Is Sri Lanka Safe to Visit? 7 Things to be Aware of!

If you are thinking about visiting Sri Lanka and are concerned about your safety, here are some great insights from an American couple currently living with their four young children in Sri Lanka! We’ll answer your question about Sri Lanka’s safety in general, as well as give you tips for 7 things that you should be aware of on your trip.

The question everyone wants answered is, “will I be safe visiting Sri Lanka?”  The concern of safety should always be the first consideration of a discerning traveler.  As a husband and father of four young children, I can assure you that I place a high value on the safety of those I love. 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 designed tours provide the safety and security needed to give peace of mind to those enjoying our tours. We will never put our guests with people or in places where our family wouldn’t feel safe.

Let’s start with some context for Sri Lanka’s past security situation before addressing the more recent attack in April of 2019. 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 the 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. 

Of course, in light of the recent issues in Sri Lanka, we have an updated perspective on safety in the country as safety is our top concern for our clients and one of the biggest questions that we receive from potential travelers to Sri Lanka.

We have seen that the tourism industry suffered greatly after the attacks that occurred in April 2019. Due to the fact that tourism is considered to be the most important industry in Sri Lanka’s economy, the government has done and is currently doing everything in their power to ensure safety and promote a revival among tourists. More than 3 billion USD is funneled into Sri Lanka from tourism and more than 1 million people have jobs in or related to the tourism industry. Because so much is dependent on this industry, safety must be sufficient for the millions of tourists that are considering visiting.

Our family is living in Sri Lanka, (both before and after the events in April 2019) and we have witnessed a considerable, measurable, and drastic change in security in response. Hotels and restaurants are safer than ever. Security has been tightened and policies have been added to all areas of travel and hospitality. Immigration and customs have also upgraded systems and protocols. In a similar way that 9/11 changed airport security and made air travel extremely safe, April’s events have made hotels and tourism safer than before.

For more detailed information about how Sri Lanka has responded to the events in April 2019, check out our longer and more specific blog post here. Our family has traveled and stayed in hotels in recent weeks after the attacks in April 2019 and have felt completely safe. We have personally made ourselves aware of security measures and are careful but unafraid to travel the island. We travel with all of our children and are able to enjoy the beauty this country has to offer and hope you can experience it like we have!

With all that said, let’s consider 7 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.

7 Things to Be Aware Of:

1. Traffic – Stay safe on the road!

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. If you are an American driver, you will be driving on the opposite side of the car and road to which you are accustomed. You will also be navigating areas with unfamiliar road signs, many of which are in Sinhala.  Driving is exhausting and can be very dangerous to the newcomer. 

Personally, 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 busses, 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 how Sri Lankan pedestrians proceed and refrain from stepping onto a road if you see them still waiting to cross.  It is a huge offense with hefty penalties for a driver to hit a pedestrian, so they are all very cautious.

For this reason, we recommend getting a private driver for your trip. This way, 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 about driving, you can enjoy capturing the sights and sounds of the journey.

2. Swimming – Stay safe in the water!

With beautiful beaches and mountain rivers, swimmers enjoy their time in the water across Sri Lanka. Before you go swimming, we would advise you to be aware that 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 time, if there is a problem, it is because travelers are unaware of the swimming conditions.

Our guides are keenly aware of when and where to avoid while swimming, so feel free to ask them if you have questions! 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.

3. Stay conscious of potential scams.

As in any country, a tourist can be considered a target for scams because they are unaware of what is normal pricing or correct information. Much of Asia has an unfortunate 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 might encounter low-level hassle from people who want you to visit their shop, stay in their guesthouse or be your guide. Sometimes they’ll 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. To stay safe, trust your private driver and the guides that he introduces you to. While it’s great to be friendly and enjoy making new connections, avoid giving out personal information to those you don’t have reason to trust!

4. Exercise reasonable caution to avoid theft.

Petty theft here is less common than in many other parts of Asia, and even rarer than in most American cities, though you should still take sensible care of your belongings. As you would in any major city, 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 safes, and it’s sensible to do so when you can.

Muggings or attacks are very rare, although it is still wise to exercise reasonable caution as you would anywhere. Single travelers (especially women) should avoid dark beaches late at night – Negombo, Mirissa, and Hikkaduwa have particularly bad reputations. A thief will try to surprise the unsuspecting, so being aware of your surroundings will greatly reduce the chance of being targeted.

In addition, in the unlikely event that you have something stolen from you, it’s good to be prepared. We recommend keeping 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 having 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.

Don’t be paranoid! Don’t 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. Stay up to date on 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.

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 political events are understandable concerns for tourists heading this way. The political system was setup by the British during their 130-year reign, so 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. Your driver will do the same for you. The U.S. Embassy has always sent email or text messages warning me when any of these protests may occur.  We would recommend being signed up to receive safety messages from your embassy!

For United 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 situations you don’t want to be in.

6. Stay healthy in Sri Lanka!

Immunizations we recommend:

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. We recommend staying on the safe side and spraying with a mosquito repellent in the mornings and evenings if you are out. This will ward off mosquitoes. Not all mosquitoes carry Dengue, but it is impossible to know which ones present a risk so we prefer to play it safe. 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 exhaustion, 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 to where our guides can take our guests should they need medical assistance for any reason.  Our family of 6 have made several hospital visits now and we have always been well taken care of.

7. Consider avoiding large religious gatherings.

One more area of caution is to avoid large groups at religiously motivated events. Sometimes these events create unnecessary risks due to the potential tensions between religious groups. It is best to steer clear of large gatherings and crowds when possible. We stay up to date with current events and will always put your safety as a priority. Also, protests (student led, peaceful demonstrations or labor related demonstrations are the most common) are a possibility, especially in the large city of Colombo and we advise to avoid areas with dense crowds.

Come visit and see for yourself!

Hopefully this has answered your question about safety as well as given you some practical tips to get the most out of your vacation! 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. Have more questions or want to get started in the planning process? Get in touch with one of our American representatives today.

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