Sri Lanka is on the long road to tourism success

It is night time on Galle Road and the horn blasting bus is trying to overtake the horn blowing tip-truck, which is trying to overtake the whining delivery van, which is trying to overtake the tooting tuk tuk, which is redline revving as it struggles to overtake the scooter.

And my private taxi driver is trying to overtake the lot.

Oh, and look… here comes a speeding petrol tanker from around the bend and head-on towards us.

Just try to cross busy Galle Road on foot during daytime, and you’d better have a comprehensive travel insurance policy. Take the car option for the two-hour trip – no, adventure is a better word – from Hikkaduwa Beach to Colombo’s international airport, and it’s adrenaline tourism in the extreme. And for just $40 Aussie (normally $100 but Aussies can get a discount rate at Ranjith’s Bar), it’s cheaper than the Gold Coast’s theme parks. And no queues.

I have enjoyed my one week at Colombo’s Mt Lavinia Beach and the popular Hikkaduwa Beach, but I am heading back to Bangkok’s ancient Chinese quarter for a week, before home to St Kilda. I would like to return to Sri Lanka and tour the inland jungles and high Ella and Kandy rail routes. But not solo. Maybe a small tour group would be the optimum method. With a host to explain the historical significance of the places.

Hikkaduwa Beach is beautiful, but a drawcard more for ageing Aussie surfing couples. And chockfull of tourists from the former Eastern Bloc countries. The Russians can be hard work to get to know; and I made the faux pas of asking twin sisters if they were from Russia – “No! Uktraine!”. But I made friends, and discussed the vagaries and uncertainties of international currency speculation, with the Guinness Record holder for speed juggling, a friendly chap named Stennig and his entourage from Prague.

With the civil war over, the Sri Lanka government now needs to throw a lot of effort into building the Tourism Sector. The place is just not “first-time tourist friendly”. It must be easier, with clear signage and helpful guides, to get off a jet at the airport and catch the express railway into Colombo; and to make use of the railway and bus routes.

On my late-night arrival I caught a taxi to Mt Lavinia for $35; and for the second stage of my visit, the mid-afternoon train from Mt Lavinia to Hikkaduwa for just $1.40 in Second Class and it was enjoyable and I made friends with a fabulous couple from Western Australia, plus the helpful station master and Sri Lankan passengers. But the $60 discount driver option for the return trip was more appealing than trying to fart around with connecting trains that have a limited timetable, signage only in Sri Lankan and sometimes Russian.
Incentives to lure Eastern Bloc tourists, such as waiving visas, has backfired in the medium-long term. Russians soak up the bulk of the mainstream accommodation but load up on food at the supermarket on arrival and don’t spend in the local restaurants, bars, shops and tuk tuks. It’s smart and thrifty but local businesses don’t benefit from the tourism trade. I swear, there must now be one tuk tuk to every second Sri Lankan. It is such an oversupply that they have to overcharge when they do get a customer, to make up for the down time. But consequently, tourists avoid them. And who the hell let them clog up the highways, such as Galle Road!

The hotel and resort owners must be smiling as they jack up the room rates, with the demand market at saturation point. What the first-time visitor doesn’t know is that scores of cheap but good, cool, clean guest rooms are available in the large houses along the narrow, jungle-lined roads on the inner side of the railway/Galle Road, and just 15 minutes’ stroll from the beach. These places are not promoted on the popular booking websites.

The surfing, seasoned, long-time visitors told me that the shooting murder in the street was a rare event. I noticed the day I left that the Sri Lankan President’s brother was murdered with an axe blow to the head. Hey, I’m from St Kilda in Melbourne, so I’m used to exciting evenings. But the more sensitive visitor may find it a little disconcerting…

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