Is it safe to travel to Sri Lanka? Latest travel advice after violence erupts


Thanks to its tropical coastlines and jungly heartland, tourism has boomed in Sri Lanka since the end of its decades-long civil war in 2009 and recently, it was revealed as Lonely Planet’s best destination for 2019.

But tourists are now being advised to reconsider their travel plans in the wake of a series of explosions that rocked the country on Easter Sunday and left more than 138 people dead and hundreds more injured.

British nationals were caught up in the attacks and the Foreign Office has not only urged those on the island to contact relatives back in the UK, but warned that although the airport is operating, there will be increased security threats.

What has happened on Easter Sunday?

At least 138 people were killed and hundreds more injured in a series of eight explosions at churches and hotels.

St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo and St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo were both hit as worshippers attended Easter Sunday services.

The Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels in Colombo were also hit, with further explosions reported in the Colombo suburb of Dehiwala and Mahawila Udayana Road Housing Scheme in Dematagoda.

No group has yet admitted responsibility for the attack, although Sri Lanka’s defence minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, has said that the culprits have been identified and were religious extremists.

Sri Lankan security personnel keep watch outside the church premises following a blast at the St. Anthony’s Shrine in Kochchikade, Colombo (ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images)

Were there any Britons caught up in the attacks?

Britons are thought to be among those caught up in a series of explosions which ripped through churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, killing more than 100 people.

The UK’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, James Dauris, said: “We understand that some British citizens were caught in the blasts but we are unable to say how many people are, or might have been, affected.”

He urged Britons to get in touch with members of their family to let them know they were safe.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said those directly affected by the attacks should call the main number for the Embassy in Colombo. If you’re in the UK and worried about British friends or family in Sri Lanka caught up in the incidents, please call the FCO.

Is it safe to travel to Sri Lanka?

Travel advice, updated on 21 April, said: “Security has been stepped up across the island. The airport is operating, but with increased security checks. Some airlines are advising their passengers to arrive early for check-in, in light of increased security screening. If you are in Sri Lanka, please follow the advice of local security authorities, hotel security staff or your tour company. You should avoid large gatherings.

“If you are in Sri Lanka and you are safe, we advise that you contact family and friends to let them know that you are safe.”

Although Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country, other religions on the island include Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam so being respectful is good practice. A Poya day will occur during the cricket tour; a Buddhist holiday which takes place on the full moon.  No alcohol will be available for purchase on the day of 22 November and be aware that drunkenness in public may cause offence.

Essential numbers are 118/119 for police and 110 for ambulance or fire services. Government Information Center can be reached at 1919.

Sri Lankan police stand at the site of an explosion in a restaurant area of the luxury Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo (ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images)

An island with two monsoons

For such a small island, Sri Lanka has complex weather patterns, due to the monsoons that occur twice a year. This means Sri Lanka is a great year-round destination but it is worth planning your route carefully to avoid getting stuck under stormy skies or in flash flooding.

Now coming to the end of the Yala phase of the monsoon, the Sri Lankan Centre for Disaster Management issued a yellow alert – the lowest warning – on 21 October as rainfall exceeded 75mm in a 24 hour period. Travellers to the Hill Country district of Nuwara Eliya, the central city of Kandy (the final destination on Sri Lanka’s most beautiful train ride) or Rathnapura, in south central Sri Lanka should be aware on the possibility of landslides, slope failures and rock falls, particularly on roads in mountainous areas.

The Yala monsoon lasts from May to August, bringing heavy rains to the south and west coasts as well as the Hill Country. The Maha monsoon affects the opposite side of the country between October and January. Maha touches the east, north and ancient cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla. Sri Lanka is a top surfing destination so surfers should be aware of dangerous tides and currents.

What else do I need to be aware of?

Sri Lanka’s dazzling array of wildlife is one of its main attractions, from elephants in Udalawawe national park to sightings of the elusive leopard in Yala national park. However these wild animals are dangerous and one British national died last year after being attacked by a crocodile. Feral dogs are common in Sri Lanka, living in gangs on the streets. Be aware that they can sometimes carry rabies so consider a rabies injection before your trip.

Driving is notoriously bad in Sri Lanka. The FCO reminds travelers that road safety standards in Sri Lanka are much lower the UK and traffic accidents are frequent. Choose a reputable local travel company if hiring a driver or car.

While violence against foreigners in Sri Lanka is infrequent, in recent years, Western women have reported verbal and physical harassment by groups of men. These range from sexually lewd comments to sexual assaults and can occur anywhere but most commonly in crowded areas such as market places, transport hubs and in public streets. Reports of such assaults again women are higher in tourist areas so women should take care if travelling alone or in small groups.

Crime is centered around the touristic beach resorts in the south where drinks have been spiked with drugs in bars. As a precaution, do not leave drinks unattended or accept drinks in bars from strangers.

To avoid credit card fraud, it is a good idea to use cash instead of credit card as much as possible.

Homosexuality is illegal in Sri Lanka, although there have been no prosecutions recorded. Discretion is advised but there is a well-established LGBT scene in Colombo.

Jaffna, in the north of Sri Lanka is closer to Hindu India than the Buddhist south of the country. Tourists come for its ancient monuments and island lagoons. (Photo: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)
Jaffna, in the north of Sri Lanka is closer to Hindu India than the Buddhist south of the country. Tourists come for its ancient monuments and island lagoons. (Photo: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

What are the health risks?

Sri Lanka was declared malaria-free in September 2016 but dengue fever occurs throughout the country. Dengue fever is a mosquito-borne disease that triggers fever or flu-like symptoms.

The Sri Lankan Ministry of Health issued a bulletin declaring 40775 suspected dengue cases reported in September 2018 with 36% of cases occurring in the Western Province (area encompassing the capital Colombo, nearby city Negombo and the stretch of coastline south towards Bentota.)

The best precaution against dengue is to cover up and avoid exposure to mosquitoes, as there is no vaccination available for it. Seek medical advice if you develop fever or flu-like symptoms within one to two weeks of travelling in an infected area. Good insurance is a must as private healthcare in Sri Lanka is expensive and emergency medical treatment isn’t widely available outside the main cities.

Is the North of the country safe to visit?

The city of Jaffna, the capital of Sri Lankan Tamils, was ravaged by the civil war but this leafy city contains many ancient monuments and is the dropping off point for exploring the islands. Travellers in this area will discover that the unique history of this part of Sri Lanka is closer to nearby Hindu India than the Buddhist south. The area now operates free travel outside of high security zones and foreigners no longer need approval from the Ministry of Defence to visit the north. Orders from security forces should be obeyed and landmine warnings heeded, particularly in the heavily mined area towards Elephant Pass.

A short stay visa is required to visit the country which can be obtained either upon arrival or an Electronic Travel Authority can be issued online. These normally allow tourists to stay for a maximum of 30 days.

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