Diverse and welcoming Sri Lanka has seen a boom in visitor numbers since the civil war ended in 2009. Although tourism is growing rapidly, the island boasts a largely unspoilt coastline, abundant wildlife and a rich history, making it a popular destination for backpackers and honeymooners alike. Here’s our guide to travelling in Sri Lanka as sustainably as possible.
Surrounded by deep blue ocean – renowned for its surfing and blue whale spotting – and boasting beaches, rainforests and national parks galore, Sri Lanka is a wildlife lover’s paradise, which is exactly why we chose it as our honeymoon destination.
As we travelled this small but beautiful country for the best part of four weeks, we spotted wild elephants and leopards, discovered the most amazing birdlife, and fell in love with the incredible diversity of the landscape and the warmness of the people.
Everywhere we went in Sri Lanka we were greeted by warm smiles, home-cooked locally grown food and incredible vistas across jungles, tea plantations and coastlines. Yet we also discovered pockets of extreme poverty, a staggering number of street dogs, and subtle reminders of the devastating impact of the 2004 tsunami.
We also noticed the impact of plastic pollution on this island nation, which is located south east of neighbouring India. In Mirissa, a casual stroll along the beach turned into an impromptu beach clean, which then evolved to a daily ritual as more and more polystyrene, plastic bottles and other ocean debris washed up onto the pristine golden sands each day, straight from the sea that we had spotted turtles swimming in the night before. Encouragingly we encountered many local businesses working to combat the plastic challenge – we were frequently provided with refillable glass water bottles in our hotel rooms, freshly filled with filtered water each day so we didn’t have to buy plastic bottles; we were given reusable metal straws in restaurants and bars; and saw signs reminding us ‘Don’t use plastic and be fantastic’ at tourist attractions. A plastic bag ban had come into effect across the country on 1 September 2017. (Tip – carry your own reusable bags and refillable water bottles when you visit.)
If you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka, here are our tips for travelling more sustainably:
THINGS TO DO
Encounter the Wildlife
It’s impossible to miss the wildlife in Sri Lanka – whether it’s the monkeys roaming temples, the sweet street dogs or the colourful birdlife. Wildlife is one of the main attractions, and there are over 100 protected national parks, reserves and sanctuaries across the country.
One way to witness the wildlife up close is to take a safari in one of the national parks, and this was definitely a highlight of our trip. While entry fees for the national parks can be quite high, this money contributes to protecting the land and the animals that call it home. It is well worth doing your research into companies providing safaris (same goes for whale watching, visits to elephant sanctuaries and turtle hatcheries) – the most popular parks like Yala National Park can become very crowded at peak times, and companies offering surprisingly cheap safari trips can operate questionably. We booked through our hotel and were glad we did – seeing crowds of jeeps chasing and crowding a lone sloth bear was upsetting and deeply uncomfortable, and we were thankful that our driver kept a responsible distance and didn’t try to get too close to the wildlife just to give us a better photo opportunity.
Avoid elephant rides – Unfortunately in Sri Lanka you do still see elephant rides being offered. Asian elephants are highly intelligent, sentient beings and the best way to see these magnificent creatures up close is to visit one of the national parks, where you can witness them living happily and freely.
Be wary of turtle hatcheries – Five species of sea turtles nest along the west and south coasts, and there are a number of places that offer you the chance to release the hatchlings or observe nesting mothers. However, these hatcheries may actually be doing more harm than good for turtle conservation and are very rarely ethical.
Ride the train
Taking a scenic train ride across Sri Lanka is not only one of the most environmentally-friendly ways to get around, it’s also one of the most spectacular train journeys you will possibly ever experience. The train from Kandy to Ella passes through the beautiful hill country, where tea plantations and waterfalls line the tracks.
Ayurveda originated in India more than 3,000 years ago and spread to Sri Lanka soon after. It is a way of life in Sri Lanka, and there are around 6,500 registered Ayurveda practitioners in the country offering a range of treatments and retreats.
FOOD AND DRINK
Eating in Sri Lanka is a delight. A vast array of spices, fruits and vegetables are all grown locally on the island – it’s not unusual to see bananas, papayas and mangos growing which then end up as your breakfast the following morning. The spice gardens are tourist attractions in their own right, and the spices are used in the delicious Sri Lankan rice and curry dishes.
We found many good restaurants serving local, organic food, with filtered water bottles for the table, metal straws, and even non-dairy milk – particularly around Arugam Bay and Galle Fort. Some of our favourites:
Bay Vista Yoga Cafe, Arugam Bay – A great vegetarian and vegan cafe serving fresh juices, fruit bowls, salads and snacks (that also offers rooftop yoga classes)
Hideaway Resort Restaurant, Arugam Bay – Beautiful garden restaurant serving delicious dishes made with organic, fresh and locally sourced produced. Filtered water is provided and there’s not a plastic straw in sight.
Poonie’s Kitchen, Galle Fort – Colourful food in a colourful courtyard setting.
Tip: Lunch packets containing rice and curry are available at many roadside cafes and train stations and are very cheap – but are wrapped in single-use plastic. So to avoid contributing to plastic pollution, carry a reusable lunch box or stop to dine in for rice and curry.
Galle Fort – Galle’s historic fort – a Unesco World Heritage site – is brimming with antique stores, galleries and boutiques selling local art, accessories and homewares.
Rice & Carry – Rice & Carry is a social enterprise that aims to empower and improve the livelihoods of the communities on Sri Lanka’s east coast by making and selling bags made from locally collected recycled materials, such as former rice sacks and hessian sacks.
KK Boutique, Galle Fort – Offering a stylish selection of homewares, fashion and local artwork on display. It also supports local charities (while we were there 10% of the proceeds from a collection of bracelets was being donated to helping stray dogs).