By JENNIFER CHEN
Until November, when the country’s first highway opened, the only way to this historic port was via crowded trains or an even more crowded two-lane road.
Despite local aversion to the Southern Expressway, which links Galle to the capital city of Colombo, the new highway marks a turning point in Sri Lanka’s tourism industry. With its white-sand beaches and archaeological sites, the country is perennially named one of Asia’s next travel hotspots.
Lauryn Ishak for The Wall Street Journal
Three years after the end of a brutal, 26-year civil war, those predictions may finally come true. The travel sector already has witnessed a comeback: Compared with 438,000 arrivals in 2008, 1 million tourists are expected to visit this year. By 2016, the government is targeting 2.5 million tourists, hotel industry sources say.
Sri Lanka’s tourism boom could bring big changes to Galle’s historic heart, a 400-year-old fort occupying a 52-hectare headland that juts into the Indian Ocean. And as I discovered during a recent trip, many fear that not all those changes will be for the better.
Founded by the Portuguese in the early 16th century, Galle Fort, as it’s commonly called, was one of the most important stops along the spice route. Arab, Chinese, Indian, Persian and European merchants came to trade silks, gems, nutmeg, cloves, and above all, cinnamon, creating a cosmopolitan mix. In 1640, the Dutch East India Company captured the Fort, building a three-kilometer rampart wall and 14 bastions that still stand today.
The British took control of Galle in the late 1700s, and it largely fell by the wayside, as trade became more focused in Colombo. But the Fort’s decline was a blessing in terms of cultural heritage. “Galle fell asleep, as it were, and for a hundred years nothing really happened. There was no need for the Fort to be developed,” said Channa Daswatte, an architect who has been involved in several of its preservation projects. “Certainly up to the 1970s, what was there in 1860 or thereabouts was completely preserved.”
What was left was a remarkable collection of homes, warehouses, churches and administrative buildings that married Dutch colonial style—gables, porches and tiled roofs—with Portuguese features such as colonnaded courtyards. The buildings displayed ingenious adaptations to Galle’s balmy climate. Coral was a favored construction material because of its porous, water-retaining nature: When temperatures soared, the trapped water evaporated and cooled the interior, a sort of 17th-century air-conditioning system.
Elsewhere, roofs featured deep overhangs to shield residents from the sun. When the British took over the Fort, they wisely moved into the existing buildings and continued to use the sewerage system designed by the Dutch. The British added a lighthouse, clock tower and sundry other buildings, including some Art Nouveau and Art Deco houses.
For some Sri Lankans, sentimental ties to the Fort lingered. Mr. Daswatte, who leads architectural tours during the annual Galle Literary Festival, fondly recalled his first bottle of Coca-Cola—a rare treat in the late 1970s—as a schoolboy at the New Oriental Hotel, a garrison building-turned-Victorian-hotel. (It’s now the luxurious Amangalla.)
“The Fort was this dreamy, quiet, beautiful place that you could walk through,” he said.
The Next Wave: Tourists
Alluring though it was, the Fort didn’t draw the tourists headed to Sri Lanka in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Initially they were European sun-seekers, indifferent to local culture. Officials, too, failed to recognize the Fort’s potential as an attraction even after Unesco granted it World Heritage status in 1988.
Its European provenance may have worked against it. “For a long time, the Sri Lankan tourism board did not regard Galle as a jewel,” said Olivia Richli, general manager of the Amangalla and a longtime resident. “The focus was always, ‘Come do the archaeological sites or come do the tea trail.’” Thus ignored, Galle remained a sleepy backwater.
It stayed that way into the 21st century. My husband and I first visited Galle over Christmas in 2000, and my memories are of decrepit houses, impromptu cricket games and gin-and-tonics on the New Oriental Hotel’s sagging veranda. We stayed at Beatrice House on Rampart Street, a charmingly ramshackle villa that dated back to the 17th century. R.K. Kodikara, the ebullient owner, had a shock of white hair and an MC Hammer T-shirt, and loved to regale his guests with the town’s lore. We joined residents for their morning walks along the ramparts; in the evening, we had to hunt around for a café that was still serving rice and curry.
Since my last visit, Galle has started luring travelers eager to explore Sri Lanka’s rich colonial heritage. Crumbling mansions have been restored and converted into boutique hotels such as the Galle Fort Hotel and the Fort Printers.
Peace has accelerated gentrification. Hotels are reporting full occupancy rates, and cafés and boutiques are popping up, especially around the tip of the headland. “There has been more change in the last six months than in the past 10 years,” Ms. Richli said.
Gentrification Sparks Debate
As with many historic spots, the revival is double-edged. Real-estate prices inside the Fort have spiked in response to the finite supply of houses and Unesco regulations that bar high-rise development. In 1995, one perch, or 25 square meters, was worth around $500. The going rate now is $20,000, Ziham Hussain, the director of Olanda Real Estate, said.
A one-story 275-square-meter Dutch-built house had recently been sold for $350,000, he added. “With that money, you can buy two houses in Colombo.”
It’s little wonder, then, that residents are jumping at the chance to sell. They’re finding plenty of eager buyers among wealthy Colombo families and foreigners looking for a vacation home. A tax on foreigners buying property in Sri Lanka has failed to deter investors, who avoid it by finding a local partner or setting up a holding company. Some say about 10% of the Fort’s houses are owned by foreigners, though reliable numbers are hard to nail down.
As more inhabitants—mostly Muslims descended from Arab traders—leave, the Fort’s ambience is changing. What was once a neighborhood of families and mom-and-pop shops is giving way to hotels and boutiques. Resentment, meanwhile, is being stirred as foreigners open up rival shops and scantily clad tourists affront the conservative community. “It’s like they respect the rules in their own country but not here,” said Sifath Thajudeen, a Galle native and jeweler, complaining of litter left by outsiders.
While some houses have fallen into disrepair amid messy inheritance disputes, preserving the buildings is relatively straightforward. Maintaining Galle Fort’s atmosphere is a trickier task. Helping out with costly maintenance is one way of convincing residents to stay, said Parakrama Dahanayake, the head of the Galle Heritage Foundation. Fifty-five houses were recently repaired under a Dutch-funded preservation project. But when I ask Mr. Dahanayake if there was anything to stop the program’s beneficiaries from selling, he admitted there wasn’t. (That said, only two or three had been sold so far.)
Part of the problem is the absence of a definitive plan — not that officials and preservationists haven’t tried. “There have been lots of proposals, lots of drafts for proposals, lots of drafts for regulations, but nothing really has been put down and said, ‘Look this is the policy we’re going to adopt,’” the architect, Mr. Daswatte, said.
And no single authority is calling the shots. Over tea in his office in the 17th-century Dutch Hospital, Mr. Dahanayake explained which government body has oversight over what facet of life in the Fort. It’s a tangled web, made all the more complicated by rival interests, especially as the Fort’s earning potential grows.
Galle Fort is far from the only heritage destination that has faced this conundrum: The more popular it becomes, the more it loses its character. The buildings are saved, but at a ruinous cost. Dubrovnik in Croatia is swarming with cruise-ship passengers during the high season. In Asia, mass tourism has turned Lijiang in China’s Yunnan province into one long souvenir stand, while many of the original inhabitant in Luang Prabang, Laos, have rented their houses to entrepreneurs who’ve turned them into shops and cafés.
For now, several aspects of the Fort could prevent it from suffering the same fate. Its law courts and schools still bring in locals every day, and proposals to relocate them have so far gotten nowhere. Regulations ban alcohol sales near places of worship, so revelers have to look elsewhere for the party. And the presence of the Meera Jumma mosque means Muslim residents have deep ties to the neighborhood.
As much as the Amangalla benefits from Galle’s newfound popularity, Ms. Richli, who has lived in Galle for 10 years, fears it’s only a matter of time before it becomes overrun with tourists. When I brought up Luang Prabang’s transformation, she replied, “It will happen here.”
I asked her about Beatrice House, and she informed me that Mr. Kodikara had already sold it to a Colombo-based couple. “They’ve tidied it up,” she said, “but it’s empty now.”
Galle, Sri Lanka
Where to Stay
Amangalla Beautiful grounds, a sanctuary-like spa, and 28 well-appointed guest rooms make this the Fort’s most luxurious property. 10 Church St.; 94-91/223-3388; amanresorts.com; doubles from $500.
Galle Fort Hotel A 17th-century manor turned into a 14-room boutique hotel, with a decent restaurant. 28 Church St.; 94-91/223-2870; galleforthotel.com; doubles from $160.
Fort Printers Five Asian minimalist rooms in a restored mansion, with a tiny pool in the inner courtyard. 39 Pedlar St.; 94-91/224-7977; doubles for two $120.
Where to Eat
Sun House Just outside the Fort, this seven-room hotel in an old villa has an excellent restaurant that serves Asian-influenced fare. Reservations are a must. 18 Upper Dickson Rd.; 94-91/438-0275; dinner for two $35.
Pedlar’s Inn Jewelry shop that doubles as a café serving simple salads and sandwiches. Save room for the brownies. 92 Pedlar St.; 94-91/222-7199; lunch for two 1,200 rupees.
Mama’s Guesthouse Affordable curries on a terrace with unbeatable views. 76 Leyn Baan Street; 94/77-320-6755; dinner for two 1,400 rupees.
What to Do
English transplant Juliet Coombe, a writer-photographer who owns Serendipity Arts Café, runs informative architecture and cultural walking tours 94/77-683-8659; tours from 1,500 rupees per person.
With its sprawling parks and rich wildlife, Sri Lanka is fast becoming an eco-tourism hotspot. A 40-minute drive from Galle, Mirissa Harbor is the place to see the planet’s largest mammal, the blue whale. Sperm whales and spinner dolphins can also be spotted. Contact Raja and the Whales (rajaandthewhales.com) about half-day tours.
Hotels Return to Sri Lanka
Back on the radar as a tourist destination, Sri Lanka is on the verge of a hotel building boom with both international hospitality groups and local players launching major projects.
Despite a promising tourism industry, hotel construction stalled amid the country’s 26-year civil war. Sri Lanka currently has only 15,000 hotel rooms available; by comparison, Thailand’s popular resort island of Phuket has nearly 44,000 rooms, according to C9 Hotelworks, a travel consultancy. That’s not nearly enough to meet the rising number of tourists—a figure that’s expected to hit 2.5 million by 2016, says Malin Hapugoda, the managing director of Aitken Spence Hotels, one of Sri Lanka’s biggest hoteliers. “There are at least 25,000 to 30,000 additional rooms needed,” he said.
International and local hoteliers are rushing to fill the gap. Here’s a quick look at the major projects underway:
Shangri-La Colombo: The Hong Kong¬-based company recently broke ground for a 661-room tower on 10 acres of land near the storied seafront Galle Face Green in the capital. Expected to open 2015.
will make its post-war debut with this 306-room hotel opposite Galle Face Green. Slated to open in October 2013.
Mövenpick Colombo: The Swiss company’s entrée into Sri Lanka will be a 180-room downtown hotel. Target opening date is the middle of 2013.
Jetwing Colombo: Local hotel group Jetwing’s first property
in the capital will have 70 rooms and 28 serviced apartments. Opening April 2014.
Shangri-La Hambantota: A 145-acre resort with 315 rooms in southern Hambantota district, with an 18-hole golf course, dive center, and CHI Spa. Scheduled to open in 2014.
Avani Kalutra: The second property under the new mid-market brand by Thailand-based Minor Hotel Group, the parent company of luxury Anantara hotels, and local partner Serendib Leisure will be opened later this year. Located an hour south of Colombo, it will have 105 rooms.
Anantara Kalutara: A 138-room upscale resort with a spa and Thai restaurant. Opening late 2013.
Soneva Ahungalla: Bangkok-based Six Senses’ founder Sonu Shivdasani is partnering with Sri Lanka’s Aitken Spence Hotels to create an exclusive 71-villa project, occupying 10½ acres of beachfront land and the 26-acre Meeraladuwa Island, just south of Bentota. Slated for early 2014.
Jetwing Yala Safari, Yala: The original luxury game lodge at one of the country’s best-known parks was destroyed in the 2004 tsunami. The new development will have 70 rooms and 28 villas, eco-friendly features like solar power, and is expected to open in April 2013.
Jetwing Reef, Uppuveli: The seaside stretch around the port of Trincomalee reputedly has some of the most pristine beaches in the country. This 68-room property, set to open December 2013, will be among the first high-end resorts to open in the region since the war ended.