In 2019, travel to Sri Lanka was set to be at an all time high. The Lonely Planet had just named the island ‘The Best Place to Travel in 2019.’ With various campaigns splashed across social media, travel writers and influencers filling up the pages of their blogs with images of dreamy, palm fringed beaches, and romantic jungle settings, a tourism boom seemed inevitable. Even my partner agency, Tripzter Travel, was in talks with a luxury travel brand based in Sri Lanka. We were mere weeks away from launching our own bespoke tours to the island jewel. The world was finally waking up to this ‘resplendent‘ landscape.
That all changed on April 21, 2019, Easter Sunday, when three churches and three luxury hotels were simultaneously attacked by suicide bombers across three different cities. Two-hundred and forty-five innocent Sri Lankans and foreign nationals lost their lives and it was the first time, after a decade of peace after the Civil War, that Sri Lanka had experienced a major terrorist attack. The fanfare around this newly crowned destination was silenced. And once again, travel to Sri Lanka was placed on most travelers ‘maybe someday’ list.
Well, we didn’t want to wait for someday. We knew how far the tourism industry had come before the attacks, and we also knew that travel to Sri Lanka would happen sooner than later. Two months after that Easter Sunday, we returned to our talks with Atravele, our luxury supplier in Colombo, and hatched a plan to get some boots on the ground. As an ambassador of sorts, the intention was to first, put our clients at ease, and demonstrate that Sri Lanka was safe, resilient, and still, very worthy of making the trip. And second, I wanted to showcase the uniqueness of this storied land, by covering as much ground as I could, and by experiencing as much as I possibly could. I spent twelve days exploring Sri Lanka by car, train, safari truck and by foot, zig-zagging across some 2000km. After the third or fourth day, I decided this was going to be where I launched my very first all-female private solo group.
From the moment I touched down back home in Vancouver, it was four months of research, countless emails back and forth, information sessions with clients, online discussions, and client polls all with the hopes of curating and designing the perfect Sri Lankan itinerary. Stephani Fernando, Inbound Director for Artavele and myself, would chat over WhatsApp into the wee hours of (my) morning, pouring over every detail. Choosing hideaways, calculating driving distances, hand-selecting culinary experiences, dreaming up authentic cultural experiences, and selecting archaeological sites, Stephani and I wanted to design a full sensory experience our guests would never forgot.
In mid-February of 2020, I launched my first all-female private group tour: The Great Ceylon Gathering. There had definitely been some interest in the tour itself in the days leading up, but within three days of the launch, I couldn’t keep up with the applications. It seemed that once again, Sri Lanka was on everyone’s radar, and come September, just in time for the Elephant Gathering, my group and I would be experiencing everything Stephani and I had worked so hard to architect.
And then, Covid-19 struck. We all know what happened next. Cases out of China in January, a Canadian travel advisory the third week of February, and by mid-March, a complete border shutdown around the world. Once again, Sri Lanka, and every other destination was put back in the ‘maybe someday’ box. I was forced to cancel my tour, and the future of international travel became temporarily, uncertain.
Despite everything, this proud island nation has endured, Sri Lanka and its people are resilient, courageous and forgiving. The unspeakable acts of Easter Sunday were never a true reflection of Sri Lanka’s present, but merely a cowardly echo of it’s distant past. They have more than proven that they can come back from decades of civil war, they can survive attacks against their peaceful way of life, and now, they will show us that once again, the world will once again wake up to it’s resplendence. So let’s travel to Sri Lanka. Later.
**This post is dedicated to the 245 innocent victims of the Easter Sunday Attacks, the resilient people of Sri Lanka, my dear friend Stephani Fernando and the incredible team at Artravele and Walker Tours who work tirelessly every day to care for their clients and graciously share their beautiful country with the rest of the world.