Home » Sri Lanka suffered a catastrophic economic crisis, but is it safe to travel there?

Sri Lanka suffered a catastrophic economic crisis, but is it safe to travel there?

Sri Lanka suffered a catastrophic economic crisis, but is it safe to travel there?

White sand beaches, welcoming locals, wild elephants living in their natural habitats and eight UNESCO World Heritage sites make Sri Lanka a tourist’s paradise.

But as Australian Greta Barlow was planning her trip, she wondered if it would be safe.

While her friends gave positive reviews of their past holidays in Sri Lanka, Australia’s official Smart Traveller advisory urged visitors to “exercise a high degree of caution” as the country holds its presidential elections later this year.

“It made it sound like protests could happen anytime as well as possible curfews or terrorist attacks,” she said.

Dozens of grey elephants walk on verdant grass near a blue lake.

A herd of Asiatic wild elephants gather at a national park in Minneriya, some 200 kilometres from Sri Lanka’s capital.(AP: Chamila Karunarathne)

Sri Lanka has been rocked by a series of crises in the past two decades, including economic turmoil in 2022 that led to oil, food and power shortages, the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, and the devastating 2004 tsunami. 

The country was also engulfed in a 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 between the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sinhalese-dominant Sri Lankan government.

Despite this tumultuous history, Priantha Fernando, chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, said tourists shouldn’t be deterred from visiting. 

“A couple of years ago it is understandable that foreign governments issued strong warnings,” he told the ABC.

“But now, that advice needs to be updated as it is hurting the industry.”

Mr Fernando said overly cautious travel advisories harmed those dependent on the industry for an income and the benefits that filtered down to communities.

A woman wearing a straw hat looks at blue Buddha statues.

Visitors are trickling back to Sri Lanka as the country rebounds after a recent economic crisis.(Reuters: Dinuka Liyanawatte)

The decline in tourism numbers since the pandemic dealt a severe economic blow to Sri Lanka, which relies heavily on tourism for foreign exchange.

Today, Sri Lanka is recovering.

About 209,200 tourists visited Sri Lanka in March this year, a 66 per cent increase compared to March 2023, according to the Sri Lankan Tourism Authority.

Tour agencies also stress that the political and economic unrest have stabilised.

“It is perfectly safe for solo women travellers, and street harassment is rare,” said Vinoli Fernando, operations manager at Grasshopper Adventures.

“Just take the same precautions as in other countries.”

Women look at orange, red and yellow frescoes of ancient drawn figurines on a rock.

Visitors have returned to Sri Lanka to visit popular sites like the frescos at Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress.(Reuters:Andrew Caballero-Reynolds )

Are all areas safe to visit?

However, many potential tourists like Ms Barlow remain hesitant about travelling by themselves and potential unrest.

The Smart Traveller advisory also warned solo travellers about the risk of “crime, including sexual assault, harassment and robbery” as well as “marked and unmarked minefields and unexploded weapons in the Northern Province and parts of the Eastern Province”.

Tens of thousands of landmines were laid during the civil war, according to The Halo Trust, the country’s biggest de-mining organisation, but most of those and other types of explosives have since been cleared.

“Only about 24 square kilometres still needs to be cleared, but it has been marked and cordoned off,” said Hugh Baker, The HALO Trust’s program manager.

French tourist Anaïs Noizat had her own doubts about visiting Sri Lanka earlier this year, especially about visiting Jaffna in the Northern Province where her partner’s family lives.

A woman stands in front of a temple and palm tree and colourful crowds.

Anais Noizat attends the Thiruvila festival to pay tributes to the gods.(Supplied: @lifeofananas)

“I didn’t know if people truly want tourists to visit after past crises?” she questioned.

While Jaffna was once a violent war zone, today it is better known among tourists for being home to one of the country’s most significant Hindu temples, Nallur Kandaswamy.

During Ms Noizat’s travels, she observed the Hindu Thiruvila festival of the gods and documented the lively celebration on Instagram.

In her posts, the Hindu temple was a riot of colour, with devotees dressed in vibrant saris and men bare-chested as a sign of respect. 

“It’s mesmerising to join in and be immersed in this cultural event,” she said, noting the importance of respecting local customs. 

Ms Noizat fell in the love with the country, but she almost didn’t go on the trip because of the country’s recent turbulent history.

Two women in orange and blue saris ride bicycles, a green tuktuk follows.

Sri Lanka’s Tamil communities in the north are still rebuilding after the decades-long civil war.(AFP: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi)

Fifteen years on since the end of the war, locals invite tourists to explore their quieter way of life.

Ajantha Subramaniam, who owns a local guesthouse, offers spicy crab and seafood curries.

“It is a calmer way of life here; we are used to picking ourselves up and carrying on,” she said.

Ms Subramaniam, who fled the area during the civil war, returned a few years ago to reconnect with her roots.

The Sinhalese people form the majority of the population, while the Tamil community makes up 11 per cent, mostly living in the northern and eastern provinces.

Ms Subramaniam highlighted what makes Jaffna an attractive destination.

“The beaches are less crowded; we have temples and hidden gems like the library, which is one of the oldest in Asia, home to historic Palmyra palm tree manuscripts,” she said.

Boys in white uniforms riding on motobikes in front of white building.

The Jaffna library in northern Sri Lanka, a symbol of Tamil literature and heritage, was rebuilt after the civil war. (Reuters: Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi )

The Jaffna library, symbolising the region’s quiet determination, was set ablaze in 1981 by an anti-Tamil mob, destroying about 97,000 rare books, but has recently been rebuilt.

“So much history was destroyed in the region, but the people love to share stories and meet new people,” Ms Subramaniam said.

For Ms Noizat, the trip has been enlightening.

She enjoyed the rustic charm and warm hospitality – and is already eyeing a return trip with plans to go to more off-the-beaten-track destinations like Delft island.

“Jaffna is not known a lot on social media and because of its past I feel like it gets overlooked, but it was totally safe and very authentic,” she added.

“Yes, the region is battle-scarred, but locals are resilient and treasure their traditions.”

How to be a responsible tourist

Tourism in Sri Lanka is not without its challenges.

Overcrowding in popular national parks has led some companies to promote less-visited areas.

“We now offer tours to Wilpattu National Park or walking tours in Horton Plains to see sloths and nature,” Ms Fernando from Grasshopper Adventures said.

An elephant walks in front of jeeps.

Some elephant parks have become overcrowded.(Reuters: Dinuka Liyanawatte)

On her most recent trip to Sri Lanka, Australia-based French tourist Camille Rey opted to visit Wilpattu National Park rather than a more popular alternative.

“Overtourism in Yala Park on my last visit led me to do more research for this trip and I chose an area where they had set boundaries and limits on [the number of] people visiting the park at one time.”

And she wasn’t disappointed, spotting two leopards and elephants.

A leopard walks across the road in front of a jeep and tourists take photos.

Leopards are an unforgettable sight in Sri Lanka.(Reuters: Dinuka Liyanawatte)

“Making sure people involved in the park really care for [the animals] and are well paid are important for me when choosing where to visit too,” she added.

Yvonne Schofield from Sri Lanka Campaign, an organisation monitoring human rights, urges tourists to consider their broader impact on locals and urged them to be sensitive when asking about the civil war.

Ms Schofield points to a map highlighting tourism companies linked to individuals implicated in war crimes as a useful resource for travellers who want to spend their money responsibly.

She said tourists should also be mindful that locals are still struggling with daily challenges such as rising food costs.

A man and a woman jump and high 5 in front of a rock.

Camille Rey is part of the trend of tourists wanting to visit less popular national parks and support more local businesses.(Supplied: Camille Rey)

Aims to get more women into tourism

With more tourists returning, there’s hope that the industry will recover and reach global standards.

A new program aimed at increasing women’s participation is one part of that push.

Women currently make up less than 10 per cent of the industry, according to the Sri Lankan Tourism Authority.

Poornaka Delpachitra, who heads the Sri Lanka branch of Australian-owned tourism company Intrepid, is passionate about increasing this number.

A young woman wearing a grey shirt and pants in front of colourful tuktuks.

Uthphala Arunamalee is one of the few female tour guides in Sri Lanka.(ABC News: Libby Hogan)

“There’s a growing trend of more female travellers coming to Sri Lanka, and they often want to travel with a female guide, whether for safety or hearing a female perspective on culture,” he said.

Intrepid has partnered with an Australian government-funded program to offer scholarships to female guides and deliver information sessions for female business owners.

Uthphala Arunamalee, one of the few female guides in the country, said there was often a stigma towards female tour guides, with assumptions that they must be promiscuous if they are travelling with strangers.

“Encouraging more women into these jobs and across the tourism sector will break down discrimination against women,” she said.

A woman pointing to vegetables in a market surrounded by a group of men and women.

Uthphala Arunamalee loves sharing stories with tourists and hearing about their travels around the world.(Supplied: Uthphala Arunamalee)

“Money talks, we all know this, so if women can earn a steady income, that will show their family this is a reputable job.”

As Sri Lanka rebuilds, guides like Ms Arunamalee hope to be able to share their knowledge with more people of a land that is both recovering and rich in heritage.

“Talking to well-travelled people [also] gives you a view of the world through their eyes,” she said.