Sri Lanka turns to tea to lure high-end tourists
NORWOOD, Sri Lanka, Apr 25: With its stunning views over Sri Lanka's rolling green tea hills, the Norwood plantation manager's bungalow was designed to compensate British tea planters for their lonely lives far away from home.
The plantation remains, but the bungalow has been refurbished and converted into a boutique hotel to woo high-spending tourists who want a few quiet days sampling the colonial tea estate life.
''We have had mostly British visitors,'' says Asela Wavita, manager for Tea Trails, a firm set up by Sri Lankan tea company Dilmah to manage the bungalows.
''I guess it's the concept, the British colonial feeling, that appeals to them -- they can experience what their ancestors enjoyed.'' Tea Trails has refurbished four former managers' bungalows set in well-kept gardens, deep in the hills that have produced Ceylon Tea since the 19th century. The plantation is about four hours drive from Colombo.
While there is no immediate threat of violence in the hills, Tea Trails hopes there will be no return to the two-decade-old civil war and that Tamil Tiger rebels and the government will resume talks that have been indefinitely postponed.
More than 100 people have died in just over two weeks in suspected rebel attacks, ethnic violence and killings in the island's north and east.
Two British tourists were wounded in an attack on a military convoy earlier this month, but embassies say they believe the rest of the island remains safe.
BRITISH TEA DRINKERS For some visitors such as 33-year-old London media consultant Barry Gurtu-Louth, visiting the bungalows with his wife Shivani on their honeymoon, gaining knowledge of tea is part of the destination's appeal. ''We Brits drink an awful lot of tea and it's amazing how little we know about it,'' he told Reuters as he sat on the bungalow's garden patio. ''It's a little bit like wine -- the more you know about it, the more you can taste the different types of tea and the more you enjoy it.'' With polished wooden beds draped in mosquito nets, colonial-style furniture, gourmet food and with swimming pools built into the grounds at two of the bungalows, the luxury does not come cheap.
A room will put you back 300 dollar, or 500 dollar for one of the suites, an all-inclusive deal that comes with all the food and drink a guest wants and a tour of the local tea estate and factory.
Guests can learn how the tea pickers -- usually women descended from Tamil people brought in from India by the British to work as migrant labour a century ago -- pick the best leaves from the tea bushes that cover the valley's slopes.
Tea Trails says that since the first bungalow opened late in 2005 demand has been rising steadily. Occupancy, at the moment, though, was running at 30 per cent.
WATCHING FOR WAR
Sri Lankan tourism has had a rough time in the last decade, and how well the bungalows do will depend on whether the country can keep attracting high-spending visitors.
The civil war with the Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for a separate homeland in the island's north and east scared away tourists.
And when visitor numbers started climbing after a 2002 ceasefire, the tsunami that ripped through coastal resorts two years later dealt a fresh blow.
Fresh violence in December and January, with repeated suspected rebel attacks on troops in the north and east, threatened to reignite the war.
For Barry and Shivani, who booked their trip even while claymore mines were ripping through military patrols in the north and east, the conflict seems far away as they tuck into a late breakfast on the terrace overlooking the tea estates.
''It's something we kept an eye on,'' says Barry, looking out towards the nearby tea factory. ''But the way I look at it is that Sri Lanka is a very similar size to Ireland and I wouldn't let troubles in Northern Ireland put me off going to the south.''