The Call of Galle and Its Environs: A Flock of Foreigners

Avantika Chilkoti, in the Daily News, 2 February 2015

The price of homes along the country’s southern coast have rapidly increased since the end of civil conflict in 2009 The ruined ramparts of Galle Fort feel out of place in this peaceful seaside town. The bastioned stone walls, built by Dutch settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries, seem to belong to a faraway era when there was a threat of bloody conflict, not in what is now a quiet bay in southwest Sri Lanka. In fact, as recently as 2009, Galle wasn’t so far from bloody conflict. Although the south of the island remained relatively safe, a civil war ravaged the north for 26 years. The small number of foreign investors that invested in this picturesque town despite the violence has now rapidly increased since the government defeated the separatist Tamil guerrillas.

We love Galle because it combines something of the charm of a Mediterranean, medieval town with the exotic, tropical landscape,” says Hamish Macdonald, a British expat with property in Colombo and Galle. “The beaches are beautiful.” DSC00056 Mosque and New Lighthouse from old lighthouse bastion on south west corner of the Fort — Pic by Michael Roberts in 2011

Overseas investors:  Postwar investment in the country’s largest city, Colombo, has been dominated by Sri Lankans. But Galle old town, part of the city of Galle – which has a population of about 100,000 – is popular with overseas investors seeking a holiday home, including many European and US expats based in Asia.

Galle-soutehrn  ezxpressway Southern Expressway

New infrastructure projects have improved connectivity thanks to Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was Sri Lanka’s President from 2005 until his election defeat earlier this month. Rajapaksa invested heavily in the south where his traditional support was concentrated.

“During the period of the conflict there was no demand (on the coast) whatsoever, it was considered rural land, but suddenly with the infrastructure development and the improvement in the overall climate here, (property) has got re-rated,” says Ajit Gunewardene, deputy chairman of John Keells, one of the country’s largest conglomerates with a large property arm.

As demand for property in Galle has inflated, so have prices, and those who took a risk and bought during the war have seen the largest gains. The value of beachfront land on the premium coastline south of Galle has rocketed from $700 for 25 sq metres – known locally as a “perch”- in 2003 to $15,000 today, according to Ivan Robinson of Lanka Real Estate, an agency based in Galle. That appreciation has picked up pace since the end of the war.

UNESCO world heritage site: In the narrow streets of Galle Fort, buyers have taken over dilapidated homes built in the Portuguese and Dutch styles and built high-end villas. However, strict rules on renovation in the old town, which has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1988, have led to some buyers opting for properties on nearby hilltops or along the coastline.

Lanka Real Estate is marketing a new five-bedroom villa on the coast, near Matara, for $2.45m. One of six homes on the site, the property has a cinema, bar, wine cellar and a 20-metre pool with a separate whirlpool bath.

Pearl Properties is offering a five-bedroom villa set in a seaside coconut grove 8 km from Galle for $2m. The 2,500 sq metre property includes a lily pond, a separate staff building and a pool. As a comparison, two-bedroom apartments in John Keells’ OnThree20 development in Colombo are on sale for between $230,000 and $270,000. The development, which includes three residential towers, has communal facilities such as a squash court and a large gym.

“Buying a villa involves a lot of paperwork and as a foreigner, (it’s) very complicated to buy,” says Rekha Pamani-Gulati at Bespoke Property, an agency with offices in Sri Lanka. Most buyers use a local agent given the complex real estate laws. New rules state that foreign investors can only buy freehold apartments on the fourth floor of a condominium or higher – a quirk that no agent or buyer can explain. Overseas buyers can purchase other types of property only on a maximum lease of 99 years, subject to a 15 per cent tax. It is no secret that some agents in the country use complex structures, including a combination of Sri Lankan companies and deeds of trust, to circumvent the law and help foreigners effectively buy houses outright.

There are additional risks for those buying on the coast, piecing together plots of land owned by small fishing communities, often with uncertain title. “In the coastal areas you tend to get highly fragmented ownerships, so there’s a very high likelihood that you miss one of the players out,” says Gunewardene of John Keells. “He’ll come back a few years later and stake his claim once you’ve built your villa.”

Tamil diaspora: While real estate on the southern coast has been in the spotlight since 2009, some now hope that the Tamil-dominated north and east of the country will gradually open up under the new president, Maithripala Sirisena. Cities like Jaffna do not have many pretty beaches to attract tourists, but infrastructure improvements in the north could improve access, and real estate in these areas will be popular with the Tamil diaspora. “There is a huge amount of Sri Lankan wealth residing in the rest of the world,” says Sunil Subramanian, head of transactions for Jones Lang LaSalle in Colombo.

It will be a while, however, before the focus shifts away from the south, where there is still a large supply of undeveloped seafront land. The country also has a long way to go before property prices catch up with other international holiday destinations.

Clocktower The Clock Tower (built by the British) on the northern frontal ramparts facing town – Pic by Michael Roberts, 2011

Shrine at BOYS Muslim saint’s shrine at Boys’ Bathing PlacePic by Michael Roberts, 2011

MY playground Playgrounds and hide and seek terrain on western side of ramparts — Pic by Michael Roberts, 2011

GIRLS I Girls’ Bathing Place along western w alls near Old Lighthouse Bastion – Pic by Michael Roberts, 2011

Avantika Chilkoti is the FT’s Mumbai reporter

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Sri Lanka’s south coast a traveller’s delight

Stilt fishermen in Koggala

There are few things that can soothe the headache that comes after six hours of driving on dirt roads in a tropical country. Or so I thought, until I arrived in the mountain town of Ella to a cool breeze and a fresh pot of tea. By the time I saw the hammocks swinging on the terrace – and the dramatic views they looked out on – the drive felt like a distant dream.

I had chosen Hilltop Guest House, a bed and breakfast, after reading that it had excellent food. The food was excellent -homemade curries and pungent coconut sambal – but it was the landscape that enchanted me.

The sunset that first night was operatic, bursts of pink and purple as clouds rumbled over the valley. It is no wonder that Sri Lanka, an island off the tip of India, charmed even the explorer Marco Polo, who visited in 1265. The countryside is drenched in every shade of green, from coconut palms and mango trees on the coast to tea plantations and pine trees in hill country. Roman writers commonly referred to it as a utopia.

Of course, no place on Earth is paradise, as much as the marketing material insists. For years, Sri Lanka was off-limits to all but the most intrepid travelers – the kind who don’t mind a civil war. Fighting that broke out in the 1980s between the government and rebels from an oppressed ethnic group, the Tamils, lasted for decades until a brutal government campaign ended the war in 2009.

Annual tourist arrivals

Five years later, tourism is beginning to boom in this nation of about 21 million.

From 2000 to 2009, annual tourist arrivals hovered between 300,000 and 600,000. By 2013, they had soared to 1.27 million. These sudden changes mean that Sri Lanka is in an adolescent phase of development, with plenty of awkward transitions. Still, there is a special thrill in travelling to a place when it is tipping over the edge of trendy.

Beaches aside, it seems there is something for every type of traveller: mountain hiking, ancient ruins, all-night parties, luxury villas, clothing boutiques, cultural festivals and elephant safaris.

I had only a week for all of this, so I decided to limit myself to two nights in the mountains and four on the beach.

I began in Ella, a popular base for backpackers who want to discover the waterfalls and tea plantations of Sri Lankan hill country. The village has a wide selection of homestays, from bare-bones basic to borderline indulgent.

Hilltop Guest House was a perfect base to see the area, with comfortable rooms, friendly service and astounding views from a terrace that I could have spent the entire week on. (Pay a little extra for the first-floor rooms so you can walk out your door onto the terrace.)

The day after arriving, I departed the guesthouse at the blood-curdling hour of 4.30 a.m., headed for Horton Plains National Park. The park’s most popular hike – to a destination called “World’s End” – is best begun early.

Best meals in Sri Lanka

When you reach the “end of the world,” you find a sheer cliff that drops thousands of feet. On clear days, I read, you feel like you can see across all of Sri Lanka. On misty days, as I found, the effect is still stunning. You gaze over the precipice at a swirling mass of white. The nine-kilometre hike (about 51/2 miles) was peaceful and otherworldly, with mist-covered rivers and rolling hills.

After enjoying the mountain air, I headed to the resort-laden south coast. While poring over the guidebooks, I chose Mirissa because it seemed to be a quieter and less developed beach than nearby Unawatana. Instead, I arrived to find sunburned partiers and barely an inch of sand without a restaurant or a hotel. It was perfect for New Year’s Eve, with fireworks and house music, but the following day I swept myself away in a short tuk-tuk ride (a kind of auto rickshaw) to nearby Talalla, which Lonely Planet promised was an isolated haven.

A statue reclines inside Kataluwa Purvarama Temple, where the walls are lined with 19th century paintings.

I was not disappointed. The stretch of soft sand had just a few restaurants and hotels hidden behind a curtain of coconut palms. The beach was quiet in the afternoon and awoke at sunset, with a mixture of tourists, boys playing cricket, families enjoying the water and a few wandering cows.

In Talalla, I ate lunch at a random shack on the edge of the beach and was surprised with one of my best meals in Sri Lanka: tender calamari and a tangy pineapple salad.

While the south coast is mostly frequented by beachgoers, there is plenty of culture for those who seek it out. One of my favourite days was spent meandering in a tuk-tuk along the seaside road between Mirissa and Galle, a port city where the old town is encircled by a 17th-century Dutch fortress.

On the way to Galle, I stopped at a Buddhist site near Koggala, Kataluwa Purvarama Temple (also spelled Kathaluwa Poorwarama), and was awed by the 19th-century wall paintings that layer every inch of the interior. Originally built in the 13th century, the temple was deserted when I visited, except for a caretaker and a pack of happy mangy dogs. I wandered it in silence, amazed that so many tourists pass within a mile of the temple without knowing it’s there.

Each night in Mirissa, I returned back to Shehan Guest House, a not-exactly-resplendent but very homey accommodation made lovely by the hospitality of Shehan and his mother, a first-rate cook – the kind who lights up while she watches people lick their fingers clean of her sweet and spicy sauces. Every afternoon, a few hours before dinner, I asked her to make whatever seafood was freshest, along with traditional rice and curry.

When I left for the long, hot journey back to the airport, she filled my belly with a huge breakfast – topped off with a pot of tea – then waved goodbye with tears in her eyes.

Vivian Nereim, a former staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is a journalist who lives in Oman.

Courtesy: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 

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One response to “The Call of Galle and Its Environs: A Flock of Foreigners

  1. Reblogged this on Wings of Time.

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