COLOMBO -- In 2019, the Lonely Planet travel guide listed Sri Lanka as the world's best destination. Since then, the island's flourishing tourism industry has been hit by a deadly terrorist attack, the COVID-19 pandemic, political turmoil and the worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.
After a tumultuous year, however, the island is back on the tourism radar, receiving 800,000 visitor arrivals in the seven months to early August, largely thanks to its laid-back coastal towns with world-class beaches and surfing.
But Sri Lanka is not just about beaches. Recently, travel experts and tour organizations have begun work on a new initiative -- the Tourism Resilience in Sri Lanka Project -- supported by European Union and U.S. aid. As part of this, Sri Lanka is launching a new multiday walking route named the Pekoe Trail spanning 300 kilometers across its Central Highlands, passing river valleys, tea gardens, forested hills, sacred sites and rural villages.
Named after a well-known Sri Lankan tea variety, the trail also crisscrosses railway lines and heritage train stations, and aims to portray the island as a nature destination, bringing together the history, culture and biodiversity of its offbeat regions.
Although the Pekoe Trail will not be launched officially until the end of this year, after every path has been signposted, many adventure travelers are already walking it with the help of hiking apps, including the mountaineer Johann Pieris, one of the few Sri Lankans to have reached the summit of Mount Everest, and Hong Kong runner Hyun Chang Chung, who completed the trail in 58 hours.
"We haven't paved any new paths," says Vishadini Fernando, who is in charge of developing the trail for the tourism resilience project. "We only identified existing road networks and trails that were either neglected or used only for the transportation of tea," she says. Some paths go through protected areas such as the Ella Forest Reserve, Thangamale Bird Sanctuary and Horton Plains, a national park with grasslands, cloud forest and rich biodiversity.
The walking trail was initially mapped by Miguel Cunat, a Spanish sustainable tourism development consultant who has lived in Sri Lanka for over 20 years. During his leisure time, Cunat has hiked all over Sri Lanka's tea country, marking different walking routes. "It was quite interesting to see how all these different trails merged together," says Fernando.
The Pekoe Trail is divided into 22 stages, each between 10 km and 18 km, so travelers can pick one or a few stages instead of completing the entire 300 km at once. "We designed it in such a way so that anyone and everyone who is able-bodied can walk at least some parts of the trail," says Fernando.
The route starts in Hanthana, near Kandy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and passes through Ella, a mountain town that has become famous on Instagram for its adventurous hikes, waterfalls and colonial-era railway stations. The trail ends in Kandapola, a tea-growing region in Nuwara Eliya, known for its British colonial-era summer cottages.
Fernando says the Pekoe Trail is more than a walking path through forests because it passes at least 100 small villages, some of which even she had not heard of before. Traversing tea plantations, the trail also provides visitors with a meaningful understanding of the country's tea industry. Some of the small roads are tea trails, only used by tea estate communities or plantation factories to transport their produce.
Sri Lanka's tea industry began after the arrival of British colonizers in 1796. Seeing potential profits in tea production, the British developed roads and rail networks for tea products, bringing in Indian workers from neighboring India, then also a British colony. Today, many Indian workers were sent back to India after Sri Lankan independence in 1948, while the remaining 200,000 were regarded as stateless until they were awarded Sri Lankan citizenship in 2003. Many tea estate communities remain impoverished, with younger people often leaving in search of better-paid employment in Sri Lanka's towns and cities.
"Through the trail, we want to make sure the tourism dollar goes a long distance," says Fernando. "Right now, it would stop at a middle person and wouldn't always go down to a farmer or fisherman producing our food. But a person walking the trail can directly purchase anything from these villagers."
The project is also planning to provide financial help to small businesses from estate communities that want to start a home stay or campsite, or provide experiences such as farm-to-table cooking classes for travelers. "Those are the immersive experiences many travelers are looking for, and it will be a good economic opportunity to sustain these small villages, making sure the youth stay in the villages with their families and find a better livelihood," Fernando says.
The walking trail runs parallel to major roads and railway networks, so hikers can also stay in nearby towns. These include luxury accommodation such as Ceylon Tea Trails, which offers five restored tea plantation residences in the Bogawantalawa Valley; 98 Acres, a resort in the mountains of Ella, and Goatfell, a tea estate bungalow close to Nuwara Eliya. There are also midrange and budget hotels such as White Monkey Dias Rest, a family-run guesthouse in the mountains of Haputale, and the campsite Eco Lodge Haputale, which overlooks the local tea gardens.
Hashan Perera, a tour guide at Travelling Thrills, a small tour organizer, says that many travelers love the Pekoe Trail because it is relatively uncommercialized, adding that most are looking for clean and safe accommodation with privacy rather than luxury hotels. "Having home stays directly on the trail would be great because people from the communities can benefit from it," he adds.
When the Pekoe Trail is officially launched it will also feature a series of "story points" where walkers can scan QR codes to access information about the surrounding area, including its ecosystem, flora and fauna, history and geography. "In some areas, you walk through centuries-old road networks used by ancient kings. So listening to these stories while walking the trail will make you feel like you are traversing through history," Fernando says.
Suraj Wijewickrama, a tour executive at Colombo-based travel agency Tangerine Tours, says the Pekoe Trail is an important development because it goes beyond the captivating scenery of the landscapes and helps travelers interact with local communities. "In the past, we didn't have many multiday hiking trails that went past human habitats. Often, it was one-day hikes that only passed through the forest cover. Now, we can create impactful experiences that will engage visitors beyond the natural attraction," he says.
Chandima Wanasinghe, co-founder of SkyDeck, a campsite in the Sri Lankan mountains, says the Pekoe Trail is a timely introduction. "Hiking and trekking adventures have become very popular after the COVID-19 pandemic, so it can add great value to our tourism industry," Wanasinghe says. "This helps position Sri Lanka beyond the traditional 'sun and sea' image people are used to and promotes our great outdoors to new travel markets. It's ideal for modern-day travelers who just don't want to see things but are looking for transformative experiences."
But managing visitor numbers will be crucial, notes Fernando. "We see that many tourist attractions in Sri Lanka are overcrowded. So we want to limit the number of visitors," she says. When the trail is officially launched, travelers will have to register and get a trail pass online. The number of passes for different stages will be limited each day to minimize human impact.
Fernando and her team are also encouraging trail hikers to carry reusable water bottles and asking local communities to install water refilling stations to minimize the impact of single-use plastic. Perera says recycling centers can provide additional livelihood for local communities as well as keeping the environment clean.
"Many people come to Sri Lanka for beaches, so a trail like this will encourage travelers to explore more of Sri Lanka's Central Highlands," says Perera. "We have many hikes in Sri Lanka, but we are not a popular hiking destination. If we market it properly, the Pekoe Trail can highlight Sri Lanka as an outdoor destination, because our hikes are not boring. They are diverse in both nature and culture."