerable weight on revenue from tourism. For Sri Lanka, restoring public safety is an obvious and critical step for its own aspirations in this regard.
So I recently spoke to a globe-trotting friend, Jeremy Ryan, who is visiting the country, and asked him for some insight into what it’s like to travel in Sri Lanka today.
On the aftermath of the conflict and the military presence he told me, ‘There are still many police checkpoints (tourists just get waved through) depending on where you are in the country. The military presence, especially in Colombo, is very strong. At first this was a bit of a worry for me, but the more I asked around the more I realized that the military roaming the streets is more of a comfort for the average Sri Lankan. Thirty years of war might make you want a few soldiers sticking around too. Add to that the 2004 tsunami and you've got a country that’s really still just picking up the pieces.’
Jeremy, who’d just reached the ‘deep south’ from the eastern part of the country when I spoke to him, plans to next head up the west coast and to the Jaffna region, which is the area where most of the fighting took place. He mentioned that although it seems there won’t be many other tourists in that part of the country and the area is still heavily mined, he has generally felt very safe traveling throughout Sri Lanka.
He told me also that what he’s enjoyed most about the country so far are the people. He explains, ‘In contrast to places like Thailand and Bali, where locals see Western visitors disdaining their cultures… Sri Lankans are still fairly new to large-scale tourism and are a very friendly, welcoming people. They want to know everything about you and aren’t afraid to ask.’ He noted that the one question he is asked most frequently is, ‘What do you think of Sri Lanka?’
According to Jeremy, there is another advantage to visiting Sri Lanka. Since the landscape varies so drastically for such a small country ‘it makes a perfect trip for someone who would like to combine beaches, mountains, arid desert, temples, history and food but only have two to three weeks to spend.’
Images: Hash Milhan (top), txomin14/Flickr (bottom).