(originally published in Newsweek, November 20 2010)
The road from Colombo to Kandy was a traffic jam of cars, tuk-tuks (three-wheeled taxis), and buses—along with the occasional cow—so we didn’t arrive at Mackwoods’s Labookellie Tea Estate until after dark, missing the scenic hills and waterfalls of Sri Lanka’s central highlands. The next morning, when we opened the doors out to the patio, my friend Oleg and I were greeted not only by the stunning, terraced hills, but also by the strong, rich fragrance of tea coming from the thousands of surrounding bushes. We spent the morning strolling the grounds of the plantation and taking a tour of the tea factory. (The company makes its own brand of tea and sells wholesale to companies like Lipton). Then I had an in-room massage. Not a bad way to start a holiday.
Opened to guests last year, the three luxury bungalows on the estate are just a few of the upscale plantation properties—including rubber, coconut, and palm oil—that Taprospa (a subsidiary of the Mackwoods Group) runs across Sri Lanka. It’s a good time to get in on the action. Since Tamil Tiger rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed by government troops 18 months ago, effectively ending Sri Lanka’s decades-long ethnic conflict, the country has seen a boom in tourism. The number of annual visitors remained stagnant at about 400,000 for the past decade, but this year has seen a 46 percent increase. More than 700,000 are expected to visit in 2011. According to Nalaka Godahewa, the chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourism Board, the number of new hotel rooms will also rise by 30,000 by 2015. Hotel chains such as Shangri-La have already plotted out sites in Colombo, while Four Seasons and Hyatt have expressed interest in creating luxury properties on the island. “There has not been any investment in the north and east of the island in the last 30 years because of the conflict,” says Godahewa. “But these are some of the most beautiful areas of the country, and investment is coming.”