Walking along a dirt road on Sri Lanka's south-west coast late one afternoon in 2013, I met an elderly woman pottering in her garden. I smiled, waved and prepared to keep walking, but the woman broke into a wide, near-toothless grin and motioned for me to follow her into her home. I hesitated, wary about what she might have wanted from me, but decided to go in anyway. Inside her humble home, with its rammed earth floor and rickety plastic chairs, she introduced me to her adorable chubby baby grandchild, showed me her two white fan-tailed doves, and served me some of Sri Lanka's famously fine tea from a prehistoric-looking pot. We laughed and we talked for almost an hour, despite not sharing a word of common language, as the shadows lengthened and the setting sun turned the dust shifting around us to gold. In a country that had only been experiencing tourism growth for a few years by then, I had been an anomalous delight, received with nothing but curiosity and respect.
It was an experience that made me feel instantly accepted and at home. A display of pure kindness and generosity that has often been repeated during my subsequent travels in Sri Lanka, one that taught me that the beauty of the country is everywhere, in even the smallest, most simple things. Years later, while getting hopelessly lost trying to find the stunning Brief Garden at the erstwhile home of Bevis Bawa, one of Sri Lanka's most renowned landscape architects, my travel companion and I were invited into the homes of all three people we stopped to ask for directions along the way. They held our hands, looked into our eyes with genuine warmth and affection, and hacked fresh coconuts from their trees for us to drink. It was hospitality as I had never experienced it before and have never experienced it since, in my travels to more than 60 countries, and it left an indelible mark.
What is heartbreaking to think about today, then, is that it is locals like these who are being most heavily impacted by the recent Easter Sunday bombings, which killed 258 people and essentially halted travel to the country. Travel consultancy Forward Keys reported an 86 per cent cancellation rate and no new bookings the week following the attack compared with the previous year, hitting small family-run businesses and sole traders the hardest. This, coming at a time when tourist arrival numbers to the island nation were at an all-time high, rising to more than 2.3 million in 2018 and making tourism the country's third most important industry.
But these attacks happened over three months ago now. Tensions have eased. And although painful memories of that day will linger for years and perhaps decades to come, as those of the country's 25-year civil war and its 2004 Boxing Day tsunami have, locals are trying their hardest to move forward with their lives. It is time for us travellers (especially from Australia, since we are one of Sri Lanka's fastest growing inbound markets) to do the same and start returning to the teardrop-shaped nation. The official bodies have told us it's time: Smart Traveller has lowered their travel advisory for Australians from "reconsider your need to travel" to the second lowest level, "exercise a high degree of caution"; The UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the US Department of State have withdrawn their warnings to stop all but essential travel to Sri Lanka, as have France, Canada, Japan, China, Germany, Switzerland, India and more. The Sri Lankan government has reduced airline charges for the remainder of 2019 to help boost tourism, and many of the exceptional hotels across the country are offering hefty discounts to entice travellers, which means cheaper travel all round. But more importantly, in an age where terrorism is a global issue, as responsible citizens of the world, we simply cannot let these kinds of horrifying acts scare us into staying home.
When we retire our passports or change our travel habits because of these events, we give in to fear and hate, which is what the perpetrators want. They win and the local businesses, many of which depend on tourism to survive, lose, while our worlds and minds contract. But when we continue to travel and to experience and learn from different cultures, we build bridges of understanding across continents. We open our eyes, often seeing sights and issues that we might ordinarily ignore, and as a result we see the world we thought we knew in a different light. We open our hearts as wide as we do when we're in love and expand our sense of what is possible among human beings, in terms of human kindness and, at times, its opposite. And that is how we win.
These attacks can, unfortunately, happen almost anywhere these days. That is the reality of the world we live in now. We're no safer at home, or walking the streets of Paris, London or Bali, than we are in Sri Lanka or other countries we usually assume are too dangerous to visit, from Iran to Egypt, South Sudan to Iraqi and Kurdistan. And while there are no guarantees that an incident like this won't happen again in Sri Lanka, in most cases one of the safest places to travel is a city that has recently had a terrorist attack since everyone, officials and citizens, are hyper-vigilant (indeed, high levels of security are currently in place across Sri Lanka, and a state of emergency remains in place).
Why all this convincing? Well, as someone who fell deeply in love with Sri Lanka on her first visit there six years ago, the thought of travellers not getting to experience the country's pristine beaches, spectacular tea plantations, abundant wildlife, ancient temples, fascinating World Heritage sites and welcoming locals, seems in itself a great tragedy. There really is no place like it, especially for the world-weary. This is a place where you can let your mind unfurl - as you chug through the mist-shrouded hill country on a 100-year-old train, as you lie by a sparkling infinity pool jutting out over a verdant valley, or as you get introduced to intoxicating spices while tucking into fragrant curries and steaming string hoppers. It is a place full of sensual delights, where the scent of incense lingers in the air, where the glittering tea plants in the highlands take the sunlight and give it back to you in a different way, and where the evening prayers filtering out from the thousands of Buddhist temples sprinkled across the country get woven into your dreams. It is a place that, in its elegant simplicity, helps you recall the things that matter.
Of course, we all need to make our own judgment calls, and take the necessary precautions when travelling to destinations that have recently been hit by a terrorist attack. Things like staying abreast of the advice of local authorities and travel advisories, planning a little more thoroughly than you might usually, registering your travel plans on a site like Smart Traveller, making sure your travel insurance is up to date, and avoiding crowded public spaces and large gatherings while on the ground. But travelling back to Sri Lanka now is important, since it means showing solidarity and support for one of our neighbours - and it almost goes without saying that if this incident had happened in Australia, we would want the same helping hand to be extended towards us.
It means helping the local economy get back on its feet, by doing our little bit to help revive one of their most important industries. As a by-product, it means being rewarded with thinner crowds at some of the country's most impressive sites, including Kandy's Temple of the Tooth, 17th-century Galle Fort, and the 1500-year-old mountaintop fortress atop Sigiriya Rock. We may never again have the ancient Buddhist murals and statues inside Dambulla's cave temples all to ourselves, or the remarkably beautiful Nine Arch Bridge in the small tea country town of Ella, not to mention near-empty beaches fringing the coast and quiet tea plantations inland. Perhaps most important of all, though, returning to Sri Lanka now means promoting peace, staying united, and not letting terror and fear win.
To stay up-to-date with the recent incidents in Sri Lanka, and to check present safety warnings and advice before booking, visit smarttraveller.gov.au