Sri Lanka looks for help from above to revive its post-war tourist trade

Authorities expect sites featured in ancient religious saga to draw holidaymakers

A year after the defeat of Tamil rebels who had made parts of Sri Lanka a no-go area, the island hopes to entice tens of thousands of tourists to places that appear in one of Asia's most celebrated religious sagas.

Tourist officials have identified and collated more than 50 sites said to feature in the Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic more than 2,000 years old. The saga tells the story of Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu, who battles to rescue his wife, Sita, who is held captive by an evil demon king who lives on what is today Sri Lanka.

With an eye specifically to attracting Indian visitors, tourism officials in Colombo believe the trips to palm-fringed beaches and unspoilt jungles can be seamlessly combined with tours of the places where Rama fought – and defeated – the powerful demon, Ravana.

"Local legends that have come down for centuries seem to confirm the authenticity of these sites," said Asoka Perera of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau.

Among the sites included in the trail are Ashok Vatika, where Sita was held captive, and which has been identified as the modern-day Hakgala Botanical Garden, close to the resort town of Nuwara Eliya, and the Chariot Path, near the town of Kandy, used by Ravana when he took Rama captive.

The country has been able to draw visitors to such renowned sites as Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress, and Polonnaruwa, the country's capital a thousand years ago. But some of the sites are in the north and east of the island, parts of which were under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers) or else off-limits to visitors. One such place that can now be easily reached is Talaimannar, situated at the tip of Mannar Island and the point where Adam's Bridge – the string of coral reefs and shifting sandbanks that connect India with Sri Lanka – starts.

This bridge was supposedly built by the monkey-god Hanuman, who then crossed over from India with his army to help rescue Sita. Another northern location in the trail is Ritigala, which is associated with the episode in the Ramayana where Hanuman is sent to the Himalayas to fetch a medicinal herb.

Following the conclusion of the decades-long civil war against the LTTE, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced its intention to try to increase sharply the numbers of overseas visitors. Earlier this year, the authorities said that the number of visitors in January was up by more than 30 per cent compared with the same month in 2009. There was a 25 per cent increase in British visitors to the island.

Some potential visitors could still be deterred by concerns about the government's actions against dissidents and political opponents. Earlier this year, Mr Rajapaksa won an impressive victory in a presidential poll that secured him a further five years in office. Yet the authorities responded by detaining his main opponent, the former army chief Sarath Fonseka, and placing him before a military court accused of taking part in politics while still in uniform.

Many observers have also asked what the government is doing to reach out to the Tamil minority. In recent elections, turn-out in Tamil areas was very low, with many potential voters saying they saw little reason to go to the polls.

The UN has called for an inquiry into last year's military operation to crush Tamil rebels, amid allegations that both government forces and LTTE fighters may have committed war crimes. Up to 10,000 civilians died in the final stages of the war, but the government has rejected the call for an outside inquiry.