This island country’s tranquil beaches, verdant tea estates, dense jungles, and rich culture make it one of the world’s most exciting places to visit.
While Sri Lanka’s written history reaches back 2,550 years and the island is world famous for exports like tea, cinnamon, and blue sapphires, even adventurous travellers struggle to find the country—né Ceylon—on a map. Hint: It’s located in the Indian Ocean, just south of Tamil Nadu in India and northeast of the Maldives.
Sri Lanka’s relative obscurity is a lingering PR problem. A civil war raged for three decades in the Jaffna Peninsula and the Vanni, pitting Tamil Tiger separatists against the Sinhalese-dominated government. By the time the war ended in 2009, an estimated 100,000 people had died. And in 2004, a tsunami ravaged the country’s east and west coasts, wiping out entire towns. Tourism was slow to rebound, as travellers feared for their safety and worried about the lack of infrastructure.
But that’s changing—and fast. This year, nearly 130 percent more Airbnb guests have trekked to Sri Lanka than last, indicating an extraordinary jump in bookings.
“We’re known for our great hospitality,” says superhost Rukmal Lahiru, who has listed his jungle tree house in Habarana on Airbnb for three years. Though the city itself is tiny, it’s the perfect jumping-off point for sites throughout the Cultural Triangle, including Sigiriya and Minneriya National Park. Lahiru is a committed host, escorting guests on jeep safaris to nearby wildlife reserves, joining them on hikes to millennia-old forest monasteries, and inviting them to feast on home-cooked meals prepared by proud neighbors. His hope for a brighter future is palpable.
Hop on the train—a second-class ticket invites a more local experience than first-class observation cars—and it’s clear this hope permeates a country full of resilient, kind people. At each station stop, snack vendors come aboard to sell coconut roti, crispy vadai (curried lentil fritters), and chilled bottles of Milo, a chocolate-malt beverage. Try everything. Talk to everyone. This is an experience unlike any other.
Whatever your preferred mode of transport, it could take months to comb the pastoral and historical riches of this 24,954-square-mile island, but the bustling commercial capital should not be overlooked. Cafés, shops, galleries, and indie magazines are popping up in Colombo, driven by a youthful optimism. Galle Face Green, a colonial promenade, is a gathering spot for people from all walks of life and a microcosm of the country’s newfound live-and-let-live ethos: Schoolkids in pressed uniforms fly neon kites; googly-eyed couples shyly hold hands on park benches; Muslim families spread out elaborate picnics; and camera-wielding tourists stroll the waterfront in search of king coconuts and deep-fried prawn cakes.
Airbnb superhost Chitrupa de Fonseka and his mother have hosted more than 300 travellers in Borella, a Colombo suburb, since July 2012. Breakfasts with the family are multi-course affairs, full of lively conversation, and de Fonseka delights in helping travelers plan their countrywide itineraries. His biggest reward? “Guests tell me they learned to smile after visiting Sri Lanka,” he says.
Ashlea Halpern is the founder of Cartogramme, a travel and culture Web site, and the editor-at-large for AFAR magazine.