Six months after the Easter bombings, Sri Lanka is a country ready to welcome back UK visitors.
Sri Lanka has more leopards per kilometre than any place on earth, elephants are just part of the landscape, kingfishers as common as pigeons and peacocks so abundant they warrant massive motorway warning signs.
Your clients might not see the Big Five here but pick the right locations and in a country as small as Ireland they can encounter fishing cats, jungle cats, loris, palm civets and many other species they’ve probably never heard of.
Enter the lobby at Jetwing Vil Uyana, situated deep within Sri Lanka’s interior, and you’re immediately confronted with these creatures – or at least TV images of them taken with infrared trap cameras set in the hotel’s grounds.
At this property, the Jetwing chain has taken the sustainability concept and really run with it – here, animals outnumber guests.
Vil Uyana, inspired by the London Wetland Centre, was built on abandoned agricultural land in the dry zone.
Creating a lake, paddy fields and planting numerous trees has seen the number of bird species soar from 29 to 140, and reptiles – including, during my stay, two crocodiles – rise from three species to 35.
Four years after the hotel’s construction, a rare primate, the dry zone slender loris, was first seen. Now there are many, with 3.5 acres originally earmarked for more accommodation instead apportioned as loris habitat.
Each evening, the hotel’s resident naturalist Chaminda Jayasekara takes guests on walks to spot the boggle-eyed loris plus a whole variety of monkeys, reptiles and rare cats. The latter, he believes, should be a star attraction. “Tourists all come to see leopards, but they’re not considering the smaller cats.”
Vil Uyana sits midway between the towering rock fortress of Sigiriya and Dambulla Rock Temple, and many visit these ancient sites without taking time to view wildlife.
They are making a mistake; here, you don’t even need to move from the dining room to encounter the raw environment.
As I’m presented with breakfast, I watch as a fish eagle spies a potential meal in the lake, but a croc beats him to it.
We depart and continue south through Sri Lanka’s interior to another flagship example of sustainability; Jetwing Kaduruketha, a former plantation house whose chalets are set in an enchanted foodie forest.
The 120 tree varieties include mango, avocado, jackfruit, star fruit, cocoa, cinnamon and pepper vines – the latter not something I have previously seen growing wild.
We emerge from this natural larder and survey the mountain range ahead. Between us, there’s an example of extreme sustainability; paddy fields providing organic rice for all Jetwing’s 39 properties.
At Kaduruketha, the sustainability list goes on: plastic is banned (even from food suppliers), filtered water is supplied to rooms, a biogas plant fuels the staff kitchen and 40% of electricity is produced on-site, as is a great deal of food. Jetwing has a target to be plastic-free across its portfolio by next year.
It admits it won’t make it, but boy, is it trying. For a beach finale, we head to the east coast.
Arugam Bay is a world-famous surf venue and I ride the baby waves in bath-temperature ocean for my first lesson.
I wipe out five times, but stay upright all the way to shore twice. Later, we take a raft on to a nearby lagoon and hundreds of small fish leap out of our path as we view more elephants, crocodiles and exotic birds.
Next morning, there’s a 05:30 departure for yet more wildlife viewing at Kumana national park. Kumana borders the more famous Yala national park and, having visited both, I can recommend Kumana as being quieter.
It especially appeals to birdwatchers with its vast swamp lake, but there are also elephants and leopards, although the big cats are not as abundant as in Yala.
In both parks, the animals are flourishing but during my visit in October, there were few visitors here or throughout the country.
Tourism in Sri Lanka is just recovering after the Easter bombings that targeted hotels and Christian churches.
Security in this overwhelmingly Buddhist-following island has been stepped up and, at Colombo airport, all vehicles drive over ground-mounted cameras, while passengers are subject to vigorous baggage checks.
On the mainly Muslim east coast, the recovery is slower than the rest of the country. Staff at the Jetwing Surf hotel near Arugam Bay can’t rely on wave-riding dudes to fill the enormous luxury beach cabins and need help from the UK. This is where you do your bit; sustainability is not just about the environment, but also those who work in tourism.
One young Jetwing staff member – a product of its Youth Academy, another sustainability initiative – told me his father had worked abroad for 18 years, virtually all his life. He had spent only a month or so every two years with his parents: imagine your own family fractured like that.
Supporting Sri Lanka’s tourism industry means this young man will not have to follow his father’s path abroad and break up his own future family. By selling Sri Lanka, you can help him.
Audley Travel offers a tailor-made 14-night trip from £3,420pp, with three nights at Vil Uyana and two at Jetwing Kaduruketha. Price includes flights, stays at other Jetwing properties and excursions with a private chauffeur guide.