Is it safe to travel to Sri Lanka? The economic crisis and its fallout on tourism

A spiralling economic crisis and the declaration of an emergency has led countries like the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada to issue travel advisories, urging for caution. While India hasn’t issued one yet, the number of flights have been reduced

With its pristine beaches, coconut palm-lined beaches and exotic wildlife, Sri Lanka has always been a huge tourist attraction. However, the economic crisis has made people rethink their decision to travel to the island nation.

Over the past few days, countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia have issued detailed travel advisories. All three countries have said that a “high degree of caution” has to be exercised before visiting the country.

What’s going on in Sri Lanka? Is it safe to travel to the island nation as of now? We answer these questions and much more.

Shortages and blackouts in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is battling its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948. A severe shortage of foreign currency has left President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government unable to pay for essential imports, including fuel, leading to debilitating power cuts lasting up to 13 hours. Ordinary Sri Lankans are also dealing with shortages and soaring inflation.

Also read: Timeline | Sri Lanka’s economic crisis was in the making from November 2019

An India Today report said that the prices of vegetables had doubled in recent weeks, whereas staples such as wheat and rice were being sold for Rs 220 per kg and Rs 190 per kg, respectively.

A kg of sugar costs Rs 240, while coconut oil is being sold for a whopping Rs 850 per litre. A single egg is priced at Rs 30. More unbelievably, one kg pack of milk powder costs Rs 1,900.

The island nation’s retail inflation already touched 17.5 per cent in February and food inflation has soared to over 25 per cent, leading to highly inflated cereal and food prices. There is also an acute shortage of medicines and milk powder.

Public anger on the streets

The rising costs of everyday staples and essential items, coupled with the 13-hour-long power outages have left Sri Lankans anguished.

Last Thursday night, Sri Lankans tried to storm President Rajapaksa’s house, leading to violence breaking out between the locals and the police. The violence saw policemen being injured as well as the burning of two military buses, a police jeep and other vehicles, and threw bricks at officers.

Following the protests, the Lankan president declared a state of emergency, which will only lapse next week.

AFP reported that soldiers armed with automatic assault rifles have been deployed for crowd control at fuel stations and elsewhere when the emergency was invoked.

Protesters hold flares during a demonstration against the surge in prices and shortage of fuel and other essential commodities at the entrance of the president’s office in Colombo. AFP

Tourism matters

Sri Lanka’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism. Tourism accounts for about five per cent of Sri Lanka’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with Britain, India and China being the main markets.

It is clear that tourists would help the crisis-hit country with their problem of foreign exchange, but the effects of the crisis, along with the violence and imposition of emergency are putting in jeopardy the industry that is a key element of any possible solution.

A hostel owner, Dilip Sandaruwan, was quoted as telling AFP, “Because of the power cuts, we can’t serve our customers. They’re not satisfied and they’re asking for lower prices.”

The fuel shortages is also making it harder to move around the country, with long lines of motorbike taxis snarled outside service stations waiting for scarce petrol.

A ban on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook on 3 April by the Lankan authorities is also making tourists uneasy and worried about the future of the State.

Is it safe to travel to Sri Lanka The economic crisis and its fallout on tourism

A tourist sits in a restaurant during a power outage in Mirissa, Sri Lanka. AFP

Travel advisories issued

The British government issued an advisory, stating that the economic situation is deteriorating in Sri Lanka with shortages of basic necessities such as medicines, fuel and food because of a shortage of hard currency to pay for imports.

“There may be long queues at grocery stores, gas stations, and pharmacies. Local authorities may impose the rationing of electricity, resulting in power outages,” the advisory said.

Canada also advised its citizens to keep supplies of food, water and fuel in hand in case of lengthy disruptions and to make sure to have sufficient supply of medicines in hand as they may not be available and monitor local media for the latest developments.

Australia has also issued a similar advisory, asking its citizens to stay alert and avoid demonstrations and events that draw large groups.

What about India?

While India has not issued any specific advisory as of date, it has cut down the number of flights between India and Colombo. Prior to the violence in Sri Lanka, Air India had 16 weekly flights, which has now come down to 13.

Indigo also stated that they were witnessing lower bookings to Colombo due to the ongoing crisis. “We are continuously monitoring the impact and may take appropriate action to adjust the capacity based on the demand and situation in Sri Lanka,” it said in a statement.

Travel operators in India are worried that deteriorating conditions in Sri Lanka will affect the flow of tourists and they are keeping track of the situation.

Rajesh Magow, co-founder and group CEO of MakeMyTrip, was quoted as telling Business Standard, “To ensure safety of travellers visiting Sri Lanka in the near future, our teams are working round-the-clock to keep them abreast of the latest developments including travel guidelines and standard travel protocols. We have also extended the option of a no-cost change of destination, depending on the travellers’ convenience.

With inputs from agencies

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