Is Sri Lanka Safe to Visit? 6 Critical Issues to Consider!

Concerned about your safety?  Here’s some great insight from an American couple currently living in Sri Lanka along with their 4 young children!

The question everyone wants answered is, “will I be safe visiting Sri Lanka?”  The concern of safety should always be a paramount consideration for the discerning traveler.  As a husband and father of four young children, I can assure you that this American expat places a high value on the safety of those I love.  While danger can lurk in any country, we have found Sri Lanka to be exceptionally safe for our family and other expat friends.  Violent crime against foreigners is virtually unheard of.  At Experience It Sri Lanka, we work hard to ensure that our custom tours provide the safety and security needed to give peace of mind to those enjoying our tours.  We will never put our guests in places or with people that we would not also entrust our own family’s safety with. 

After a 25-year civil war ended in 2009, the nation has rapidly developed. With a dedicated focus on building the tourism industry in Sri Lanka, the government knows that protecting foreign travelers is an absolute necessity and priority in order to see tourist numbers continue to grow.  Isn’t that reassuring to know that this government wants to see you protected?  It is also comforting to know that local Sri Lankans take tremendous pride in their country and are very protective of foreigners.  They take great delight in helping or protecting someone who is visiting their beloved country.  Following the end of the civil war, the entire island is now at peace and with travel restrictions lifted, guests can travel across the island without fear.  It is a new day in Sri Lanka!

With all that said, let’s consider 6 key areas that wise travelers should be aware of when coming to Sri Lanka to ensure you have the most enjoyable time in this beautiful country we now call home.

Dangers, Threats & Concerns

1. Traffic

The most common source of danger in Sri Lanka now is related to road traffic.  Cars, buses, trains, tuk-tuks, tractors, push carts and people all weave hastily throughout the bustling roadways.  While foreigners with an international driver’s license can rent cars, it is not recommended to do so.  For American drivers, you will be driving on the opposite side of the car and the opposite side of the road, navigating areas with unfamiliar road signs, many of which are in Sinhala.  Driving is exhausting and can be very dangerous to the new comer.  I drive when I have to, but it always makes my day much easier when my driver takes me around.  As for walking, be particularly careful when walking near busy roads and always treat buses, in particular, with caution and respect as they only stop to pick up a paying customer.  There are periodic crosswalks where vehicles are required to stop when pedestrians are present, but you want to make sure you are clearly visible to the drivers.  When you are with your guide, he will instruct you when it is appropriate to cross.  It is wise to take notice of Sri Lankan pedestrians and refrain from stepping onto a road if you see them waiting to cross.  It is a huge offense with hefty penalties for a driver to hit a pedestrian, so they are all very cautious to avoid hitting a pedestrian.  While in the tour vehicle, you can relax knowing that your driver is trained and experienced to navigate your tour with comfort and safety.  Instead of stressing on driving, you can enjoy capturing the sights and sounds of the journey.

2. Drowning:

With some of the most beautiful beaches and mountain rivers, swimmers can be seen across the country.  Because of that, drowning is one of the most common causes of death amongst tourists in Sri Lanka. Currents can be strong, and beaches may shelve off into deep waters with unexpected drops.  There are no lifeguards to come and pull you out if you get into trouble.  Most of the travelers who drown are DIY travelers, who are unaware of the known dangers that are present.  Our guides are keenly aware of when and where to avoid while swimming.  Conditions can vary greatly even within a few hundred feet, so don’t assume that because lots of people are swimming at one end of the beach, a nearby deserted area will be safe. The only warning signs of dangerous swimming conditions are the red flags posted on the beaches outside major resort hotels. Sensible precautions include always keeping within your depth and making sure that someone on the shore knows that you’re in the water. Never swim under the influence of alcohol. Newspaper stories of locals washed out to sea after heavy drinking are a frequent occurrence.

3. Scams and Hassling:

Much of Asia has an unfortunate, but often well-deserved reputation for hassle, ranging from tuk-tuk drivers, gem shop owners, merchants and guesthouse owners who seek to make some extra money on the vulnerability of tourists.  At its simplest, you’ll encounter low-level hassle from people who want you to visit their shop, stay in their guesthouse or be your guide.  Sometimes they want to take you to a shop where they will receive a commission for bringing you.   Tuk-tuk drivers are the main source of this sort of pressure, although it can come from pretty much anyone that can speak a few words of English.

Fortunately, the island’s con artists who formerly plagued places like Galle, Kandy, and especially Colombo’s Galle Face Green are now far less numerous than they once were, although it still pays to be aware of the classic scams. Convincing you of their trustworthiness is an important strategy of any scam, and con artists will often attempt to boost their own credentials by claiming to be a member of a professional elite.  They may claim to be a Sri Lankan Airline pilot, former international cricket player, or member of government. A standard ploy in Colombo is for con artists to claim to be visiting from the Maldives, thereby implying that they too are visitors and thus to be trusted. Another common introductory ploy is for a con artist to claim to be a cook, gardener or other backroom staff member of your hotel, hoping thereby to gain your confidence.

4. Theft:

Many of these people are extremely impoverished, so as a matter of survival some have resorted to hassling or stealing.

Petty theft here is less common than in many other parts of Asia, and even and rarer than in most American cities, though you should still take sensible care of your belongings. Avoid displaying large amounts of cash or valuable possessions.  Pickpockets sometimes work in crowded areas, while thefts from hotel rooms are occasionally reported. Many hotels and guesthouses ask guests to deposit valuables in their safe, and it’s sensible to do so when you can.

Muggings or attacks are very rare, though single travelers (especially women) should avoid dark beaches late at night – Negombo, Mirissa, and Hikkaduwa have particularly bad reputations. A thief loves to surprise the unsuspecting, so being aware of your surroundings will greatly reduce the chance of being targeted. In addition, make sure you keep a separate record of all your bank card details (along with the phone numbers needed in case of their loss) and passport information; it’s worth taking a photocopy of the pages from your passport that contain your personal details.

If you do have anything stolen, you’ll need to report it to the police – there’s little chance that they will be able to recover it for you, but you’ll need a report for your insurance claim. Given the fact that you might not find any English-speaking policemen on duty, your tour guide will be there with you to interpret and assist in completing the process.

You shouldn’t get too paranoid about these characters as they pose little threat to your safety, and with firm resistance will leave you alone.  It is important not to stop talking to everyone because you’re afraid they’re going to rip you off. The vast majority of Sri Lankans who approach you will be perfectly honest, and simply keen to have a chat – or at least find out which country you are from. As an American expat, they always light up when I answer that I am from America. 

5. Political Issues:

Sri Lankans often ask me if I like specific American politicians, usually ones they do not like.  You may be surprised to know that they are very aware of all the political issues going on in America and most have a strong opinion about it. I always smile and say “politicians are crazy in every country, aren’t they” to which they agree and move on from political discussions.

On the issue of politics, you should know that just like in most developing countries, political chaos can erupt at any given moment.  I often have friends and family contacting me concerned over a certain political issue that has been reported on their local news in America, so this is an understandable concern for tourists heading this way.  The political system was setup by the British during their 130-year reign, so thankfully this is a democratic government.  The power struggles of these elected officials can sometimes cause conflict that leads to protests and demonstrations.  When these issues have occurred, I have simply kept my family from being in the vicinity of large crowds or protest rallies.  The U.S. Embassy has always sent email or text messages warning me when any of these protests may occur.  So, you would probably like to know how you can also receive safety messages from your embassy!

For Unites States citizens, you can easily enroll in the STEP Program (https://step.state.gov/step/) to ensure you are updated with any threats or concerns.  STEP stands for the “Smart Traveler Enrollment Program”, which is a free service to allow U.S. citizens and nationals traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.  What are the benefits of enrolling in STEP? 

Receive important information from the Embassy about current safety conditions in your destination country, helping you make informed decisions about your travel plans.

Help the U.S. Embassy contact you in an emergency, whether natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency.

Help family and friends get in touch with you in an emergency.

In General, if you avoid conversations and demonstrations involving politics while in Sri Lanka, you will likely make more friends and avoid placing yourself in harm’s way.

6. Health Concerns:

Immunizations:

It is advised that all travelers to Sri Lanka make sure that they have received the adult diphtheria and tetanus immunization within the previous 10 years.  For our family, we chose to get our family up to date on all the immunizations for America, but not all the shots that some say are needed for Sri Lanka.  It would be wise to review the recommendations from the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) and talk to your local doctor to see what they recommend at the time you plan to travel.

Avoid Tap Water:

Anyone who has done some research should already know that you can’t drink the tap water in Sri Lanka — though ice from hotels and tourist bars is usually fine. Instead, grab bottle after bottle of the country’s reverse osmosis water, but make sure to check the expiration date before you pop the cap. Also note that, depending on how sensitive your tummy is, you may or may not want to settle for a salad since the greens could have been rinsed in tap water.  For more on this check out our blog on Do’s and Don’ts.

Dengue fever: 

This mosquito-borne disease is becomingly increasingly problematic across Asia. As there is no vaccine available, it can only be prevented by avoiding mosquito bites at all times. Symptoms include high fever, severe headache and body ache and sometimes a rash and diarrhea. Spraying with a mosquito repellent in the mornings and evenings if you are out, will ward off mosquitos.  Not all mosquitos carry Dengue, but it impossible to know which ones present a risk.  Dengue is most common amongst people who sleep without a mosquito net and with their windows open, so it is rare for tourists to contract dengue.

Health Insurance:

Even if you are fit and healthy, accidents and sickness can occur, so you will want to travel with health insurance that includes evacuation.  You may need extra coverage for adventure activities, such as scuba diving.  If your normal healthcare insurance doesn’t cover you for medical expenses abroad, get the extra insurance.  If you are uninsured, emergency evacuation is extremely expensive, and bills of more than $100,000 USD are not uncommon.

Sunburn & Heat Exhaustion:

With the close proximity to the equator, sunburn and heat exhaustion can affect those who do not take proper precautions.  Using a strong sunscreen of 30 or higher SPF will prevent burns.  You will also want a good pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes from sun damage.  A wide brim hat also provides good shade during the hottest hours of the day.  To prevent heat exhaustions, our tours can be customized to allow some reprieve during the hottest seasons of the year (see our page on “When to Visit”)

Our first trip to a Sri Lankan hospital came our first week in our house when our 3-year-old son fell and cut his head open.  We were nervous at the thought of taking our family to an unfamiliar hospital, but the experience turned out to being one that brought us great peace knowing quality medical care is available.  We do not recommend using the local government hospitals, but there are several quality hospitals in the cities of Sri Lanka that our guides can take our guests.  Our family of 6 have made several hospital visits now and we have always been well taken care of.

Well, hopefully I answered your question and helped you see that Sri Lanka is a wonderful country that is safe for you to visit.  My kids are always eager to venture out to explore a new destination in this island of limitless possibilities.  Although there are potential issues for travelers to look out for in any country, our experienced guides, along with the famous Sri Lankan hospitality of the locals will give you peace of mind as you safely traverse the island known as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.