Crime and personal safety tips Sri Lanka

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Is Sri Lanka a safe country to visit?

The most recent terrorist attacks in 2019 led to governments advising against travel to Sri Lanka. The British Foreign Office has since lifted this warning but cautions visitors to Sri Lanka to be vigilant, especially in crowded areas.

No LTTE attacks have been reported since the end of the civil war in 2009. Landmines and UXO (unexploded ordnance) pose a slight risk in remote areas of the north and east but are being steadily cleared.

Until these terrorist attacks, Sri Lanka was a remarkably safe place to travel in, and violent crime against foreigners was virtually unheard of. This is still a place where, despite 25 years of brutal civil war, the theft of two bicycles can be considered a crime wave.

Travel advisories

For current information on the security situation in Sri Lanka, visit one of the sites listed below:

  • Australian Department of Foreign Affairs: dfat.gov.au
  • British Foreign & Commonwealth Office: gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice
  • New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs: mfat.govt.nz
  • US State Department: travel.state.gov

Petty theft and muggings

Petty theft is less common than in many other parts of Asia (and rarer than in most European and American cities), though you should still take sensible care of your belongings. 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 safe, and it’s sensible to do so when you can.

In addition, make sure you keep 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 taking a photocopy of the pages from your passport that contain your personal details.

Muggings are very rare, though single travellers (especially women) should avoid dark beaches late at night – Negombo and Hikkaduwa have particularly bad reputations.

If you do experience crime in Sri Lanka, report it to the police. If you have anything stolen, there’s little chance the police 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 (even at so-called “tourist police” stations), you might try to get someone from your guesthouse to come along as an interpreter. The process of reporting a crime is usually a laborious affair, with much checking of papers and filling in of forms.

Dangers of wildlife

Wildlife doesn’t normally pose a threat – although the death in 2017 of British journalist Paul McClean as a result of a crocodile attack in Arugam Bay was a tragic reminder of the potential risks posed by native fauna. Also Sri Lanka is home to five species of poisonous snake, so if you are bitten by a snake, seek medical help immediately. Wear sturdy footwear, socks and long trousers if walking through heavy undergrowth.

Read more about potential dangers posed by wildlife on our health page.

Traffic danger

An altogether more prosaic but much more serious source of danger in Sri Lanka is traffic. As a pedestrian you’re at the very bottom of the food chain in the dog-eat-dog world of Sri Lankan road use – some bus drivers are particularly psychotic.

Danger of drowning

After road accidents, drowning is the second most common cause of accidental death among tourists in Sri Lanka. Currents can be strong and beaches may shelve off into deep waters with unexpected steepness – and there are no lifeguards to come and pull you out if you get into trouble. Always ask local advice before venturing into the water anywhere that is obviously not a recognized swimming spot. 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 – newspaper stories of locals washed out to sea after too many bottles of arrack are an almost weekly occurrence.

Scams and hassles

Sri Lanka used to be awash with con artists and petty scams of all sorts – particularly common around the lake in Kandy, in Galle Fort and, especially, on Colombo’s Galle Face Green. Mercifully these lowlife have now largely disappeared – although it’s still worth being on your guard if a plausible stranger approaches offering to ship you a parcel of free tea or to take you to a special “elephant festival” which has suddenly materialized somewhere in the neighbourhood.

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