What makes Sri Lanka a unique country to travel to?
Sri Lanka is a presidential parliamentary democracy with a developing economy. On May 18, 2009, more than 26 years of conflict ended with the Sri Lankan government defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). During the war, the LTTE had a history of attacks against civilians, though none were directed against U.S. citizens. There have been no terrorist attacks since the end of the conflict, and the government has authority throughout the island. The LTTE remains on the U.S. list of designated terrorist organizations.
Sri Lanka's beaches, hill country, and archeological sites attract visitors from around the world. Tourism increased in 2013 and is expected to rise further in the coming years. The capital city of Colombo, the Cultural Triangle (Dambulla, Anuradhapura, and Polonnaruwa), the cities of Kandy and Galle, and many southern beach towns have good tourist facilities, and the roads connecting many of those destinations are improving.
There is an elevated criminal threat in Sri Lanka. Most violent crime occurs within the local community. However, reports of violent crime, sexual assaults and harassment directed at foreigners have been increasing in recent months. Police response to assist victims can vary from a few minutes to hours, even in the tourist areas, and particularly in remote areas. In response to this rise in crime, the Sri Lankan government now requires that all foreign tourists provide their passport information to hotel staff when registering at local hotels and guest houses so that this data can be used by local law enforcement for the monitoring of foreign tourists.
Organized and armed gangs are known to operate in Sri Lanka and have been responsible for targeted kidnappings and violence, although there is no evidence to suggest that U.S. citizens are at particular risk. A British national was killed and a Russian national sexually assaulted and beaten during a violent attack by a gang in a tourist resort in the southern beach town of Tangalle in December 2011. The Sri Lankan justice system can be slower than in the United States and there are a number of outstanding cases of crimes against foreign nationals.
U.S. citizens are advised against travel on public buses in Sri Lanka, as passengers can be targets of criminal activity and bus drivers do not all obey driving regulations.
Travelers, especially women, should consider travelling with other people when possible. Western women continue to report incidents of verbal and physical harassment by groups of men. Such harassment can occur anytime or anywhere, but most frequently has taken place in crowded areas such as marketplaces, train stations, buses, public streets and sporting events. The harassment ranges from sexually suggestive or lewd comments to physical advances, and sexual assaults have occurred as well. While most victims of sexual assault have been local residents, an upswing in sexual attacks against female visitors in tourist areas in the southern beaches underlines the fact that foreign women should exercise vigilance.
Routine petty crime, especially thefts of personal property and pick-pocketing, is not uncommon if the traveler does not take appropriate safeguards. Cell phone theft is the most frequently reported crime against foreigners. Street hustlers or “touts” are common around hotels, shopping centers, and tourist sites. Credit card fraud is frequent and can happen in any establishment, or when paying online. Sri Lankan law enforcement personnel recently uncovered a foreign ring of criminals who were using “false fronts’” and “pen camera devices” to clone bank cards and steal personal identification numbers at ATM machines in Sri Lanka. Travelers should consider paying in cash whenever possible, and should carefully review billing statements to ensure that purchases displayed on their credit card statements are accurate. Consultation with personal credit card security advisors is encouraged for travelers to develop a protection plan that is best for your travel to Sri Lanka.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal in the United States, if you purchase them you may also be breaking local law.
While you are traveling in Sri Lanka, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different from our own. In places like military checkpoints, you may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport with you. In some places, it is illegal to take pictures of certain buildings. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit but still illegal in the United States, and you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States. If you break local laws in Sri Lanka, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution. It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not where you are going.
Persons violating Sri Lankan laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned. Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Sri Lanka are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. Under the Cultural Prosperity Act and the Antiques Ordinance, the unlicensed export of antiques from the country is considered a criminal act.
While some countries will automatically notify the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate if a U.S. citizen is detained or arrested in a foreign country, that might not always be the case. To ensure that the United States is aware of your circumstances, request that the police and prison officials notify the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate as soon as you are arrested or detained overseas.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
There are six large hospitals in the Colombo area, including three facilities with emergency trauma service: Asiri Surgical Hospital, Lanka Hospital, and the government-run National Hospital. Medical facilities outside Colombo are limited. The U.S. Embassy maintains a list of private physicians that may be obtained upon request. The availability of medical supplies is uneven; as a result, travelers should carry any special medications with them. Serious medical conditions do require evacuation to the United States or to a nearby country with more advanced medical facilities, such as Thailand or Singapore. Neither Thailand nor Singapore requires U.S. citizens to have entry visas.
Several mosquito-borne diseases, including dengue fever, chikungunya, and Japanese encephalitis are present in Sri Lanka. Adequate mosquito protection is strongly advised.
Safety and Security
Newspapers and other sources report ongoing criminal activity around the country, including murder and kidnapping. Most violent crime occurs within the local community, although reports of violent crime and sexual assaults directed at foreigners have been increasing.
The Sri Lankan military continues to maintain a heavy presence in the north, and military roadblocks and checkpoints are commonly encountered when traveling in this region.
Although the government and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) continue operations to locate and dispose of landmines in the north, a number of areas are still mined. Landmines and unexploded ordnance are found in parts of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, especially in the areas north of Vavuniya, including the areas of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaittivu, Mannar and Puthukudiyiruppu (PTK). A map of the affected areas is available. Travelers in these areas should stay on main, heavily traveled roads, and never walk in forested or agricultural areas or in abandoned properties. Travelers should make themselves aware of, and able to recognize and avoid, any area cordoned off for landmine clearance. Travelers should not touch anything that resembles a landmine or unexploded ordnance and should notify local police if they see something that resembles a landmine.
U.S. citizens living or traveling in Sri Lanka should be aware of their personal surroundings and follow prudent security practices. You should avoid political rallies, military bases, military or police convoys, and closed areas of high security zones.
Demonstrations at or near Western embassies and international organizations are not uncommon. There have been recent demonstrations against the United States and United Nations. Some have been large, and on occasion they have become violent. Given the unpredictability of demonstrations, U.S. citizens are urged to exercise caution when demonstrations are announced or reported, and avoid areas where demonstrations are occurring or crowds are forming. Demonstrations can occur with little or no advance notice. U.S. citizens are urged to consult media sources and the U.S. Embassy website for current security information and to enroll with the Embassy to receive e-mail messages or cellular phone short message service (SMS) texts about impending demonstrations in Colombo.
U.S. citizens are encouraged to always carry their U.S. passports while in Sri Lanka. U.S. citizens of Sri Lankan origin may be subject to additional scrutiny upon arrival and while in the country. The activities of visiting journalists, researchers, aid workers, and volunteers may also receive particular attention.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in Sri Lanka, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. Vehicular traffic in Sri Lanka moves on the left (British style). Traffic in Colombo can be congested. Narrow two-lane highways, overloaded trucks, poorly driven buses, and a variety of conveyances on the road, ranging from ox carts and bicycles to new four-wheel-drive vehicles, make driving dangerous. Unexpected road blocks and one-way streets are common and may not be clearly marked. Many visitors hire cars and drivers for long trips through the country. Individuals who choose to hire three-wheeled vehicles (“tuks” or “three wheelers”) should use metered vehicles or negotiate prices beforehand to avoid confrontations upon arrival. If you are renting a vehicle, you should specifically request one with working seatbelts.