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10 tourist hotspots you didn’t know were privately owned

17 Jan 2021

Last weekend, we saw social media circles up in arms over the construction of a fence across the iconic Coconut Tree Hill in Mirissa. More than anything, what came as a shock to many was the fact that the iconic tourist hotspot, which has repeatedly topped the most Instagram-able locations on the island, is privately owned. In this backdrop, we went on a quest to look into the ownership of ten of Sri Lanka’s most scenic spots, and here’s what we found.     
  • Coconut Tree Hill 
  Despite it being privately owned, there were certain approvals that were needed to put up a structure on the land, apart from just the Urban Development Authority (UDA), and in the case of Coconut Tree Hill, with its proximity to the coast, the additional approval of the Department of Coast Conservation and Coastal Resource Management was also required.  Weligama Urban Council Chairman Rehan Jayawickreme, taking to his Facebook page, said that the issue is currently being addressed, and in the meantime “…a verbal agreement was made for the case to be settled amicably, since no constructions would be permitted in contravention to CCD (Coast Conservation Department) regulations. The land owner is to be granted a temporary license to open up Mirissa Coconut Tree Hill for public viewing as usual”.  Coconut Tree Hill is arguably one of the most popular spots in Mirissa, if for no other reason than for being an incredible photo op. It is one of the most iconic silhouettes – taking a picture standing amidst the strategically placed coconut trees on the hilltop is on everyone’s must-do list, and according to OIC M.S. Welaratne of the Kotawila Police, the governing jurisdiction for Coconut Tree Hill, when tourism was at its peak, the place was crawling with visitors, and everyone was attempting to get a picture without the swarming crowds in the background.  How is it that we all missed the fact that this iconic location was actually somebody’s property? While most historical and cultural attractions are in fact state-owned, much like the Botanical Gardens, Unawatuna’s Jungle Beach – which is often mistaken to be privately owned but actually isn’t, and falls under the Rumassala Sanctuary – it doesn't mean every famous park or historical property falls under the purview of the Government.  Some of the world's most famous landmarks, ones that welcome millions of tourists each year, are privately owned properties that we're all just lucky enough to enjoy. Some examples from around the world that may surprise you include India’s Taj Mahal in Agra, which is privately owned by the Dalmia Group; England’s London Eye, which is co-owned by The Tussauds Group and Marks Barfield; and the famous Chicago Skyway Toll Bridge in America, which is owned by Skyway Concession Company, LLC.  Of course, there are certain properties that you visit with family or on a field trip form school that you may have to purchase a ticket to – which would make you assume it is privately owned whilst not really questioning it. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the rest; there are some properties on here that may not surprise you, but some truly took us by surprise.     
  • Rope swing in Unawatuna 
  One of the first ones we’d like to get out of the way is of course the famous rope swing in Unawatuna’s Dalawella Beach. The beach itself is of course state-owned, but according to the Habaraduwa Police, there are several such rope swings along the coast, and while they refer to it as a hazard, those who are hanging it up are free to do as they please – and to sell tickets for it as they please.  The Habaraduwa Police shared that this particular tourist activity is one that they do not wish to encourage, because the large number of tourists swinging from the trees has resulted in these trees getting pulled out of the sand, and so the increased popularity of this attraction is slowly uprooting the trees.     
  • Murals in Mirissa  
  When you think of the Mirissa Murals, the peacock mural everyone poses in front of comes to mind. There’s been enough and more coverage of travellers “on the hunt” for these specific murals in Mirissa which can be found on the walls of the Mister Hostel, on Beachside Road. The owner of the hostel, Dasun Mohandas, shared that the murals were drawn by a guest who stayed with them and since then, have attracted a large number of visitors coming their way looking for the mural. He said that he has no qualms about people coming there to take pictures, and that it is available for everyone to enjoy.     
  • Brief Garden, by Bevis Bawa 
  Brief Garden, by Bevis Bawa in Bentota is a popular attraction that is often mistaken to be under the purview of the Bawa Trust. However, it is actually privately owned by Dooland De Silva. In conversation with his son Dan De Silva, he shared that in 1969, when Bevis Bawa, the original owner of the property, who was Geoffrey Bawa’s older brother, died, it was passed on to his Manager Dooland De Silva by way of a last will.  Brief Garden is a popular tourist attraction for anyone who finds themselves in either Bentota, Beruwela, or Aluthgama, as it is roughly the same distance from either side. Dan shared that in 1969, tickets were sold at Rs. 10 to enter the gardens. However, now, it has gone up to Rs. 2,000. He added that they do not discriminate between foreigners and locals.     
  • Adisham Bungalow in Badulla 
  Adisham Bungalow in Badulla is a place we have all most likely visited as either part of our Grade Five class trip, or a detour on a family trip to the “exotic”, cold, cold Nuwara Eliya. Most have tried their apple jam, and its boiler room haunts many of our dreams. Interestingly, the Adisham Bungalow is a privately-owned property under the purview of the Order of St. Benedict’s Church, which also took over St. Anthony’s Katugastota and a few other major churches in Colombo.   Speaking to the management at the church, they shared that the reason why they began their venture in the production of natural jam is because they had no support from the Government to maintain the property, which is of great historical and architectural value, and has been an asset to the Uva Province for a long time. He said that it is undoubtedly an important landmark if the number of visitors they receive is any indicator, and that the Order has gone to great lengths to maintain the property’s historical and structural integrity.     
  • Ambewela Farm
  Since we are on the topic of childhood holidays to Nuwara Eliya, we can’t not talk about the Ambewela Farm, where we first learnt that milk can taste so much better when it is fresh, and upon seeing the massive cows and suspiciously large docile rabbits, experienced the awakening of our inner animal rights activist.  As an adult, for Rs. 150, and Rs. 400 if you’re a foreigner, you can visit Ambewela’s New Zealand farm, which has been a famous attraction for many for years. It is owned by Ambewela Livestock Company Ltd. Although, the farm has been closed to the public for some time now due to Covid-19.     
  • Labookellie Tea Estate
  This is mostly popular amongst tourists, considering how getting a photograph standing amidst the tea plantations hasn’t been appealing to locals for some time now. While your guided tour across Labookellie is totally free, even whilst having a guide who will take you through the factory and give you a warm cup of tea at the end of the tour, the factory and estate is privately owned by Damro Tea, which also owns over 5,000 hectares of lush tea plantations spread across all major tea-growing regions in Sri Lanka. Despite it being privately owned, the guided tour has continued without turning into a profit-making entity, continuing to educate visitors on the art of tea-making for no extra charge.     
  • Ambuluwawa Tower 
  The tower is somewhat in-between when it comes to ownership – it falls under the purview of former Prime Minister Dimu Jayaratne’s Trust, and is managed by a Board. Speaking to a member of the Board, they shared that while the Trust is under the Ministry of Buddhasasana, Religious, and Cultural Affairs, it is still a semi-private property.  The Ambuluwawa Tower in Gampola has attracted a lot of attention for its unique nature and positioning, and since Instagram made it a star, tourists have been pouring in to make it to the top. The tower, however, is merely an attraction set amidst the Ambuluwawa Biodiversity Complex and Sri Lanka's first multi-religious sanctuary. Entrance is ticketed.     
  • Parrot Rock, Mirissa 
  Parrot rock is something you’ve most likely seen in aerial shots due to its gorgeous profile at sky level. This iconic attraction brings us to the more ambiguous part of our list, where the attraction isn’t exactly privately owned, nor is it state-owned; it’s a situation where those in the community have taken it upon themselves to somewhat maintain it because they benefit from it.  The Habaraduwa Police in Mirissa describe Parrot Rock as a random landmass that tourists visit so they can fly their drones from a central location in the sea. They shared that the State really has never had any interaction with the landmass, and even the rudimentary steps set up so people can scale the rock to get to the top were set up by nearby restaurant owners. They shared that they do, however, appreciate that the State hasn’t set up any barriers stopping people from accessing the place, as it is a popular attraction that brings a lot of people to the area.    
  • Secret Beach 
  Secret Beach is the name coined by a local in Mirissa named Suranga, who is also the owner of the Secret Beach Bar that is situated right on the shores of Secret Beach. Suranga first discovered the hidden away access to the beach, and has since made repeated requests to the authorities to make the winding path that leads to the beach a little more accessible.  While not entirely privately owned, the beach is looked after by Suranga and his employees, and when we visited him last year, he said that locals don’t frequent the place and it is the foreigners who brave the path. He added that while they are wary of the authorities coming in and taking away the tranquillity of the location, they would appreciate some infrastructure development.    Photos by Krishan Kariyawasam 

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