travel to sri lanka

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.

Serene Life in Ella

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.

travel to sri lanka
Audience Hall at Temple of the Sacred Tooth

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.

Hill Country

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.

Nine Arches Bridge

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.

Hardworking Tamil Tea Harvesters

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.

Culinary Ceylon

**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.

Becoming a travel advisor was not a career I always dreamed of. I’m not what you would call a “natural born traveller”. Those who know me might be surprised by that fact, but nonetheless, it’s true. I wasn’t jet-setting around the world from infancy (like my own son). The extent of my travels, included family roadtrips, and the times we had to move because my parents were in the military. I wasn’t enamored with life on the road. I was a more of a reserved kid, with a big imagination. I loved the safety of traveling through books. I preferred skipping out on recess, and sitting cross-legged on the floor of my school library, flipping through the dog-eared pages of old National Geographic magazines. I was obsessed with Africa. The Great Migration. Endless herds of elephant, wildebeest, zebra being stocked by prides of lion splashed across those pages. But as much as I loved getting lost in those scenes, never in my wildest dreams, did I ever think I would travel there. Other people did that.

Or so I thought.

Fast forward a few years to one fateful day when I was strolling down the street and a glossy window display caught my eye. “Everything is better in Havana.” The advertisement practically shouted at me. I was intrigued. I had graduated high school a few months earlier, and unlike many of my friends who had taken off for Europe or Australia to trot around before Uni started, I didn’t have the funds to go on such adventures. But a quick little beach trip? I could swing that.

becoming a travel advisor
Trinidad De Cuba – Birthplace of My Travel Addiction

I breezed through the doors of the travel agency and was met with four sets of eager eyes. I was beginning to feel my palms sweat. “Hi,” I squeaked. I was just wondering about that ad on your win-” and before I could finish my sentence, they simultaneously replied, “I can help you here!” I slid into the closet chair to the door (in case I had to make a quick escape, lol). Turns out I didn’t need to escape. Because Sandra, my travel advisor, wasn’t just there to sell me a trip, she made it her business to make me fall in love not only with a place I had never been, but a place that was never on my radar.

Sandra knew Cuba like the back of her hand, and took upon herself to write out every not-to-be-missed activity she could think of. She told me what to eat, what to drink, what not to eat and drink, the climate differentiation from the mountains to the beaches, where the best dance clubs, hidden museums and daiquiri bars were, and how to escape the rowdy tourist hoards. She was a walking travel guide. She regaled tales of learning Salsa in Santa Clara, and taking a pottery class in Trinidad de Cuba. She told me where I could catch a Cuban ballet and gave me the name of a local guide who could show me underground art exhibitions. And to this day, I will never forget what she said: “Cuba isn’t fancy. It’s not there for you to be dazzled, it’s there for you to feel, to be moved by, to appreciate for what it is in this moment in time.” Sandra wasn’t just a travel advisor, she was a storyteller. And I wanted nothing more than to be a tiny An hour later, not only did I walk out of that agency with a trip booked, but a planted seed that would later flourish into a sixteen year long consulting career, a travel writing career that included an editing job with The Lonely Planet, nearly 80 passport stamps and a degree in anthropology. I guess that makes me a full travel convert.

becoming a travel advisor
Sao Miguel, Brazil

So why am I writing about becoming a travel advisor at a time like this? I mean, who in their right mind is looking at anyone working in the travel industry and thinking they missed their calling? NO. ONE. And I’m not going to sit here and pretend life is currently awesome. It’s been an endless tsunami of cancellations, disappointed emails, phone calls and messages, and obviously, devastating economic loss to my family. We as an industry are struggling. Yet I still think it’s the best job in the world.

In any given year, 98% of my job is making dreams come true. That isn’t the case for every travel advisor. Many of all of us started in brick and mortar shops, selling products we weren’t necessarily in love with, working for very little pay, working with clients that didn’t necessarily value our work. This career isn’t for the faint of heart. You have to earn your stripes. But when you start building those relationships, earning that trust, planning those family holidays, honeymoons, reunions, special occasions, you have a very unique window into people’s lives. They come to you to create, inspire and deliver something completely intangible, and incredibly memorable. Other than their loved ones, you are the one person in the world they turn to when they want to do something that makes them happy. If that isn’t a reason to love your job, I don’t know what is.

becoming a travel advisor
Enroute to Sri Lanka

Now, is it all rosy? No. Does it always go perfectly to plan? Absolutely not. That perfect hotel you hand chose may have let its standards slip since you were last there. Or that flight you booked with the amazing connection ended up being the flight from hell because of some sort schedule delay or substandard food, or lost baggage. Or, the virus of all viruses strikes, and everything to do with tourism grinds the entire world to an abrupt halt. No, this job isn’t perfect. So far from it. But I still love it. My clients are incredible, and they need me. They need me to stay positive, to keep my chin up, to keep inspiring them to travel, to encourage them to push their own boundaries by being an ambassador of sorts. We may all be grounded now, and this experience may change the way we travel forever, but becoming a travel advisor is a decision, that even in these trying times, I will never regret, and I cannot wait to get back to designing dreams.

Quad Biking the Dunes in Namibia
Air Bnb Hurts Not Helps

In an era where travellers seek out the coveted the local experience, no one wants to hear that the most popular home-sharing platform Airbnb hurts not helps local communities. If you live in a large city, popular mountain town or anywhere tourists frequent, you have most likely read or heard about the great AirBnb debate. And if you’ve checked in with your travel advisor lately and mentioned you might be considering AirBnb for an upcoming trip, they probably dished out a stern look of concern, and with very good reason. If you are unfamiliar with how AirBnb works, here’s a description of Airbnb according to Wikipedia:

“Airbnb Inc is an American online marketplace and hospitality service brokerage company based in San Francisco, California, United States. Members can use the service to arrange or offer lodging, primarily homestays, or tourism experiences.”

Sounds pretty benign right? Just a few folks, renting out their homes, a few days at a time to willing tourists, to make sure some of the bills are paid. There are currently over 6 million listings on the Airbnb website, in 191 countries and 65,000 cities around the world. According to this research site, Airbnb averages some half a million people are sleeping in an Airbnb every night. And the reason it’s so popular is three-fold: Reasonably priced accommodations with facilities such as kitchens and laundry (not generally available in hotels); Unique properties (everything from tree-houses, designer trailers to mansions); And most properties are generally based in residential neighbourhoods so you get more of that local feel. That all sounds fantastic, but without sounding dramatic, there is a much darker side to this particular accommodation option. Here’s how Airbnb hurts not helps locals:

Legality Issues

It’s estimated that well over 50% of all listings on the platform are in fact, illegal. That is, they don’t pay any form of taxes, have no licensing and operate completely unregulated. Now this may not seem like such a big deal, until we start getting into things like liability, safety (I’ll elaborate on this point later) and accountability. But back to liability – Illegally run Airbnb’s are not properly insured, meaning if any of your personal belongings are damaged by let’s say, a flood, bedbugs, another guest or any number of other instances, you are not covered.

Lack of Safety and Security

Over the last five or six years, I’ve seen a significant increase in traveller’s requests to feel safe and secure. The media is a proverbial minefield when it comes to frightening tourism stories, and while some of it may seem like hype, there is still plenty to be concerned about. While hosts are supposed to be verified, you have no idea who else has access to the property you’ve just dropped your hard earned money on. I’ve heard everything from friends of the host dropping in; Dog walkers dropping off pampered pooches to unsuspecting house guests (ACTUALLY HAPPENED); To nosey in-laws “checking-in” on things. If something like this happens in a hotel, it would be a massive invasion of privacy and breach of the hotel’s privacy regulations. The other issue is safety. Fire detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers, these are just a few safety considerations that an Airbnb may not comply with (or have to) due to lackadaisical local laws.

Discrimination

Up until last year, Airbnb hosts were permitted to requests the photos of perspective renters before they requested to book a property. You can imagine the civil rights violations this caused in places like the United States. After operating for ten years with this policy, Airbnb finally wisened up and changed the policy so hosts could only request a photo after a traveller had already booked and paid for their stay. It’s an improvement, but there are still plenty of reports of bookings being cancelled, the majority of those being Black, Muslim, Arabic or other ethnic sounding names.

Interrupts Local Life

Wait, whaaaat? You’re probably thinking to yourself the whole reason you booked an Airbnb is because you want to live, breathe and explore like a local, right? The truth is, because so many Airbnb’s are illegal (especially the apartments), your presence is not necessarily welcome nor appreciated. Apartment owners pay strata and council fees that provide a framework of rules and regulations everyone who lives in the building must adhere to. Apartment building dwellers often complain they don’t feel safe with strangers coming and going, and temporary renters doing respect or treat common spaces with care which in the end, costs everyone money, not just the host.

Barcelona’s La Rambla

Airbnb’s Push the Locals Out & Contribute to Over-tourism

 This is a headline you’ve probably seen once or twice if you live in a tourist-centric city. My own hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia has a less than 1% vacancy rate and some of the highest rents anywhere in the world. With apartment owners opting to rent their spaces out on a nightly or weekly basis, they’re able to cash in big bucks, and with rental space scarcity, apartment prices not only sky-rocket, locals are no longer able to afford to live in their own cities. Airbnb’s are by no means the sole cause of this phenomena, but they certainly haven’t helped.

In cities like Barcelona, short-term rental companies have caught on and have bought out or developed entire city blocks, often in the most coveted neighbourhoods (ie. La Rambla) with the sole purpose of renting them out to tourists. A recent article in the New Yorker stated that historic neighbourhoods like Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter has seen as much as a 45% loss of local residents. So while one may be on the hunt for accommodation with a local feel, tourists may be hard pressed to find the locals.

airbnb hurts not helps
Trevi Fountain in Rome

Airbnb Doesn’t Exactly Support the Local Economy

In a time where we really need to start looking at sustainability and the impacts our travel has on local communities, Airbnb hurts not helps the local economy. First off, Airbnb’s are not subject to the same licensing costs or taxes that licenced and registered hotels and accommodation properties face. Basically, hosts pay the Airbnb platform a fee, and use the rest as a mortgage helper, or just pocket the profits, tax free. Now, you may argue that patrons of the property are contributing to the local economy, however, what they contribute is minuscule compared to what a registered accommodation contributes or, a permanent tenant. Hotels, B&B’s and hostels have full and part-time staff they must pay. Airbnb’s do not.

Properties are Not Properly Vetted

As I mentioned above, there are some 6 million rooms currently listed on Airbnb, and more being added every day. Do you think that every single one of these properties is inspected, vetted or managed properly? There are of course some highly respectable hosts on the platform, who provide their guests with wonderful stays, however, they are the exception and not the rule. Guests houses, hotels, B&B’s , hostels even registered vacation properties are required to maintain a certain standard If they wish to keep their licences.

The Airbnb platform has enjoyed wild success, and despite its negatives, still remains one of the most popular forms of home-sharing accommodation. And in locations where occupancy rates are not an issue, Airbnb can be a great way to experience life as a local. However, as a consultant committed to supporting local communities and sustainability, I will always endeavor to provide alternative options that still allow travellers to get their boots on the ground and soak as much local life as possible.

Bucketlist Alaskan Cruise

It’s high noon and while much of the ship is congregating in the Lido Market for lunch, or out on the crowded observation deck, we’re perched on our private verandah, cameras in hand, trying to catch our breath with every passing spectacle. The sun affectionately bathes the jagged shorelines of Glacier Bay, emphasizing glistening, snow-packed crevices high above and turquoise, iceberg riddled waters below. Seabirds effortlessly ride the arctic thermals at eye level, and in our gentle wake, small fish leap from the depths to catch levitating insects on the ocean surface. What is almost as impressive as the scenery, is how 82,500 tonnes of steel can navigate its way through such narrow passages, and making about as much noise as a small canoe. And then you see it. The Marjerie Glacier; An impressive twenty-one mile long, twenty-five story high wall of vibrant blue glacial ice. This is what a bucketlist Alaskan cruise is all about, and it’s not a trip you want to put off any longer.

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