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Now's the Time to Visit Sri Lanka — Here's Why

July 18, 2019
8 min read
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Back in late 2018, The Points Guy named Sri Lanka as one of the top destinations to visit in 2019.

Lonely Planet even named it the top travel destination of the year. And it was poised to be, until devastating terrorist bombings occurred in April.

Tourist arrivals dropped 80% after the attacks. Understandably, travelers were (and maybe still are) nervous to visit. But now a few months have passed and the situation has changed, so you should consider a visit to Sri Lanka.

Arugam Bay in Sri Lanka. Photo by Lori Zaino.
Arugam Bay in Sri Lanka. Photo by Lori Zaino.

Downgraded Travel Advisories

The US State Department recently eased its Sri Lanka travel advisory down from a Level 3 warning to a Level 2, the same level in place for countries like the Bahamas, France, Spain, Denmark, the Maldives, the UK and Turks and Caicos. Terrorist attacks can happen anywhere, and while you should plan to travel using increased caution, the US no longer suggests you "reconsider travel" (Level 3) or "don't travel" (Level 4) to the country.

The US isn't the only country that believes Sri Lanka is now safer to visit. Travel restrictions had also been lowered back in May by countries like India, Switzerland, Germany and Sweden. The UK and Australia both downgraded their travel warnings to Sri Lanka back in June.

Solid Award Availability

Colombo is served by numerous airlines from their respective hubs — including Emirates from Dubai, Etihad from Abu Dhabi and Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong. However, the carrier with the most extensive service to the country is Sri Lankan Airlines. It's a member of the Oneworld alliance, so you can use a variety of points & miles currencies to book award flights, and award availability is solid on many routes — like this one from London-Heathrow in business class this summer using the American Airlines search engine:

Unfortunately, you may encounter routing rules that make it a bit more difficult to book into a premium cabin on Sri Lankan-operated flights that start in the US. For example, American only allows you to route from North America to the Indian subcontinent via Europe or Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. With award availability through Europe either minimal or requiring huge fuel surcharges on British Airways, that may not be possible.

If you can find long-haul award inventory from the US to Hong Kong, your best bet is probably to book a one-way, business-class award on Cathay Pacific using Alaska Mileage Plan miles, a ticket that would only set you back 50,000 miles and would allow a stopover in Hong Kong. Cathay’s flight from HKG to CMB is listed at 5 hours 30 minutes and operates on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays through October 26 before switching to daily service through the end of the published schedule. Award availability is also solid, with multiple seats in business class on virtually every day we searched.

Just note that the return flight from Colombo (CMB) to Hong Kong (HKG) is a short red-eye flight, so you may want to look at alternatives for departing Sri Lanka after your trip.

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Airline Fees Have Dropped

If you don't have a big stash of points and miles to fall back on, don't worry. In an attempt to revive the stagnant tourism industry, the Sri Lankan government has mandated a reduction in airline fees as well as encouraged airlines to increase the number of flights and drop prices. For six months, the fees for embarkation, ground handling and aviation fuel will be lowered at Colombo Airport, all translating to lower prices for flyers and hopefully, a resurgence in tourism.

Monks frolic in the Sri Lanka sea. Photo by Lori Zaino.
Monks frolic on the beach in Sri Lanka. Photo by Lori Zaino.

Visas May Soon Be Free

The government had planned to offer free visas upon arrival (down from $20-$40) from May - October for travelers holding passports from spots like US, the UK, the EU, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and more. But, after the April attacks, the plan was suspended. The government is waiting on cabinet approval to reinstatement the program, so it's possible that visas could be free in the near future.

Hotels and Tour Companies are Offering Deals

In an attempt to lure tourists back, hotels all over the country have dropped their prices. Many are offering 30% or greater discounts for 2019 reservations.

Check for deals at popular hotel chains like Jetwing, Cinnamon and Blue Water brands. And don't discount the smaller hotels, B&Bs or home rentals. Airbnb is currently showing summer rates in mountain town Ella or the surfer paradise of Arugam Bay starting as low as $20 per night for a private room and bathroom.

Intrepid Travel, a company focused on small group travel in multiple regions, is optimistic that Sri Lankan tourism will pick up, and has curated three new small-group, locally-led tour itineraries that it hopes will help boost the economy. The 12-day tours start at $1,441 per person.

Wild elephants roam areas of Sri Lanka. Photo by Lori Zaino.
Wild elephants roam areas of Sri Lanka. Photo by Lori Zaino.

While much of the data provided about tourism drops comes from larger businesses and corporations, the smaller, family-owned spots may be struggling the most.

When I talked to local Sri Lankan driver, Nuwa — who happily carted me all around the country during my six-week stay last summer — about his current situation, I was devastated to hear he was unemployed and looking for a new job.

"I feel safe here," he told me. "But the tourists, they just don't (...) come. I'm seeking a new job. I have no one here to drive."

Supporting the local businesses, guides, homestays and family-owned restaurants when possible if you do plan to visit the country can help those struggling due to the sharp tourism decline.

Sri Lanka Is Stunning

Sri Lanka is a special place, and I fell in love with the island nation. The locals are friendly and the natural wonders are breathtaking. Expect to see miles upon miles of green, hilly tea plantations, fog-covered mountains, sandy, deserted beaches and wild elephants that wander the jungles. And where else can you take one of the most scenic train rides in the world for just a couple dollars? The food is affordable and delicious and Sri Lankan culture is colorful and inviting.

For a little travel inspiration, check out #LoveSriLanka, a campaign put on by the Sri Lankan tourism board to lure visitors back to the country. The campaign highlights some of Sri Lanka's most beautiful tourist attractions, as well as deals from hotels, tour companies and beyond. You can follow the campaign on social media and keep an eye out for deals and offers that may interest you when planning your trip.

A train crosses the Nine Arches Bridge in Sri Lanka. Photo by Lori Zaino.
A train crosses the Nine Arches Bridge in Sri Lanka. Photo by Lori Zaino.

I would return to Sri Lanka in a heartbeat and highly recommend visiting — and soon, before everyone else decides to.

This article includes additional reporting by Nick Ewen.

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