It was 7am on a Tuesday and I was staring at pictures of naked ladies after climbing up an ancient rock fortress in Sri Lanka. Known as the Sigiriya Damsels, the voluptuous women were painted onto the walls of Sigiriya’s Lion Rock about 1,500 years ago, and are the crowning feature of a gut-wrenchingly beautiful climb. I started the journey early, walking with no one but a handful of local monkeys and a chorus of birdsong for company, sunrise cloaking the towering mound in a pastel glow, then bursting into golden light as I reached the summit.
A year before, it would have been hard to imagine standing in that spot. But there I was, celebrating the country’s reopening to tourists.
Sri Lanka has endured a tough few years. In 2022, it saw its worst economic emergency since gaining independence from Britain in 1948, which coincided with widespread power cuts and fuel shortages. The rate of inflation for the year was calculated as 50 per cent; the average yearly inflation rate before then had been 8.9 per cent since 1960. Several factors were behind the crisis, including the Covid pandemic. It decimated tourism, one of Sri Lanka’s largest foreign exchange earners and an essential cog in the country’s economy, which compounded a decline in visitors that started in 2019 following a series of bomb attacks.
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But things are on the up. The opinion across the board is that Sri Lanka is now past the peak of its crisis – and it’s time for tourists to return. And they are. Sri Lanka is hoping to welcome 1.5 million visitors by the end of the year and looks on track to hit that, welcoming its millionth visitor this September. “It’s been extremely tough but we’re a resilient nation,” says Chaminda Munasinghe, my guide for the trip. “Now we’re recovering, and tourism is the catalyst.”
Another vote of confidence has come from Qatar Airways, which flew 65 per cent more UK passengers to Colombo between January to September this year than in the whole of 2022. The airline resumed its route from Birmingham Airport in July, and flights are noticeably cheaper than flying from London, despite Birmingham only being an hour by direct train from the capital; think economy prices from £450 rather than £750. The Indian Ocean…