Ever since political and civil tension was quelled in 2009, Sri Lanka has become one of the world’s go-to travel destinations. The island nation boasts a curious mix of Indian and Southeast Asian cultures, 2,000 years of history as told by ruins, lively rainforests, gorgeous beaches, and eight UNESCO world heritage sites. Before heading to Sri Lanka, it’s best to get a gauge on the safety situation. In general, Sri Lankans are warm, welcoming, ambitious people looking to build a happy society, but traveling there can present some inherent dangers. Here’s a quick rundown on the eight things you should know before heading to Sri Lanka.
Political Situation and 2018’s State of Emergency
From 1983 until 2009, Sri Lanka was entrenched in a bloody civil war between the military government and the “Tamil Tigers,” an independent group looking to establish their own sovereign state in the northern and eastern regions of the country. It eventually ended when the military defeated the Tamil Tigers, and violence has mostly cooled in the decade since.
In an unrelated conflict, violence erupted in March of 2018 between Sinhalese Buddhist and Muslim communities of Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second most populous city in the Central Province. The Sri Lankan government issued a 10-day state of emergency in the region, mostly as a preemptive way to curb violence and make sure tourists were made aware of the situation. Levels of unrest have significantly declined since then (as of September 2018), but travelers should still retain normal degrees of caution. For some general travel advice, be sure to obey all curfew policies if they are reimplemented, and steer clear of protests and large gatherings. Also, when it comes to political conversations, be respectful about the political past, and err on the side of asking questions rather than offering your own opinions.
Hygiene and Cleanliness Standards
Since we’re still less than a decade removed from a civil war that lasted over a quarter of a century, the tourism industry is still establishing itself. This is pretty apparent when noticing the lack of everyday convenience goods available, or the underdevelopment in remote areas, but perhaps most glaring are the standards for hygiene and cleanliness. If your stomach tends to be weak when traveling, maybe skip the food cart, sit down at a full-fledged restaurant, and ask about the kitchen’s sanitation situation.
Drinking and Driving Laws
Winding through the narrow and congested side streets of Sri Lankan cities is undoubtedly one of the best ways to experience the country. Tuk-tuks are widely available and offer an authentic way to take everything in. However, just beware that your driver may be tuk-tuk-ing under the influence. Travelers have frequently reported drivers with slurred speech, glazed eyes, and a bottle of liquor riding shotgun. In addition to establishing the fare before getting in, make sure you get a good gauge on the sobriety of your driver.
There’s not much more that needs to be said on this one. Generally speaking, tap water is not safe to drink. After a severe outbreak of kidney diseases was recently traced to agricultural fertilizers and pesticides in the rice paddy regions, the government has been constructing reverse osmosis plants to provide clean water. When you can’t find reverse osmosis water, buy bottled water.
Besides some one-off examples, the majority of crimes against foreigners is petty crime in the form of pickpocketing and hotel room theft. Over the last decade, regions that have seen a decrease in crime include Colombo, Anuradhapura, Galle, Gampaha, Kalutara, Matara, and Nugegoda. Areas that have witnessed an uptick in crime include the districts of Borella, Slave Island, and Maradana.
Credit card fraud is another thing to consider. Try to only use cash when traveling in Sri Lanka, as there have been instances of employees at restaurants using scanning devices to copy sensitive information.
In Sri Lanka, women are often on the receiving end of abuse. While most is non-violent, like catcalls, leers, and verbal harassment, there have been several serious incidents involving violence and rape. Women should be extra cautious when drinking in public spaces and be on the lookout for people trying to spike their drink.
Dengue fever is the most significant health concern you should have when traveling to Sri Lanka. According to the World Health Organization, in just the first six months of 2017, there were 80,732 reported cases of Dengue with 2,015 deaths. Approximately 43% of these cases were in the Western Province, with many in the country’s capital of Colombo. As Dengue is transmitted primarily by mosquitos, incidents usually coincide with the wet monsoon season between May and July. Make sure you’re taking necessary precautions with everything from bug spray to mosquito nets and vaccinations before your trip. Check out Travel Health Pro for more info on Dengue in Sri Lanka.
The driving conditions and public transportation services in Sri Lanka are still in developing stages. Outside of the major cities, road conditions are usually poor, and accidents sometimes occur due to poorly maintained vehicles, erratic driving norms, and pedestrians and animals roaming on the roads. Due to the risk of theft and unsafe drivers, you should reconsider traveling by bus. Try to book private transportation through your hotel or hostel as a general rule of thumb.