Rampant inflation over recent years means that Sri Lanka is no longer the bargain it once was, although prices remain comparable to other places in South and Southeast Asia. How much you spend is entirely up to you. Stay on the beach in a cheap cabana and eat meals in budget cafés and you could probably get by on $20 (£12.50) per person per day, travelling as a couple or larger group. Check into one of the island’s top hotels or villas, however, and then add in the cost of touring with your own car and driver, and you could easily spend $500 a day, or more.
If you’re on a budget, Sri Lanka can still be fairly inexpensive, so long as you stick to using local transport and staying in cheap guesthouses – you can still travel by bus from one end of the island to the other for around $20, get a filling meal at local cafés for a couple of dollars, and find a decent double room for $20 per night or less. Taking a tour or renting a vehicle will obviously bump costs up considerably – a car and driver normally goes for around $55–70 (£35–45) a day. Entrance fees for archeological sites and national parks can also strain tight budgets – a day-ticket to Sigiriya, for example, currently costs $30, while the cost of visiting the country’s national parks works out at somewhere around $80 per couple per day once you’ve factored in entrance fees and transport.
Note that some hotels and restaurants levy a ten percent service charge, while various government taxes also apply, although no two places seem to calculate them the same way: some places include all taxes in the quoted priced (the so-called “nett” rate), others charge one or more taxes separately. These taxes include twelve percent VAT, a one percent Tourist Development Tax, and a two percent “Nation-Building Tax” in more upmarket hotels. It’s always worth checking beforehand what is and isn’t included – the extra twenty-five percent added at a top hotel can add a nasty twist to the bill if you’re not expecting it.
Another thing to bear in mind is that many places on the island apply official tourist prices. At all national parks and reserves, and at government-run archeological sites, the authorities operate a two-tier price system whereby foreigners pay a significantly higher entrance fee than locals, sometimes almost a hundred times more than Sri Lankan nationals. At the national parks, for example, locals pay an entrance fee of around 25 cents, while overseas visitors pay around $25 once various taxes and additional charges have been taken into account. A similar situation obtains at the sites of the Cultural Triangle – at Anuradhapura, for instance, foreigners pay $25, while locals pay nothing. This makes visiting many of Sri Lanka’s biggest sights a pricier prospect than in other parts of the subcontinent, a fact of life that many visitors grumble about – although the most vociferous critics are local Sri Lankan hoteliers, drivers and others involved in the tourist trade, who have seen their businesses suffer as many visitors vote with their feet and stay on the beach.
As a tourist, you’re likely to pay slightly over the odds for a range of things, from rickshaw rides to market groceries. It’s worth remembering, however, that many prices in Sri Lanka are inherently fluid – there’s often no such thing as a “correct price”, only a “best price”. Many hoteliers, for instance, chop and change their prices according to demand, while the price of anything from a tuktuk ride to an elephant carving may depend on anything from the time of day to the weather or the mood of the seller. Given this, it’s always worth bargaining. The key to effective bargaining here (as throughout South Asia) is to retain a sense of humour and proportion. There is nothing more ridiculous – or more damaging for local perceptions of foreign visitors – than the sight of a Western tourist arguing bitterly over the final few rupees of a budget room or an item of shopping. The fact is that even the most cash-strapped Western backpacker is, in Sri Lankan terms, extremely rich, as their very presence in the country proves. And however tight one’s budget, it’s important to realize the difference that even a few rupees can make to a guesthouse owner who is struggling by on a handful of dollars a day.
On the other hand, it’s also important not to be outrageously overcharged. Visitors who lack a sense of local prices and pay whatever they’re asked contribute to local inflation, pushing up prices both for other tourists and (more importantly) for locals – the implications of just one tourist paying $10 for a tuktuk ride that should cost $1 can have serious implications for the local economy.
Tipping is a way of life in Sri Lanka – visitors will generally be expected to offer some kind of remuneration for most services, even on top of agreed fees, and the whole business of what to give and to whom can be a bit of a minefield. Many hotels and restaurants add a ten percent service charge to the bill, although it’s worth bearing in mind that the staff who have served you won’t necessarily see any of this money themselves. If a service charge hasn’t been added, a tip won’t necessarily be expected, although it is of course always appreciated. If you tour the island by car, your driver will expect a tip of around $5–10 per day, depending on his level of expertise, though you shouldn’t feel obliged to give anything unless you’re genuinely pleased with the service you’ve received (and if you’re not happy, it’s well worth explaining why). If touring a site with an official guide, you should always agree a fee in advance; additional tips should only be offered if you’re particularly pleased with the service. When visiting temples, you’ll probably be shown around by a resident monk or priest; it’s polite to offer them something at the end of the tour – some will take this money themselves (despite the fact that Buddhist monks aren’t meant to handle money); others will prefer you to place it in a donation box. Whatever happens, a dollar or two should suffice. Occasionally, unofficial “guides” (usually bored teenagers or other local hangers-on) will materialize to show you around temples – and will of course expect a tip for their troubles. Again, a dollar or two is almost certainly sufficient. Anyone else who assists you will probably welcome some kind of gratuity, though of course it’s impossible to generalize and visitors will have to make (sometimes difficult) decisions about whether to offer money or not.