I Traveled to Sri Lanka During the COVID-19 Pandemic — Here's What It Was Like
Leave it to an airfare sale to spark a bit of wanderlust.
The cost of flights to far-flung points around the world plunged at various points in 2021. With a big anniversary to celebrate in October, last June, my husband, Chris, and I started looking at antipodal landings to which we could escape to experience something more exciting than the tired dregs of a pandemic at home.
With the benefit of refundable fares (at the time), the opportunity to dream big seemed fairly risk-free. Asia beckoned. But no sooner did we book flights for Sri Lanka than the Delta variant began to send the world on another COVID-19 spin. We held off canceling, figuring the up-and-down nature of the pandemic might reset things.
Indeed, by October, Sri Lanka had a higher vaccination rate and lower infection numbers than the U.S. The government relaxed its quarantine requirement for fully vaccinated visitors, and the CDC lowered its advisory for the country from level 4 to 3. Sri Lanka reopened to tourism.
Our timing was fabulously serendipitous.
We landed at Anantara Kalutara Resort, sybaritic lodging an hour south of Colombo, the capital. Without exception, resort staff wore masks. This included the crew who welcomed us with a traditional dance, the gardeners and maintenance staff, and the resort's general manager, João Corte-Real. Some even wore two masks.
"The lockdown in Sri Lanka was very strict, very hard," explained Corte-Real, who told me that the resort had opened and closed repeatedly since April 2020. Sri Lankans were prevented from traveling from one province to another for nonessential business, with police checkpoints along the roads to limit movement. But on Nov. 1, the rules on intra-island travel were also relaxed.
Anantara Kalutara had reopened for what Corte-Real anticipated would be a busy high season, starting in December, when the country sees most of its international visitors.
"After a year and a half with so many restrictions, it is a joy to see guests returning," said Corte-Real, who added that demand from international visitors started to come as soon as the hotel reopened. "After such complicated times, it's very important, even psychologically, to be back. When I think about the team, I see how they smile with their eyes."
I, too, detected smiles behind the masks. But what I didn't identify was international guests. At Anantara Kalutara, there wasn't a single Western face — the few dozen guests during our stay all appeared to be from Sri Lanka.
Had we inadvertently intruded on the local, post-lockdown staycation?
We hired a driver to continue down the island nation's south coast, stopping for a break in Galle, a historic Dutch port. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed destination appeared to be reawakening from slumber. Only a few restaurants and shops were open, but the bustle hinted at more to come. Normally filled with tourists, we were again the only Westerners in sight.
And again, masks were worn by everyone. Walking along streets, shopping in the outdoor market, riding motorbikes — face coverings were ubiquitous.
What surprised me was that, in casual conversation with Sri Lankans, never once did I hear people complaining about the pandemic protocols or blame the government for them. And yet tourism — which, in 2019, employed almost one million Sri Lankans and accounted for 10.4% of the country's GDP — was down 88% for the 10 months ending October 2021.
We continued along the south coast to explore Yala National Park, renowned for its elephants, water buffalo, sloth bears, and one of the highest densities of leopards in the world. A 6 a.m. game drive confirmed that there were, in fact, other nationalities exploring the island. When we encountered a couple dozen safari trucks at a leopard sighting, this is where we started to hear other languages — Russian, German, perhaps an English couple.
We stayed nearby at Jetwing Yala, an 80-room safari lodge set just behind dunes along a wild coastline. Here, the sea was just a couple of degrees shy of bathwater warm, but the tumble of waves meant a lifeguard kept his eye on us when we got in past our ankles. The hotel's enormous pool, measuring 250 feet from end to end, was ours for the wallow, with occasional visits by wildlife, and the swim-up bartender kept the local Lion lagers coming.
At either watering hole, we had the place to ourselves.
Our trip took us into the island nation's mountainous interior, where I hoped to ride a Sri Lankan train past tea plantations, waterfalls, and steep vistas to the city of Kandy. At the town of Ella, we discovered that the rail network was only starting to come back to life following a pandemic shutdown. The famed route to Kandy was still days away from restarting, a guard told me.
Determined to explore the rail lore, I walked early the next morning from Ella's charming train station along the tracks to one of the country's most celebrated attractions: the Nine Arch Bridge. A group of Sri Lankans were posing for selfies, and then I overheard a trio of Irish voices, three travelers in their mid-20s.
I couldn't resist asking how they'd come to Sri Lanka, and one told me they chose the country only 10 days before booking round-trip flights from Paris for about $600.
"We decided that we would go somewhere in Southeast Asia or South America," he continued. "But Sri Lanka was the only place that was fully open at the time that allowed us to travel around the country, without quarantine." As Chris and I had done, their accommodations and taxis were booked day by day, to give them flexibility, and they counted on getting a lot for their money. The only downside: They love going out to bars and socializing with other people, but the island hadn't delivered much of a party scene for them during their visit. What surprised them was the level of protocols people adhered to.
"Sri Lanka is a lot stricter on the COVID policies than the E.U.," he explained. "The three of us were so shocked to see that every single person was wearing a mask on the streets."
In the city of Kandy, we hired a driver, Asanka, to show us around in a rusting tuk-tuk. We ascertained two must-see sights were the gorgeous Peradeniya Royal Botanic Gardens, a feast of tropical plants and trees, and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, home to Sri Lanka's most important Buddhist relic — Buddha's tooth. The crowded temples and shrines were safely operated, with a gentleman in PPE spraying the floors with disinfectant, which we walked upon with our bare feet.
To board our flight back home, Chris and I needed to get tested for COVID, and I asked Asanka if he could arrange this. We were glad to have him along, as the receptionist at the clean-looking Durdans Hospital did not speak much English. We paid her $32 apiece for our PCR tests, and results were promised within 18 hours.
Asanka then shuttled us down the road to another building about a mile away — PCR Sample Location, a sign announced. A steep metal staircase led to a dingy room where three nurses in full PPE were available to perform the test, which was quickly accomplished.
As I grabbed hand sanitizer on the way out — perhaps the only time in 10 days I'd been anxious about sanitation — I asked Asanka why the tests weren't done at the hospital.
"Much cheaper to do it here," he replied.
The next morning, Asanka delivered the printed test results and we glanced at them only long enough to read, "COVID-19 Viral RNA Not Detected."
Another driver took us on the three-hour trip to Colombo's airport through unrelenting rain, the last gasps of monsoon season. We checked in for our flight without hassle, and before we knew it, we were on our way home.
In the rear-view mirror, the anniversary trip seemed so easy in so many ways. But I pinched myself to reckon with how fortuitous our timing had been. It was a moment, and a place, that I would never dare try to replicate.
David Swanson is a San Diego-based freelance writer-photographer and past president of SATW, the Society of American Travel Writers.