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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Helen Coffey and Lucy Thackray

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

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Following months of violent protests and a change of leader in Sri Lanka,the country’s economic crisis persists.

But this week the UK’s Foreign Office removed its “essential travel only” warning for the Indian Ocean island, in an update to the FCDO’s website on Friday 26 August.

The FCDO had previously changed its advice to “essential travel only” on 22 July, advising Britons against leisure travel to the economically-hit destination.

FCO advice had earlier been tightened in May 2022, amid the worst of the protests; with the change in advice causing some cancelled holidays and the invalidation of travellers’ insurance policies.

Sri Lanka has seen large-scale demonstrations since March, with locals clashing with police, as well as the removal of its former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, earlier this year.

Altercations 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.

The country’s present state of emergency is set to end on 27 August, with no announcement of an extension so far.

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 five months 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 initially 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 in July 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.

In early August, one Scottish national, Kayleigh Fraser, told reporters her passport had been seized by authorities after she campaigned for local activists on the island. The Foreign Office is understood to be assisting Ms Fraser in getting her document back. In mid-August, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court denied her application to extend her visa and stay in the country.

Are holidays being cancelled?

British package holiday company Tui began cancelling its holidays to Sri Lanka back in May, and at the end of July cancelled all departures up to and including 22 August. A Tui spokesperson told The Independent that all holidaymakers who had previously travelled with the company have now returned home; adding that its cancellations stand up until 11 September at present. Watch its Travel Alerts section online for the latest updates.

A spokesperson for tour operator Kuoni said: “Following the change to advice from FCDO allowing travel to resume, we will be delighted in offering passengers the opportunity once again to travel under this advice from 1 October.”

Meanwhile some local hotels and specialists say it’s a good time to come to the coasts and more remote parts of the island, with much of the country quiet with few tourists, and most instances of unrest concentrated in specific towns and cities.

Hiran Cooray, chairman of family-run, Sri-Lanka based group Jetwing Hotels, says: “We’ve been waiting anxiously till travel restrictions were removed and we are thankful. Sri Lanka has never been so ready to welcome British travellers.

“All hotels, attractions, transport options both private and public are operating normally. In many ways this is indeed the best time to visit Sri Lanka.”

Sam Clarke, the founder of Sri Lanka specialist Experience Travel Group, said: “We’re so pleased that the FCDO has lifted their advisory against travel to Sri Lanka today. While ETG travellers have visited Sri Lanka safely throughout the crisis, removing this remaining obstacle to travel will give the Sri Lankan economy a much-needed boost and give hope and purpose to the lives of so many Sri Lankans who depend on the tourist sector.

“We’re so pleased for our friends and colleagues in Sri Lanka and for all of our customers looking forward to trips over the coming months.”

What does the Foreign Office say?

On 26 August, the FCDO changed its travel advice for Sri Lanka, removing a warning to avoid “all but essential travel” to the island.

The advice still warns: “Sri Lanka is experiencing a severe economic crisis which has led to shortages of basic necessities including medicines, cooking gas, fuel and food. The major shortage of fuel (diesel and petrol) is affecting transport, businesses, and emergency services. Hospitals and other medical services such as ambulances may be affected by shortages. There are daily power cuts due to electricity rationing. It is more important than ever to get appropriate travel insurance and check it provides sufficient cover.

“A State of Emergency, currently in place, is due to expire on 27 August 2022. Protests about the economic situation, have led to violence against peaceful protesters in recent months, resulting in injuries and loss of life. Tear gas and water cannons have been used to disperse protesters. Protests, demonstrations, roadblocks and violent unrest could occur at short notice. Curfews and emergency regulations may also be imposed.”

The change to FCO advice means holiday insurance policies will stay valid and some travel companies may start to reinstate bookings to the country.

Are holidaymakers subject to curfew?

No. The last curfew was imposed on the island’s western province from 13-15 July. However, the FCDO has warned that “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?

Most travel companies offering holidays to Sri Lanka have implemented some flexibility for customers, offering alternative dates or destinations to those concerned about the situation in the country.

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

Britons currently travelling in Sri Lanka should not be affected by the change in advice, but should remain vigilant about avoiding local protests and gatherings.

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.”

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