Picturesque beaches, tropical landscape, red soil, tea estates, stinging seafood curries and even string hoppers – Kerala and Sri Lanka could be mirror images across the Indian Ocean. But Sri Lanka’s reputation for instability meant that most Indian and foreign travelers picked God’s Own Country over the teardrop-shaped isle.
But now with a quarter-century of violence well behind it, Sri Lanka appears to be stealing a march over Kerala, and giving even popular Goa some heartburn. Up and down its pretty coastline, in the beach towns of Bentota, Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna, and the charming walled city of Galle, travelers – Israeli, Russian, British — are on the rise. Foreign travel grew 19% in 2014. Indians are now number one, topping the tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka. Their numbers grew by 16% between 2013 and 2014.
Travel experts say the boom was waiting to happen. “You can’t go wrong with Sri Lanka – it is great value for money. It is close to India, our rupee buys more there, visas are easy, it is very well connected and offers a range of experiences, something Indian tourists always look for. And it has some great resorts, boutique hotels and tea estate chateaus,” says Subhash Motwani, director of Mumbai-based Compact Travels.
Kerala, having once opted for niche travelers, is now having trouble keeping them hooked. Lethargic state initiatives, fewer luxury options, declining hygiene standards, vector-borne diseases like chikungunya and dengue, and of course the new strict liquor policy are driving tourists out of the state.
International tourist arrival figures collated by the Kerala tourism department till November last show only a marginal rise, especially in the crucial months since August 21 when the state government refused to renew bar licences based on a report that they were of sub-standard quality. According to data available with the tourism directorate’s statistics department, the months of September, October and November have seen a dip of 910 tourists compared to the corresponding months of the previous year.
Sri Lanka, on the other hand, is stepping in competitively to offer all that is unique to Kerala has as well. The tourism industry there, for instance, is now procuring houseboats. “Sri Lankans have recently understood the potential of water bodies, which were arrested and clogged during the war. The Sri Lankan hotel industry is introducing fibre-hull house boats, which will take away many tourists from Kerala. They are yet to launch aqua sports, despite a head-start in tourism, but our tour operators are now promoting those among adventurous travelers,” says Jaison Panikulangara, board of investment member Sri Lanka and director of SAJ House Boat Builders & Operators, who started the houseboat service in Sri Lanka.
What also works for Sri Lanka, say tour operators, are its friendly unassuming people and its safe and clean streets. “People always make a place and Sri Lanka wins on that count,” says Motwani.
Sri Lanka has also been promoting itself aggressively at international travel fairs. Hotels are showcasing the country’s rich wildlife, an under-explored travel terrain.
What Lanka has to offer:
Getting there: Flights are quite affordable. A Delhi-Kochi return fare for next weekend (Jan17-Jan 20) would cost Rs 16,905 while a Colombo return would cost Rs 22,576. Plus, of course, a ‘foreign’ tag to boast about.
Visas: The Emigration and Travel Approval or ETA, equivalent to a visa, is online and comes in minutes. Even the clearance from the defence ministry to travel to Jaffna and Kilinochi is processed online within an hour of application. Immigration clearance in Colombo is a breeze with travelers getting a free SIM card.
Hotels: Booked online with no advance required — all payments on arrival. The rates for decent three to four star hotels range between INR 7,000 and 12,000 with breakfast and wifi free.
Liquor: Freely available and fairly cheap. Unlike Kerala you don’t have to hide beer in coffee mugs at bars
Getting around: The expressway to the city from the airport is a smooth drive. Cars can do up to 120 kmph on the southern expressway though many prefer the longer, more scenic route. Highway to Jaffna also good.
Food: Quite cheap with plentiful seafood, and so are taxis and public transport
Shopping: Not on the scale of Bangkok but Colombo does offer quite a few international brands at bargain prices. Also does great linen and handlooms. (Times Of India)