Is Sri Lanka safe? If you’re wondering that then you’re almost certainly thinking about planning a trip to the fabled Teardrop of India. Before we delve in, let’s just say: Great choice! This island is a fantastic wonderworld of misty mountains, tea fields that stretch on as far as the eye can see, and golden beaches washed by perfect surf. You’re going to love it!
But what about the practical considerations of traveling in Sri Lanka? Is the island safe for visitors in 2022? What are the main risks for those entering and exiting the country, and is there anything that people should be aware of as they come to tour the religious relics of Kandy and the reefs of Arugam Bay?
Cue this guide. It will run through the major concerns and risks of holidays in Sri Lanka, outline the general level of safety on the island, and talk about some specific things you might want to think about before you get booking. Let’s go…
Is Sri Lanka safe for tourists?
Generally speaking, Sri Lanka is a very safe country to visit. It welcomes millions of travelers every year and most of those come and go without any problem at all.
Overall crime levels here are roughly in line with the United States, though Sri Lanka sees much lower instances of violent crime, has a slightly lower intentional homicide rate, and about a seventh of the overall assaults as in the stars and stripes, which is all good news.
There are some things worth bearing in mind, though. Sri Lanka has unique political problems with a big north-south divide between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. Up until just over a decade ago, that division actually saw the country embroiled in full-on civil war. On top of that, Sri Lanka has suffered terrible terrorist attacks in recent years, which have had a disastrous effect on the tourism industry.
It’s always important to do your own research and make sure you’re happy with the particular risks of any destination you go to. It’s also important to pay attention to Foreign Office (FCO) and State Department warnings about places – Sri Lanka is considered Level 3, mainly because there’s thought to be a heightened risk of terrorist attacks.
Overall, we can say that we’ve always felt safe in Sri Lanka. The main risks here are likely to be petty scams or traffic-related, although we try to stay alert to the political situation when we’re traveling the enticing Teardrop of India.
Terrorism in Sri Lanka
A coordinated series of terrorist attacks rocked Sri Lanka to the core back in 2019. It’s thought that they were perpetrated by members of extreme Islamist organizations with potential links to ISIS, so-called Islamic State.
What happened was pretty awful: Multiple bombs targeting luxury hotels and churches right across the island. Over 250 people were left dead, including a large contingent of international travelers.
We visited Sri Lanka later in 2019 and noticed a huge dip in visitor numbers. Hotel owners told us that was directly due to the terrorist attacks and that they expected fewer people to visit for at least a couple of years to come. That said, the Sri Lankan government has tightened its security in response to the bombings and you should notice more police presence in resorts and at key transport hubs like the airport.
However, there are still light FCO and State Department warnings in place for travelers going to Sri Lanka. The US government urges “increased caution” in the country due to the potential for terrorist attacks that can occur without warning, sometimes targeting travelers directly.
The political situation in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka saw some seriously dark days between 1983 and 2004, when the Sri Lankan Civil War wreaked havoc across the island. The conflict was between a Tamil (an ethnic group with close ties to south India) minority and the Sinhalese majority that largely ruled in the Sri Lankan government. It was a brutal and hard-fought war that went on for decades and still has repercussions on modern Sri Lankan society.
Thankfully, the civil strife is now all but over. There’s no longer any armed conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. Instead, the groups are fighting things out politically and with – mostly – peaceful demonstrations. What’s more, Sri Lanka has a stable and established government with its own democratic mandate.
Today, Sri Lanka is very far from the warzone that it was only a few decades back. In fact, many travelers complete whole holidays without even knowing what went on. That said, we’d still say it’s a good idea to avoid mass gatherings and protests and be extra wary in key Tamil areas like the east coast and the far north around Jaffna.
Dangerous animals in Sri Lanka
Yep, Sri Lanka has its fair share of dangerous animals. Snakes are the main culprit. In fact, the Teardrop of India sees a whopping 80,000 snakebite victims every year. That’s quite high, even for South Asia. However, the truth is that snakebites remain very rare in travelers, since they mainly happen in the more rural, mountainous parts of the island.
Here are just a few of the dangerous snakes in Sri Lanka to watch out for:
- King cobra – An iconic, and deadly, snake, that has the power to kill in under 12 hours.
- Russell’s viper – A formidable snake that kills loads of people every year in neighboring India.
- Ceylon krait – Sri Lanka’s krait is a very venomous snake that has a potent venom that can be fatal to humans.
Is Sri Lanka dangerous because of its snakes? It could be. Be sure you stick to marked paths when hiking and always be on the lookout for snakes crossing your route. Most dangerous snakes will prefer to avoid confrontation if given the choice, so try not to disturb them or present any aggression.
Is Sri Lanka safe for solo female travelers?
As with any destination, anywhere, it’s important to remember that there are some extra risks involved when traveling as a solo female. In Sri Lanka they are heightened when you visit more rural parts of the island, away from the major resorts and the bigger cities, especially in the north of the country.
That said, Sri Lanka is widely considered very safe for go-it-alone female backpackers and globetrotters. In fact, many of the main destinations have established themselves as yoga hotspots and surf schools with a particular focus on the female market. They offer same-sex dorm rooms and same-sex meditation and surf packages. If that’s the sort of thing you’re after, then be sure to check out places like Hiriketiya, Hikkaduwa, and Weligama.
Another thing to note: It’s relatively common for hotels and attractions to ban unmarried couples. Just don’t be surprised if you’re asked to prove that you’ve been hitched at check-in or when buying tickets for certain POIs.
Our top tips for staying safe in Sri Lanka
Here are just a few of our handy tips for staying safe while you hop between the beaches of the south coast, the surf breaks of Arugam Bay, and the misty hills of Ella…
- Steer clear of political marches and events – Although Sri Lanka is much more stable than it once was, there are still lasting political divisions in the country and we think it’s best to avoid any potential flashpoints if you can.
- Stick to marked paths and get a hiking guide – The wilder parts of the country with the best hiking in Sri Lanka are generally the places with the most snakebite risk, so always stick to marked routes and try to take a guide with you.
- Watch out on the roads – The roads are unquestionably one of the biggest dangers in Sri Lanka. Tuk-tuks hurtle this way and that and huge buses speed around bends. Don’t step out unless you’re absolutely certain it’s clear!
- Don’t drink the tap water – Some hotels might say that the tap water is safe to drink but it’s best to ignore that and only imbibe the bottled stuff. It’s cheap anyhow – about $0.40 a pop!
- Avoid alcohol shops – The only alcohol shops in Sri Lanka are the state-run ones. You can hardly miss them as they look more like jail cells on the street. We found these to be some of the sketchiest places on the island. It’s better to support local and buy from local bars.
- Protect against mozzies – Malaria isn’t a massive concern in Sri Lanka but other mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue fever can be.
- Get insurance – As always, insurance is a must for Sri Lanka. Make sure it covers what you’ll be doing – surfing, hiking.
Is Sri Lanka safe? Our conclusion
Is Sri Lanka safe? This stunning island is generally considered to be very safe indeed. In fact, tourism makes up a huge proportion of its GDP and millions of people come here and leave every year with nothing but good memories to show for it.
That said, there are certainly some things to be aware of. For one, Sri Lanka has a heightened risk of terrorist-related attacks, just as recent incidents in 2019 have shown. The country is also very divided politically, so you might want to avoid certain regions. We also think it’s wise to be wary of the local traffic, take precautions against mosquitos and snakes, and to dodge the local tap water.