Sri Lanka is one of the safest places to visit in the world. Not just in the developing/majority world but the whole world! This may seem a strange statement to make about a country which recently experienced Asia’s longest civil war, suffered a devastating tsunami in 2004, is often in the news for political rioting, and very recently was the victim of a terrorist attack which killed hundreds, including several foreign tourists. So let’s take all that bit by bit .
First, the civil war which began in 1983 and ended in 2009. The war was brutal and cruel on both sides, we make no excuses about that. Tens of thousands of innocent people died needlessly. But unlike other conflicts foreigners and tourists were always safe outside of the (limited) areas of the country that were war zones. Why? Well, on the one hand the Sri Lankan Government knew the economic importance of tourism to the country (and therefore to the war effort) and was always intent on ensuring visitors were welcome and protected. While on the other hand the Tamil Tigers drew most of their funding from supporters in western countries and were therefore not going to alienate those sources of funding by targeting western tourists. We visited Sri Lanka many times with our young daughter while the war was at its height and at no time did we feel at any risk.
The disaster of Boxing Day 2004 was purely an accident of geography. Sri Lanka is not on the boundaries of tectonic plates, it does not suffer earthquakes, there are no volcanoes. Unfortunately for the island, the earthquake that caused the tsunami happened in a particular location (Banda Aceh) which meant that Sri Lanka’s east coast was the first land the tsunami encountered as it headed westwards. If the quake had happened a bit further south or north Sri Lanka would have been spared. The previous recorded tsunami was in the mid 19th century and there is no reason to think there will be another one anytime soon so you can enjoy Sri Lanka’s beaches without worrying unduly about tsunamis.
The political situation is a concern to those who live in Sri Lanka and from time to time nasty inter-communal violence erupts. But two points need to be made. First, it is rare that these incidents take place in tourist areas – they are mostly confined to local communities but understandably the international news media refer to the nearest big town. So when violence between Buddhists and Muslims broke out in a couple of areas in Central Province a year and a half ago the global press reported the disturbances as having been “in Kandy” simply because Kandy was the nearest place anyone had heard of. We live near Kandy and were shopping in town at the time, yet we saw and heard nothing; life in and around the city continued completely normally. The violence was confined to a couple of towns several miles away from Kandy. Secondly, there have been riots across France (for example) for a long while – the so-called gilets jaunes movement – but that doesn’t seem to have put tourists off travelling to France….. so why should it be different in Sri Lanka? Just because we are less familiar with the culture doesn’t necessarily mean it is more dangerous. – and actually as a foreigner you are more likely to be protected than to be attacked.
No-one would wish to downplay the horrific events of Easter 2019, but they were part of a global terrorist phenomenon, not something specific to Sri Lanka. Some big Colombo hotels were a target, for sure, but the main focus of the terrorists’ attentions was on the local Christian community. The country was caught badly off guard for reasons too complex to go into here, and the government has accepted this. But the immediate aftermath saw massively increased security and, while this has now diminished, the sense of security is still much greater than it was before the bombings. Nowhere is safe from global terrorism, but places which have been recent victims are likely to be safer than places whose governments have taken their eyes off the ball – as Sri Lanka had before Easter, following ten years of post-war calm. It is a shame that this seems lost on governments who issue travel safety advice, and some of the over cautious security advice given by western governments in the aftermath of those horrendous bombings has done untold damage to the Sri Lankan economy. Whilst it is understandable that nations wish to protect their citizens , more carefully considered advice in responses to the bombings might have been more useful to the people with planned holidays and been less devastating to the fragile economy of this little nation. Tourism in Sri Lanka will recover eventually, but it will take years, and many very poor people have suffered quite dreadfully and will continue to suffer more economic hardship in the years to come. By coming to Sri Lanka you are playing your part in combating terrorism.
But what about your personal safety? What is street crime like? Are you likely to get robbed or assaulted? Well, let’s just say that Colombo feels a whole lot safer on a Saturday night than our former Yorkshire home town ever did. And as for Kandy – if you can find any signs of life after 9pm, congratulations! A few tourist hot-spots such as Ella and Mirissa do have a night-time economy and in recent years there have, sad to say, been growing reports of sexual harassment. There are also plenty of drug-dealers around in these places. But you can plan your trip to avoid such places and still have a wonderful time. And muggings and street robberies of tourists are almost unknown. Sri Lankans prefer to separate foreigners from their cash in more subtle, non-violent ways!
We hope this has reassured you that Sri Lanka is perfectly safe to visit. Our next blog will look at health for visitors – what are the risks, and what are the health services like? What is Sri Lanka like as a destination for young families? That’s also – mostly – good news. Travel safely and have fun.
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