The beach at Gurupokuna on Sri Lanka’s south coast is wild and empty. Look up and down its length and you’re unlikely to see another person. The waves here are wild, too. Too wild to swim in for eight months of the year. They crash and pound so angrily that you can hear their roar at least half a mile inland. At night it felt like our hut, which was just metres from the surf, was about to be engulfed by the ocean.
The fact that the original huts were swallowed by the sea in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami gave a slight edge to our first night at Mamboz Beach Cabanas. But all angst evaporated with the morning sunshine. Mamboz is a very simple place: just four huts on stilts in the sand, a few hammocks strung under palm trees, and a back gate that opens directly on to that beach.
Arriving with my partner and six-year-old son, I felt like we’d stumbled across an exotic little club: exclusive because of its spectacular and remote setting, but friendly and welcoming thanks to the easy charm of its owner, American Matthew Gale. Over dinner of tuna steaks and banana leaf curry, one couple told us they’d come for three days but were now into their eighth. ‘We can’t leave.’
While Matthew will arrange tuk-tuks or cars to nearby attractions – including Udawalawe national park and its 500-strong elephant population, or the Mulkirigala rock temples – what people love most about Mamboz is falling into various states of idleness, whether it’s lolling in a hammock, watching the setting sun turn the wet sand gold and the sky pink, or being pulled and pummelled for two hours: Matthew is an expert in Thai massage.
However, there is work to be done for those who feel energetic. Every morning at around 7am, fishermen cast vast nets between 200 and 300 metres out to sea, then spend an hour hauling them in. Half the village was there to help and every extra pair of hands was welcome. My partner joined the long line of people leaning back and slowly heaving the load in as an older man sang to keep the momentum going.
Eventually the net was dragged on to the beach with its fat wriggling cargo. Locals who’d come to help picked the tiddlers out of the net while the bulk of the catch was sorted into polystyrene crates to be taken to market.
It’s quite a contrast to some of the stilt fishermen near Galle, who have become one of the most photographed sights in Sri Lanka and now only ‘fish for tourists’, according to one guide we spoke to. But even here, where fishing is a living rather than an attraction, it’s not the same as it was. ‘They used to go out once a day; now four teams go out up to four times a day,’ Matthew told us when we got back.
And it’s not just the fishing that’s changing on this coast. After 13 years of splendid isolation, Mamboz is getting a neighbour, a luxury, modern hotel being built by Russian investors. Matthew doesn’t object to having a neighbour, but he’s concerned about the scale of hotel development across the country. Seven years after the end of the civil war, Sri Lanka is in the midst of a building boom, with international chain hotels mushrooming along the coast.
The bay of Weligama, the southern coastal town famous for its surf schools, is now dominated by the massive Marriott hotel – the group’s first on the island. In Hambantota, about 30km east of Mamboz, a 300-room Shangri-La opened in June this year, overlooking a pristine beach. It’s handy for the new Mattala Rajapaksa airport, or it would be if any international airlines actually flew into it.
The million-passenger-capacity airport, with its 4km runway built over an elephant corridor, is just one of several vanity projects built by – and named after – former president Mahinda Rajapaksa in a bid to turn his hometown into an thriving business hub.
A new convention centre and new cricket stadium are also barely used white elephants.
Back to hotels and the list goes on: luxury chain Anantara opened its first property here, on the outskirts of Tangalle, late last year; an Amari, another upscale hotel, is due to open in March; Sheraton is opening a hotel on Kosgoda, a prime turtle nesting beach; and in 2017 Colombo will gain a Shangri-La, Movenpick, Sheraton, Grand Hyatt and the first ITC outside of India.
You can’t blame a country, especially one held back for so long by civil war, for wanting to benefit from tourism. The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority is aiming to almost double visitor numbers in the next four years, from 2.2 million in 2016 – up from 1.5 million in 2015 – to four million by 2020, but what does such rampant growth mean for the people of Sri Lanka?
Matthew was due to open Mamboz the day the tsunami struck. He was fixing the roof when he saw a ‘wall of white’ coming towards him and told his staff to run. Fortunately no one was hurt and Mamboz was rebuilt. Now, 13 years on, the huge increase in hotel capacity along the coast is having a direct impact on his bookings and he is scathing about the government’s focus on big luxury developments. ‘You should have come 10 years ago. Mass tourism is where it’s going,’ he says ruefully.
For born and bred Sri Lankans who are passionate about preserving their country, the new wave of tourism means redoubling efforts to protect heritage and the environment. Tharanga Liyanarachchi is an archaeologist employed by the Galle Heritage Foundation. His job is to protect the historic buildings within the 400-year-old Unesco-listed Galle Fort. The main physical threat is from developers who want to change the unique facades of the old townhouses, but earnest and determined Tharanga is also charged with making sure the fort doesn’t become an open museum that only rich tourists can afford to stay and shop in – there are already six boutique hotels, a growing number of upmarket shops selling $40 sarongs and luxury beauty products and restaurants offering cocktails and sushi.
The indigenous community has already fallen from 2,500 to 1,500 and he wants these people to be able to continue living and working in the fort. ‘We have a tuk-tuk association for the 80 drivers in the fort, and a mobile vendors’ association. We must get participation for them to preserve our culture. The money must go to them.’
As well as running daily heritage walking tours of the fort, he has introduced a monthly traditional dance show at the court square and is developing the fort’s 14 bastions into exhibition and event spaces to showcase local culture.
But his passion for conservation isn’t confined to the 80 acres of streets and historic buildings within the fort’s Dutch-built ramparts. He wants to see a commitment to ‘intangible heritage’ across the country in a way that benefits local communities directly. ‘Some tours take tourists to mask shops; we should be taking them to the mask makers, so that they get paid for their work directly.’
The current government, which replaced Rajapaksa’s administration two years ago, has made a commitment to sustainable tourism. People like Tharanga and Sunela Jayewardene, a Sri Lankan architect specialising in eco-friendly builds, are doing all they can to make sure that is not an empty promise. ‘I would like to see that whatever happens is environmentally sustainable. This is particularly vital for a country of our size. The natural environment is the badge we wear. If we lose that, we will be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs,’ says Sunela.
And for the visitor? So far the hotel chains have focused on the major coastal hubs. Away from these, it’s still perfectly possible to find your own patch of empty beach. Walking the sandy back roads just inland from Mamboz we came across the tiny Kingfisher restaurant, where the only person we saw while we ate our lunch of grilled prawns was a buffalo herder, who brought his cattle to graze in the neighbouring paddy field.
At 6.30am in Kalametiya bird sanctuary, just east of Mamboz, the lagoon was utterly peaceful, the birds unruffled as local guide Gayan used a wooden pole to steer us through the shallow waters. Visitors understandably make a beeline for the big-name big game parks like Yala, but sharing sunrise over the lagoon with Indian pond herons, a dazzling purple swamp hen, black cormorants, a peacock surveying the scene from a rocky perch and even a small crocodile, had its own magic.
A former tuk-tuk driver, Gayan started bird-watching only after a tourist gave him a pair of binoculars, a luxury he could never have afforded. Now he is a self-taught guide and dedicated conservationist. He would like to see the government put as much effort into preserving places like Kalametiya, which is under threat from illegal fishing, as they do into promoting already overrun parks. ‘Yala is horrible now,’ he says. ‘One leopard, 500 jeeps. It’s big business, not nature.’
For our trip we deliberately picked small, slightly off-the-beaten-track places to stay, so much so that our driver was unconvinced there was any kind of accommodation along the dusty, unpaved road that led to our next stop, the aptly named Back of Beyond, a cluster of bungalows by an estuary. There our son skipped about trying to catch lizards and frogs, and we spent afternoons by the pool or kayaking through the backwaters to a broad empty beach.
Even in the more populous areas – near Galle for example – you don’t have to venture far to find quiet places to stay. The Old Palm House is a gorgeous colonial villa a couple of miles inland from the hippy beach town of Unawatuna. Once we entered the villa’s gates, from the lawn we could see nothing but treetops and the only interruption to lazy mornings on the terrace was the noise of squabbling langur monkeys and green parrots.
Like most holiday homes in Sri Lanka, the Old Palm House had a resident chef. His name was Ruwan and we loved him, not just for his amazing cooking but for his cheerful demeanour. A devoted Buddhist, he chatted away about impermanence and reaching higher states of being. ‘We are all going to die, madame,’ he told me cheerily one morning, while chopping vegetables.
April’s scorching heat and Ruwan’s cooking – fish or prawn curries, whole butter fish, home-made passion fruit cheesecake – made leaving the villa hard, but there was plenty to see within a short tuk-tuk ride.
We visited the market at Habaraduwa with a guide who took us to his house by a railway track for a cooking demonstration by his wife, Deevika. She spent an hour preparing a huge spread of dishes using her own curry powder: jackfruit curry, crispy chewy aubergine, bitter gourd salad, fish balls, mango chutney and ambulthiyal – chunks of yellowfin tuna steeped in spices. Deevika kept my son and another child entertained by asking them to grate coconut and chop garlic.
Sri Lanka is famed for heritage sites such as the rock temples at Dambulla but there are hundreds of smaller temples waiting to be discovered. I was the only foreigner wandering among the jumble of boulders and admiring the wall paintings at 2,200-year-old Yatagala, not far from the Old Palm House. A small group of worshippers sat under an ancient bodhi tree, their chanting mingling with the yowl of peacocks and the swish of a brush sweeping leaves from the sandy ground. On the way out I noticed a sign asking visitors to respect the site; it ended with the words: ‘May you have the bless [sic] of triple gems.’
In a country on the brink of a tourism boom, Yatagala served as a reminder of how many gems this country has to offer – and how many it needs to protect.