OLD Sri Lanka travel advice: How has guidance changed and is it safe for holidaymakers amid protests?

·5-min read

Violent protests have been staged in Sri Lanka as the country faces an economic crisis.

In late July, the Foreign Office (FCDO) updated its guidance on the southeast Asian nation, causing at least one tour operator to cancel its Sri Lanka holidays in the coming weeks.

Angry clashes between protesters and authorities have led to some locals being injured or killed; meanwhile the country is seeing a shortage of essentials such as medicines, fuel and food.

Last week, a Scottish national had her passport seized by Sri Lankan authorities after campaigning for local activists on the island.

So what are the latest rules and are holidaymakers safe to travel there? Here’s everything we know so far.

What is happening in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka has been gripped by protests for nearly five months, which have spread from the capital to the countryside. They’re in response to critical shortages of fuel, cooking gas and medicine, alongside rolling power cuts. Locals have been queuing for hours to buy essentials.

A state of emergency was declared on 6 May; on 10 May, protesters set fire to homes and businesses belonging to ruling party lawmakers and politicians. Eight people died in the unrest and more than 200 were injured, according to local police.

The violent clashes led to the resignation of the prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, on 9 May. Along with his brother, the president, Mr Rajapaksa has been blamed by many for plunging the country into its worst economic crisis in decades.

Sri Lanka’s new president Ranil Wickremesinghe, then prime minister, said last month that the island nation’s debt-laden economy had “collapsed” as it runs out of money to pay for food and fuel.

At least 75 people were injured in mid-July during protests in Colombo, after authorities used tear gas and protesters sustained injuries trying to access the prime minister’s office.

Mr Wickremesinghe renewed the country’s state of emergency when he took power on 21 July, saying it was “in the interest of public security”.

A state of emergency allows troops to arrest and detain suspects, and the president to make regulations overriding existing laws to deal with any unrest.

Last week, one Scottish national, Kayleigh Fraser, told reporters her passport had been seized by authorities after she campaigned for local activists on the island.

Are holidays being cancelled?

British package holiday company Tui began cancelling its holidays to Sri Lanka back in May, and last week cancelled all departures up to and including 22 August. A Tui spokesperson told The Independent that all holidaymakers travelling with the company have now returned home. Watch its Travel Alerts section online for the latest updates.

A spokesperson for tour operator Kuoni told The Independent that its teams are currently calling customers with holidays booked up to mid-September to offer them the chance to amend their trip to alternative dates, or destinations, or to cancel the trip with a refund.

“At the moment around 60-70 per cent of people are opting to amend dates or change destination rather than cancel. We remain in close contact with our partners on the ground in Sri Lanka. We will review and extend our policy for amendments or cancellations as needed alongside the latest advice,” they said.

Some other tour operators have amended their itineraries in recent months to avoid affected areas of the island. However, the key thing to be aware of is the impact of Foreign Office advice on holiday bookings...

What does the Foreign Office say?

The 22 July update reads: “The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) advises against all but essential travel to Sri Lanka, due to the impact of the current economic crisis. This advice does not apply to airside transit through Sri Lanka’s international airport.

“A State of Emergency is currently in place. There have been incidents involving violence against peaceful protestors in recent months, resulting in injuries and loss of life. Security authorities have used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protestors.

“Protests, demonstrations, roadblocks and violent unrest could occur at short notice. Curfews and emergency regulations may be imposed.

“Sri Lanka is experiencing a severe economic crisis which has led to shortages of basic necessities including medicines, cooking gas, fuel and food. There is a major shortage of fuel (diesel and petrol) affecting transport, businesses, and emergency services.

“There are long queues at fuel stations (sometimes over 24 hours). There are daily power cuts due to electricity rationing. Hospitals and other medical services may be affected by shortages, including fuel shortages for ambulances. It is more important than ever to get travel insurance and check it provides sufficient cover.”

Are holidaymakers subject to curfew?

No. The last curfew was imposed on the island’s western province from 13-15 July. However, the FCDO warns: “curfews and emergency regulations may be imposed” at short notice.

When a government-imposed curfew is in place, holidaymakers can still leave the country at any time. The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority has confirmed that international travellers can show their passports and airline tickets to travel to and from the airport during a curfew.

Can I cancel my holiday to Sri Lanka?

The Foreign Office (FCDO) updated its travel advice for Sri Lanka on 22 July, and now advises against all but essential travel to the country.

This is important for two reasons: firstly, package holiday companies should refund you for your trip under the Package Travel Regulations, with a refund issued within 14 days even if they themselves have not cancelled the holiday. This doesn’t cover trips with flights and accommodation booked separately, though you could try asking for a refund.

Secondly, “all but essential travel” FCDO advice invalidates most travel insurance policies, with a few exceptions.

Do note that the “all but essential travel” advice does not apply to those passing through Sri Lanka in transit (i.e. connecting flights) - according to the FCDO, travellers should have no problem doing so.

What should Britons do if they are currently in the country?

The Foreign Office advises: “If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission.”