Kitesurfing: Sri Lanka’s next big claim to adventure travel?

A look at helping build an adventure tourism hotspot in Northern Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka as an adventure travel destination is not a topic often talked about, as the focus of our tourism industry is mainly focused on leisure and, as of late, wellness.

However, Sri Lanka, with its diverse landscapes and tropical weather, does have a lot to offer in terms of adventure travel. Our jungles provide lush, biodiverse backdrops for hiking and camping, with some mountains thrown in as well for those of the climbing persuasion. Our seas are warm and clear, ideal for diving, surfing, and watersports. The mountain rivers are very suitable for whitewater rafting.

It is clear that Sri Lanka is an idyllic wonderland for almost any kind of tourism, from eco and wellness tourism to old-fashioned luxe leisure. But we also have a very decent claim to adventure tourism.

One of the more unheard of sports that is popular in Sri Lanka is kitesurfing. Kitesurfing – or kiteboarding as it is sometimes called – is an action sport that combines aspects of waterboarding, windsurfing, paragliding, and sailing into one extreme sport. Kitesurfing harnesses the power of the wind with a large controllable power kite that can be propelled across water, land, or snow. In Sri Lanka, kitesurfing takes place on water and is very popular in the locale of Kalpitiya as well as Down South.

PHOTO Alexandru Baranescu

The Sunday Morning Brunch reached out to Kitesurfing Lanka Joint Owner Dilsiri Welikala to learn more about kitesurfing, the resort camp, and the emergence of the northern town of Mannar as one of the world’s top kitesurfing destinations.

Kitesurfing Lanka is a kitesurfing camp and community based in Kalpitiya, a small fishing village on the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka. Welikala is the first IKO (International Kiteboarding Organisation)-qualified instructor and is one of Sri Lanka’s most enthusiastic kiters. He is well known in Sri Lanka for his passion for all watersports, and before launching Kitesurfing Lanka with his business partner Léo Moret, Welikala had worked in the apparel industry.


Discovering kitesurfing

Welikala explained that he first discovered kitesurfing in 2009. Sri Lanka happens to be one of the biggest manufacturers of kites for the export market, and Welikala worked with a manufacturer who worked out of one of Sri Lanka’s BOI (Board of Investment)-approved export processing zones. There were foreign clients who would come down to test these kites and make sure they were up to standard, who were also setting up kitesurfing camps. The very first of these camps were on the southern coast, before these moved up to Kalpitya.

PHOTO Alexandru Baranescu

Welikala discovered kitesurfing this way and took up the sport over the weekends, developing such a passion for it that he started a blog on kitesurfing and his experiences as a Sri Lankan kitesurfer.

Through this blog, Welikala was contacted by Léo Moret, who had been researching kitesurfing in Sri Lanka and had come across the blog during his research. The two bonded over their mutual love of kitesurfing, eventually planning a kitesurfing trip together and deciding to start an “epic” kiting company in Sri Lanka.

Speaking on adventure travel in Sri Lanka as a whole, Welikala commented that adventure travel in Sri Lanka first picked up after the war. Before that, Sri Lankan travel was very traditionalist, with not many options available outside the city, particularly so the closer you were to the northern areas of the country.

Nevertheless, things began picking up after the war; whitewater rafting and related whitewater sports began catching on up in the mountains and then branched off into canyoneering and hiking. Thereafter, adventure travel, particularly sport-oriented adventure travel, gradually began gaining traction.


Kitesurfing in Sri Lanka now

The establishment of Kitesurfing Lanka and the efforts of Welikala and Moret have allowed a small community of kitesurfers to form. “Kitesurfing is a very physical sport, but also a community sport,” Welikala explained. “It’s very good physical exercise while not being as physically demanding and strenuous as other physical sports like rugby. It also encourages a sense of community because of the social interaction, both when practising and also when not in the water.”

The conditions of Sri Lanka, with its warm water and tropical climate, make Sri Lanka an amazing place for kitesurfing. The presence of both ocean, as well as flatwater lagoons, is also very rare. When combining all of this with Sri Lanka’s culture, history, and potential for wellness experiences, it becomes a unique and powerful tourism destination for kitesurfing enthusiasts.

“Kitesurfing is an expensive sport, both to learn and practise,” Welikala shared. “In many ways, it is the new golf. You get lots of CEOs and executives of a similar profile and spenders who are kitesurfing enthusiasts. They are people who are educated, affluent, and passionate and often end up being high-value tourism customers who spend a lot of time and money in Sri Lanka, thereby impacting local areas and communities as well. Kalpitiya has moved away from being a sleepy fishing village over the last eight to 10 years because of the interest and patronage of travellers like this.”

PHOTO Jean Marc

Looking at the impact kitesurfing and other adventure travel tourists have had on Kalpitiya and its surrounding communities, Welikala is hoping to help develop the coastal town of Mannar in the same vein as Kalpitiya by bringing sport to rural areas.


Mannar as a sport tourism hotspot

Speaking on Mannar as a potential hotspot for adventure tourism, Welikala explained: “Mannar is a very interesting area, but one that doesn’t see much tourism. By bringing sport, and by extension sports communities, to rural areas like Mannar, there is potential for Mannar to develop and for its communities to prosper as well.

“Mannar is actually an ideal spot for kitesurfing, possibly even better than Kalpityia because of Adam’s Bridge. Sri Lanka is one of the best locations for kitesurfing in the world. Only Brazil is our main competitor.”

Sri Lanka had been set to welcome kitesurfers from all over the world due to being one of the stopover destinations for the Global Kitesurfers Association Kite World Tour 2020. However, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, this is no longer the case, as the tour is not taking place as planned. Nevertheless, the kite tour for the Asian circuit has stopped in Colombo, and this was organised with the support of Sri Lanka Tourism.

Kitesurfing Lanka has also opened a kite camp in Mannar, Vayu Resorts, located at the beginning of Adam’s Bridge on the Mannar peninsula. Vayu Resorts offers the strongest and most consistent wind in the whole of Sri Lanka. The sandy beaches and lagoons provide excellent riding conditions for advanced, intermediate, and novice kitesurfers. Vayu is named after the Hindu deity Vayu – the Lord of the Winds, the father of Bhima, and the spiritual father of Hanuman, the Monkey God who is said to have built Adam’s Bridge for the Hindu God to make his way to Sri Lanka in antiquity. Adam’s Bridge was, in fact, previously called Rama’s Bridge.

PHOTO Jean Marc

The Vayu Resorts property is also very special environmentally; it is a bird and vegetation conservation site frequently visited by migratory birds. The team at Vayu Resorts supports the University of Colombo with environmental research that takes place at the site, and some of this research is said to be groundbreaking.

The team also works with partners in the area to grow and develop local business and industry off the back of tourism in much the same way they helped Kalpitiya grow.


Sustainability and Kitesurfing Lanka as a hub for its communities

Sustainability, both environmental and social, is very important and is at the heart of Kitesurfing Lanka’s ethos. Part of how Kitesurfing Lanka is doing this is by accepting the simple fact that they can’t do everything and that tourism is a big pie that can absolutely be shared. “As much as we develop, we want to help people around to develop as well.”

To this end, Vayu Resorts outsources budget travellers to local homestays, allowing local families to make extra income through hospitality. Transportation, whether within the area or long distance, like airport transfers, is outsourced to locals with vehicles so that they too can earn money.

Both Vayu Resorts and Kitesurfing Lanka employ people from around the area and nearby villages, taking them in and training them on the job as well as paying them competitive salaries, sometimes even better than they would make in Colombo, Welikala explained. They also drive educational programmes to help local schools and build ties with the community through projects like building computer centres and conducting English programmes.

Environmentally, Kitesurfing Lanka does a lot to preserve and foster mangrove populations in Kalpitiya. Just last week, they planted 1,500 mangroves. In Mannar, their work is more focused on pollution and sea health, working with coastal conservation authorities on keeping the sea clean and preserving coastlines.


Building Sri Lanka as an adventure travel destination

Welikala explained that even though tourism in all its forms has been badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, Kitesurfing Lanka has planned for missing this year’s summer season as a contingency, based on reports of Covid-19 disrupting industries all around the world.

Kitesurfing Lanka and Vayu Resorts have managed to retain all their staff during this time, even though they have been forced to revise pay on a temporary basis. Welikala stressed that they were, however, making note of those going above and beyond and compensating them accordingly. They are also advising and supporting smaller establishments as best they can to ensure in their own small way that everyone can make it through this troubling time.

Looking to the future, Welikala is very hopeful that Mannar will gain ground as a tourism hotspot because of all it has to offer for travellers of all persuasions. “It is an amazing all-year destination with lots to do and see for people who are interested in wellness, nature, energy, culture, and history. The beaches are every bit as beautiful as the South, and are emptier. The product that Mannar offers to travellers is different altogether – it is rustic and nature-based, with warm people and a tourism scene in its infancy with huge potential to grow.”