Tourism in Sri Lanka is growing rapidly. For centuries, Sri Lanka has been a popular place of attraction for foreign travelers. The Chinese traveler Fa-Hien visited Sri Lanka as early as the 4th century, and in the twelfth century, Italian explorer Marco Polo claimed Sri Lanka to be the "best island of its size in the world".
The government initiatives in development of tourism date back to 1937 when the Ceylon Tourist Bureau was established. However, it was closed down in September 1939 due to World War II. After Sri Lanka's independence the promotion of tourism was again considered by re-establishing the Ceylon Tourist Board which took over the function of the Tourist Bureau. More formal recognition for the country's tourism sector was given with the enactment of Act No. 10 of 1966. This provided the legislation for the establishment of Ceylon Tourist Board. Since then the Ceylon Tourist Board has functioned as the state agency, responsible for development and promotion of the tourism sector in Sri Lanka.
In October 2007 according to Section 2 of the Tourism Act No. 38 of 2005, the Sri Lanka Tourist Board (Act No 10 of 1966) was replaced by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA).
Currently Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority has classified Sri Lanka into several resort regions suitable for tourism development.
When the government decided to develop the tourism sector as a separate sector of the country's economy by establishing the Ceylon Tourist Bureau in 1966, there were 18,969 foreign tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka. There was an upward trend of tourist arrivals until 1982, with the exception of 1971. Between 1976 and 1982, tourist arrivals had increased 24% per year. The tourist traffic in 1982 showed that there was a remarkable growth in number of tourists, with 407,230 arrivals. However, with the beginning of the civil war in 1983, the growth of tourist arrivals declined and stagnated to around 300,000 - 500,000 arrivals annually.
The civil war that had lasted over 25 years was ended in 2009 as LTTE separatists were defeated by government forces. In 2009 the tourist arrivals numbered 448,000, and in 2015, 1,798,380, showing over 300 percent growth in six years.
There is a significant domestic tourist segment making excursions in Sri Lanka. In 2014 six million Sri Lankans traveled within the country as domestic tourists. The main purposes of travel by the domestic tourists are pilgrimage, family holiday, study works, and sightseeing. The main destinations of domestic tourists are Anuradhapura, Kataragama, Nuwara Eliya, Kandy, Sri Pada, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and Dambulla. Domestic tourism is noticeable during school vacations and on weekends.
Tourist attractions are classifiable as natural or anthropogenic. Natural attractions include nature spots, flora and fauna, and places with a pleasant climate. Geotourism sites may also be included in this category. Anthropogenic attractions include archaeological and cultural attractions, historical and religion sites, performing arts and folklore, handicrafts and artifacts.
Despite its small size, Sri Lanka possess high level of biodiversity and wildlife resources, and is rated among the 34 biodiversity hotspots in the world. Many species of flora and fauna are indigenous to Sri Lanka. This has made the island a country with the highest rates of biological endemism in the world.
13% of Sri Lanka's land surface has been designated as Wildlife Protected Areas (WLPAs) which at present exceeds a total area of 8500 km2. Approximately 7% of the area is national parks, the areas allowed for the public to see and study wildlife. Sri Lanka's national parks have been become popular tourist destinations.
Sri Lanka possesses nearly 1600 km coastlines with tropical beaches which are popular among both local and foreign tourists. Most of the coastlines of the country are studded with varying coastal features such as bays, lagoons, sandbanks, and rocky headlands. Marine recreation activities, such as sea bathing and swimming, surfing, boating, snorkelling, deep-sea fishing, underwater photography, and scuba diving, can be seen at most of these beaches and related resort areas. Beaches at Tangalle, Beruwala, Mirissa, Bentota, Unawatuna Arugam Bay, Pasikudah, Hikkaduwa, Uppuveli and Negombo are considered as famous tourist beaches in the country.
Sri Lanka has numerous tourist attractions with areas of natural scenic beauty, primarily including mountainous terrains, agricultural landscapes, waterfalls, places with diverse climatic conditions, reservoirs (wewas), and rivers.
The country has six botanical gardens and four Zoological gardens. The botanical gardens are maintained by the Department of National Botanical Gardens, and the zoological gardens are maintained by the Department of National Zoological Gardens. The gardens have become attractive places among local and foreign visitors.
Heritage tourism involves visiting historical sites. Sri Lanka is very rich in pre-historic, proto-historic, and historic monuments, which bespeak its ancient civilization and culture. Mainly Buddhism has influenced in moulding the cultural heritage of the country. The historic period of Sri Lanka proper starts at circa 236 B.C. with the introduction of Buddhism to the country by the missionaries sent by the Indian empire Asoka.
The UNESCO has declared six archaeological and two ecological World Heritage Sites in the country. Beside the world heritage sites the government of Sri Lanka has declared a number of archaeological protected sites and monuments within the country.
Archaeological Protected Monuments
Sri Lanka is well known for its rich Buddhist culture as well as other religions. Being a religious country, Sri Lanka has many places with religious and historic significance, which attract tourists from all over the world. Anuradhapura, Temple of the Tooth, Sri Pada, Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu and Kataragama, are a few famous religious sites in the island that attract a large number of tourists.
The foot pilgrimage called Pada Yatra, which is one of Sri Lanka's oldest traditions, has been practiced for centuries, where the local people from Jaffna come along the East Coast to Kataragama shrine.
Sports tourism is defined as either people being involved in, observing or participating in a particular sporting event for leisure. Sri Lanka is also a destination for sports such as cricket, rugby, golf and surfing. Except for cricket, the contribution to the tourism sector from other sports are still at a very low level. Apart from mainstream sports events, adventure sports are also included in sports tourism. Trekking, hiking, diving, rock climbing, deep sea fishing, whale watching and hot air ballooning are some of the adventure sports those can be found in Sri Lanka.
Museums and theatres - Currently four national museums and 26 archaeological museums have been established in Sri Lanka. National museums are maintained by the Department of National Museums and archaeological museums by the Department of Archaeology. Beside the museums a large number of theatres also can be found in Sri Lanka.
Festivals - Sri Lanka is a multi-cultural country with several different festivals celebrated by various communities. Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations, Vesak Festival, Christmas, Ramadan festival, Thai Pongal, and the Galle Literary Festival are a few of the major festivals.
Performing arts - There are three main traditional dance forms in Sri Lanka: Kandyan dancing, low country dancing, and Sabaragamuwa dancing. Though not unique to Sri Lanka, 'Bharatanatyam', which originated from India is also popular in Sri Lanka particularly among the Tamil community.
Food - The cuisine of Sri Lanka has been influenced by many historical, cultural, and other factors. Rice is the main staple diet of the country. Other staples include hoppers, string hoppers, and pittu.
Being one of the largest producers of tea in the world Sri Lanka is best known for the production of unorthodox tea. Tea was introduced to the country by the British who called the country "Ceylon". Pure Ceylon tea is considered some of the finest tea produced anywhere in the world.
Handicrafts - Handicrafts available in Sri Lanka include wood carving, silverware, brass castings, ceramic ware, bamboo products, pottery, batiks, lace works, cane works, costume jewelry, lacquerware, wooden masks, coir goods, handlooms, and ivory products.
Tourist accommodations in Sri Lanka consist of graded hotels, supplementary establishments, guest houses and limited scale camping sites. More informal accommodation is available on a paying guest system in private houses and hill-country tea estate bungalows.
The tourist industry makes a significant contribution to the national economy by directly contributing to the government budget, foreign-exchange earnings and employment generation. It contributes both directly and indirectly, in the provision of goods and services to the tourist sector.
Tourism in Sri Lanka, despite its benefits for the local economy (it is one of the main foreign income sources of the country), has its critics. Some studies indicate that quick modern tourism development would not cater to the specific needs of the local people. Also, the high biodiversity of Sri Lanka seems to be threatened by the development of mass tourism which has already affected several natural reserves. Some endangered animal species seem to be seriously threatened by the rise of tourism in some areas; that is the case with the Keerthisinghe's Rock Frog, which is endemic in Sri Lanka.
An alternative kind of tourism, called ecotourism, sustainable tourism or responsible tourism, enables travelers to participate in tourism throughout Sri Lanka while contributing on the well-being of the local communities and making sure their environmental impact is limited. The Sri Lanka Ecotourism Foundation is the national organization that created an official ecotourism network through the island, allowing to develop sustainable tourism with wide options of travel. In 2010, the foundation won the presidential awards for "Outstanding Contribution for Tourism in Sri Lanka".