Safety and security
Violent crimes against foreigners are infrequent, although there have been an increasing number of reports of sexual offences including on minors. When travelling around Sri Lanka, you should make arrangements through reputable travel companies and take care.
Western women continue to report incidents of verbal and physical harassment by groups of men. Such harassment- ranging from sexually suggestive or lewd comments to physical advances and sexual assaults - can occur any time or anywhere, but most frequently has taken place in crowded areas such as market places, railway stations, buses, public streets and sporting events. There has been an increase in sexual attacks against females in tourist areas. There have been reports of drinks being spiked with drugs in bars and restaurants in southern beach resorts. Be careful about taking drinks from strangers at bars and restaurants, and don’t leave drinks unattended. Women should take particular care when travelling alone or in small groups, and carry a personal alarm.
Credit card fraud is a risk for visitors. Use cash wherever possible and only use ATMs attached to banks or major hotels. Don’t lose sight of your credit card if you use it. Some travelers experience problems using their cards on arrival in Sri Lanka when their banks’ automated fraud protection system blocks transactions. It may be possible to avoid this by informing your bank in advance of your intended travel arrangements. There are plenty of money-changers in tourist areas if you want to change cash.
There have been reports of thefts from hotels and guesthouses. You should take precautions to safeguard your valuables, especially passports and money.
Organised and armed gangs are known to operate in Sri Lanka and have been responsible for targeted kidnappings and violence. While there is no evidence to suggest that British nationals are at particular risk, gangs have been known to operate in tourist areas. A British national was killed during a violent attack by a gang in a tourist resort in December 2011.
The Sri Lankan justice system can be very slow.
The FCO can’t offer advice on the safety of every individual airline, but the International Air Transport Association (IATA) publishes a list of registered airlines that have been audited and found to meet a number of operational safety standards and recommended practices. This list is not exhaustive and the absence of an airline from this list doesn’t necessarily mean that it is unsafe.
Local travel - North
Foreign passport holders planning to travel to the north no longer need approval from the Ministry of Defence.
Military activities are ongoing. You should obey orders from the security forces and signs warning of the danger from land-mines.
Foreign media crews will still need prior permission to travel to the Northern Province. Travellers to the north may also encounter further restrictions, including around military establishments and areas where demining operations continue. For more information about the accessibility of a particular area, contact the Sri Lankan Military Liaison Officer on +94 11 2436 019.
Local travel - Jaffna Peninsula
There is free movement everywhere outside High Security Zones with fewer checkpoints around the Peninsula. Operations to clear mines continue, particularly in the heavily mined area towards Elephant Pass.
Local travel - Kilinochchi, Mullaittivu, Mannar and Vavuniya
There is a continued heavy military presence. It’s generally possible to move around freely, although some checkpoints remain (notably Omanthai). There was severe war damage to property throughout the northern region so accommodation options and infrastructure are limited. Some areas were heavily mined and operations to clear minefields continue. There are signs warning of mined areas and you should follow any local advice.
Local travel - East
Demining and weapons and ordnance clearance operations may still be ongoing in parts of the East. There are several areas, primarily former military and police locations that continue to be marked as minefields. Always obey orders from the security forces and look out for signs warning of landmines. Don’t leave the roads or cleared footpaths and, if in any doubt, contact the local security authorities for advice.
Many beaches in Sri Lanka have dangerous surf or rip tides at certain times of the year. Always take local advice before entering the sea. A number of foreign nationals drown every year.
You will need an International Driving Permit and a Sri Lankan recognition permit to drive in Sri Lanka. You can obtain a recognition permit at the AA in Colombo. A British driving licence on its own will not suffice. Always wear a seatbelt and make sure you’re insured.
Many roads, particularly outside the major towns are in a serious state of disrepair. Driving is erratic and there are frequent road accidents, particularly at night. Pedestrians and animals often appear in the road without warning. Vehicles don’t stop at pedestrian crossings. Riding a motorbike is particularly dangerous. If you have a collision, stay at the site of the accident with your vehicle as long as it is safe to do so. If it is not safe or if you feel threatened, report to the local police station.
Security checkpoints and roadblocks still occur in parts of the country. Take care when passing through them, and always obey the instructions of the police or army on duty. There have been cases where security forces have opened fire on vehicles that don’t stop when asked. Roads around Government and military sites in Colombo are regularly closed for security reasons (e.g. VIP convoys).
Buses are notorious for driving fast and rarely giving way. They are often poorly maintained. A number of serious bus accidents have occurred in recent years.
Taxis are inexpensive. Motorised rickshaws (tuk-tuks) are available for hire in towns and villages. Agree a price before you set off or look for one with a working meter. Most travellers report no difficulties, although there have been reports of harassment, particularly of lone female travellers at night. Change to a different rickshaw if you have any concerns about the driver or standard of driving.
There have been a number of fatal accidents when visitors have hung out of the open doorways or windows of trains. You should remember that there is a very real risk of death or serious injury if you do not stay within the train carriage while the train is not stopped at a station. Visitors should also be aware that there are reports of theft of travellers’ personal belongings during train journeys, including theft of briefly unattended belongings, or pick pocketing. Take care of your possessions at all times.
Entry into Sri Lankan waters, at any point, requires prior permission.
You should avoid the coastline and adjacent territorial sea of the Trincomalee, Mullaittivu, Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mannar administrative districts in the north and east, which have been declared restricted zones by the Sri Lankan authorities.
While there have been no successful piracy attacks since May 2012 off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden, the threat of piracy related activity and armed robbery in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean remains significant. Reports of attacks on local fishing dhows in the area around the Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa continue. The combined threat assessment of the international Naval Counter Piracy Forces remains that all sailing yachts under their own passage should remain out of the designated High Risk Area or face the risk of being hijacked and held hostage for ransom. For more information and advice, see our Piracy and armed robbery at sea page.
You should be aware that some wildlife can be dangerous. If in doubt follow advice from authorised guides or local authorities. Wild elephants and crocodiles in particular are generally treated with respect and caution by Sri Lankans, for good reason, as both will attack humans on occasion. Though not common in populated areas, venomous insects and snakes are found in many parts of the country. Feral dogs are common and sometimes carry rabies.
Political rallies and electoral periods in Sri Lanka have occasionally turned violent. You should avoid any political gathering or rally and be wary of spontaneous large gatherings. Carry a form of official photographic identification with you at all times. You should follow local news closely in case a curfew or other restrictions are announced.
Since the end of the military conflict in May 2009, there has been an increase in nationalism including at times anti-western rhetoric. In the past, there have been protests against the British High Commission and other diplomatic premises. Although no protests have so far been directed at the British community more generally, you should be vigilant and avoid demonstrations.
Avoid military bases and buildings, which were the most frequent target of attacks and which now maintain high security in many districts in the north and east.