It’s been a weird ten days. When we visited Sri Lanka eleven years ago, we loved it. It was a little hectic at times, but rarely failed to extend a warm welcome.
We’ve met some great people this time round. The lovely Chaya, owner of the brand new Harvest cafe and provider of delicious mushroom biriyanis. Her fiancé Supun, who showed us the sights of Anuradhapura by tuk tuk. The manager of Pradeep restaurant in Sigiriya, who was delighted that we chose to stay more than a night or two because she’s so proud of her village, and the lovely old lady at Shenadi opposite, who always remembered that we don’t take sugar.
We’ve seen some unforgettable things. The view from the top of Sigiriya Rock. Ancient stupas and temples. A river bathing elephant. Leaf insects. Monitor lizards. Monkeys (lots of monkeys).
There’s a ‘but’ coming, isn’t there?
But… in between, and on this occasion heavily outweighing, the good stuff has been a wall of selling, overpricing and even scamming. It’s constant. It’s exhausting.
Of course, tourists are essentially walking cashpoints. One of the reasons you want them is so that they can spend money. But Sri Lanka seems to have forgotten the other reason you want tourists to visit: to take news of how great you are to the rest of the world. To build your global reputation, for tourism, business, international relations and investment. There’s a balance between offering a warm welcome and relieving them of cash, and Sri Lanka is slowly smothering the goose that lays the golden eggs.
It’s not just the endless barrage of offers of tuk tuks, tours, massages, elephant rides, fresh coconut, Ayurvedic diagnoses, t-shirts, juice, wooden carvings (people understandably need sales) but that three times out of four, they are machine-gun fast from the same person, only for the whole scenario to be repeated ten seconds later.
The Sri Lankan government is also doing its bit to put off tourists. Designing the Sigiriya site so that you are funnelled up and out in two hours and charging you $30 for the privilege. Creating a national wildlife park, charging $20 to get in, but then allowing entry to hundreds of vehicles so that Jeeps are nearly nose to tail (we walked away from that one – elephants or no elephants). We also understand that the once-charming seaside resort of Unawatuna is being buried under massive new hotels, from which politicians are allegedly profiting personally. The same pattern is recurring all around the coast.
And at the bitter end, Colombo Airport was a microcosm of Sri Lanka. An hour and a half of inefficient queueing and admin, to be funnelled around shops selling coffee for $6 and trousers at four times the (already high) price we saw elsewhere. Claims that our flight was boarding, when it was doing no such thing. Shabby infrastructure like dirty, leaky toilets despite the vast sums flowing through the place. And if you think you’ll avoid the criminal prices by spending the last of your cash on the plane, forget it: Sri Lankan Airlines doesn’t accept Sri Lankan money.
Yes, we’re a bit grumpy as we write this, but we’re not exaggerating. After telling everyone to go to Sri Lanka for the past eleven years, we now feel we owe you an apology. If your experience was different, we’d love to know because we’d need some serious persuading to go back.