Sri Lanka is undeniably one of the most beautiful and diverse countries in the world. The small South Asian island is packed full of adventure, culture, history and wildlife. You can lounge on white-sand beaches, hit the waves for great surfing, go on safari in search of herds of elephants, or marvel at ancient lost kingdoms hidden long ago by the jungles.
There’s so much to experience. But an unfortunate recent string of terror attacks in the country coupled with the aftermath of a brutal civil war that ended just a decade ago means many travellers still see Sri Lanka as a dangerous place to visit.
For most of the country though, this simply isn’t the case, and there are many misconceptions that Sri Lanka is desperately trying to dispel. Yes, you could get caught in a terror incident, but the odds are incredibly low, and where in the world are you ever completely safe?
Keep abreast of news and events, and Sri Lanka is a glorious island to visit. To inspire your next adventure, here’s everything you need to know about staying safe in Sri Lanka.
Health Concerns in Sri Lanka
Anyone travelling to Sri Lanka needs to be up to date on important vaccinations that might be required. The best way to find out the most up-to-date information – and remember, things can change rapidly – is to check with your local GP practice or to see a travel nurse. They can offer excellent information on destinations around the world, including Sri Lanka, and will be able to advise on which vaccinations you might need and which you might want to have boosted.
A great starting point as you plan your journey to Sri Lanka is to check the NHS website and the Fit For Travel Website, which is run by the NHS. Here you can find excellent overviews of the vaccinations needed for different countries.
As with anywhere in the world, it’s highly recommended that you are up to date on any regular vaccinations before you set out. These include basic vaccinations that you should keep boosted anyway, such as hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid, polio and diphtheria. You might also want to consider a rabies jab and Japanese encephalitis vaccination, however these are not mandatory. Always make sure you leave several weeks in order to get any boosters or vaccines before you travel to Sri Lanka.
Malaria is not found in Sri Lanka, however other mosquito-borne diseases can be contracted across the country, particularly in remote and rural areas. Dengue fever can be caught in Sri Lanka, and unfortunately there is no vaccine against this disease. While rare, the only way to stop it from being caught is to prevent mosquito bites. This means wearing mosquito repellent and covering up exposed skin, especially at dusk and dawn when mosquitos are at their most active.
Sri Lanka is an extremely hot and tropical country, and that means that heat stroke or heat exhaustion are real dangers. If you’re not used to intense heat or humidity, then this can be even more of a problem, so always wear a sun hat, use sun cream and drink plenty of water, especially if you’re out on safari or hiking.
Healthcare can be basic in Sri Lanka, especially outside of the capital, Colombo. In some cases, hospitals and health clinics can essentially be non-existent. For this reason, it’s important to have travel insurance that will give you access to private health centres across the country and that, in the worst situations, will cover your evacuation back home to the United Kingdom for treatments.
Food and Water
Eating and drinking is a big part of travel; for visitors to Sri Lanka, food is often seen as one of the biggest reasons to visit. A fusion of cuisines from across South Asia, Sri Lanka’s tastiest food can be found in small restaurants or bought from street vendors. However, this brings with it a whole array of health risks.
The first thing to remember about staying safe in Sri Lanka is to never drink the tap water. Travellers can often find themselves hit hard by stomach illnesses, and the source is often untreated water. Sanitary conditions are not great in Sri Lanka, so always stick to bottled water, even if you’re just brushing your teeth. If you’re looking to cut down on plastic waste though, then bring a refillable bottle with a sterilising filter.
Food hygiene standards can be as poor as the water quality, and you’ll want to avoid any foods that might have been washed and prepared using the local water source, such as fresh fruits and salads. Instead, go for well-cooked dishes that won’t leave you reeling the next day. Luckily, Sri Lanka has plenty of food to choose from, and you’ll be able to indulge in wonderfully delicious curries and dhals across the country.
When choosing restaurants, go on recommendations from locals or other travellers. Remember that just because a place might look fancy and the meals might be expensive, this doesn’t mean that the food preparation standards are up to scratch. You can get just as ill from a five-star hotel restaurant as you can from a street stall. If you’re in any doubt, don’t be afraid to ask to see the kitchens, your stomach will certainly thank you later.
It can be a good idea to carry around a disinfecting hand sanitiser when you’re in Sri Lanka, to thoroughly clean your hands before you eat, especially as you’ll often find yourself eating with your fingers rather than cutlery. If the worst happens, you will want to be prepared with Imodium tablets when you’re travelling around, as well as rehydration medicine.
There’s no denying the fact that Sri Lanka is a poor country, however that doesn’t automatically mean that crime is going to be a danger to you when you’re travelling here. In fact, most Sri Lankans you meet will be honest and hospitable. But, as with anywhere in the world, you do need to follow basic travel safety advice to stay out of trouble.
Sri Lanka is a crowded and busy country and, for many, it’s this seemingly chaotic yet colourful atmosphere that gives it such an allure. It also provides the necessary conditions for pickpockets and thieves to work, so you need to be extra conscious when walking through busy markets and bazaars, and when travelling on local buses and trains. Never leave your valuables unattended, even if you are just popping to the toilet quickly, and be wary about flashing those valuables in public.
Tourists who are unfamiliar with Sri Lanka might also be the victims of unscrupulous scams, which, while not exactly serious, can leave a sour taste hanging over your trip. Be wary of any taxi or rickshaw drivers trying to steer you to a particular hotel or restaurant; always try to book your accommodation in advance and be adamant that’s where you’re going, even if they try to tell you it’s sold out. Book your train and bus tickets directly at the stations where possible, and always research the tour companies you use in advance of your trip.
Violent crime, while rare, can occur in Sri Lanka. Be especially careful if you’re heading to bars or are out late at night. Unfortunately, women will need to be extra wary after dark, especially if they are on their own.
Sri Lanka always hits the news for the wrong reasons. If there’s a terror attack here, then other countries are always quick to tell their citizens not to visit. The last terror attack saw tourism massively decline in the aftermath of multiple bomb attacks that hit major hotels and places of worship in Colombo, the capital, in 2019. It was unfortunate but it was also a rare incident, and security efforts have increased since the deadly event.
Terrorism is a risk though, and if incidents happen then they are most likely to be carried out in Colombo, and in public, crowded places. If you are worried, then stay away from these areas and also avoid major international hotel chains and restaurants.
Until just a decade ago, Sri Lanka was still technically at war. It was only in 2009 that the conflict with the Tamil Tigers finally came to a close after 30 years of fighting. The conflict was mostly restricted to the north of the country. While fighting has stopped, the region is still recovering. Many landmines are still being cleared, and travellers should be wary of any protests or political tensions that could lead to renewed violence if they plan on visiting the north coast.
It’s a good idea to check exactly what your insurance covers in Sri Lanka, on the rare chance that you are caught up in a political or terrorist incident.
Family Travel Safety (Sri Lanka with Kids)
Sri Lanka is an adventurous destination to take the kids, but with a bit of forward planning and patience, it doesn’t need to be a challenge. Children will love the safaris, the beaches and the unique atmosphere that Sri Lanka offers.
Of course, it’s important to keep young kids close to you at all times, especially in busy and chaotic city streets and markets. Remember also that public transport is going to be crowded and uncomfortable. For a smoother holiday, you might want to consider hiring a driver or joining a tour.
Always make sure that you take out family travel insurance, just in case anything happens while you’re on the road with your kids.
Family Travel Safety (Sri Lanka for Women)
Women have more to worry about in Sri Lankan than male travellers. While incidents against female travellers are rare, admittedly they can and do happen.
Sri Lanka is a very male-dominated society and women are unfortunately likely to experience harassment, however mild. Catcalling can be common, and Sri Lankan men will commonly see western female tourists as an easy target for approaches, due to societal differences.
Women need to be careful in bars, because drink spiking can happen and harassment can occur late at night. Travelling in a group can alleviate these worries, however many women still travel solo and won’t have trouble.
Tips for Staying Safe in Sri Lanka
Buy the Right Insurance
Always make sure that you’re covered for the activities you’re planning to do in Sri Lanka. You can take out a wide range of insurance policies, but pick the best policy based on what you are doing and how much cover you need.
Certain activities such as hiking or scuba diving might need higher levels of cover, while cheaper policies will leave you with a higher excess to pay in the event of an emergency. In any case, when it comes to insurance you’re always better off having more cover than less, so you’re not left short-handed if disaster strikes.
Learn the Language and Customs
Sri Lanka is a surprisingly diverse country, given how compact the island is, and there are multiple languages, ethnicities and religions found in each region. Learn a little of the local customs and history, and be sensitive to people’s beliefs, be they religious or political, because events such as the civil war are still fresh in memory.
It’s never a bad thing to try and learn a little of the language either. While English is common across the country – a throwback to colonial days – learning a few basic phrases of Sinhala or Tamil can help immensely if you’re travelling off the beaten track.
One of the most popular reasons to visit Sri Lanka is for the incredible array of wildlife found all over the country. This is one of the most biodiverse countries in Asia, and you can find everything from elephants and leopards to sloths and whales.
Seeing wildlife often involves going on safari. To stay safe in Sri Lanka, it’s important to be aware of the dangers that the animals can pose to tourists, and the dangers that humans pose to wildlife. Always be respectful of Sri Lanka’s wildlife and ecosystems, travel sustainably where you can and never get too close to the animals. And watch out for crocodiles in the rivers!
If you’re travelling to Sri Lanka, then stay safe and keep covered in the event of an accident by taking out a comprehensive travel insurance policy with Navigator Travel Insurance.