Sri Lanka travel advice: When might the Foreign Office deem it safe again?

Hugh Morris
The Foreign Office has advised against

Fresh violence in Sri Lanka has led the Foreign Office to update its advice on travel to the country, again. It warns anyone on the island to keep a low profile and remain vigilant.

Anti-muslim riots, in which mosques and Muslim-owned businesses were targeted, took place on May 13, weeks after the Easter Sunday bombings that killed more than 250 people. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

The mob activity led the Sri Lankan government to impose a country-wide curfew as well as blocking access to social media sites and messaging service Whatsapp. The curfew was lifted on Tuesday but remained in place in the north west of the island until further notice.

The Foreign Office (FCO) changed its overall guidance on visiting Sri Lanka last month, advising against all but essential travel. It said anyone there should “remain vigilant, keep up to date with developments and follow the advice of local security authorities and hotel security staff”, adding that travellers should “keep a low profile, avoid crowded public places, large gatherings and any demonstrations”.

Should I cancel my holiday?

It has now been more than three weeks since the bombing attack on three churches and three hotels, so anyone booked to travel should have been contacted by their tour operator.

Abta, the travel association, said in response to the Foreign Office travel restrictions that anyone due to travel imminently will be offered options to defer their travel, transfer to another destination or a full refund.

“Customers who have booked independently will need to discuss their options with their airline and accommodation provider,” it said.

In terms of refunds and expenses incurred, the Association of British Insurers said: "Travel insurance is designed to cover unforeseen events like this. Cancellation cover under your travel insurance should cover additional costs that cannot be refunded by your travel provider."

"If you are currently in Sri Lanka and want to curtail your visit and return early, your travel insurance should cover any extra costs associated with rearranging return flights. Check if you have the necessary cover in place or speak to your travel insurer."

Those who have not booked with a tour operator should contact their airline and accommodation separately for their cancellation policies. Some companies may be sympathetic and allow you to postpone your plans but many are unlikely to offer a refund.

Tea terraces is one of the country's draws Credit: istock

How long will it be until we can return to Sri Lanka?

There is no way of knowing how long the Foreign Office will advise against travel. However, a travel security specialist told Telegraph Travel that Sri Lanka faces an extended spell out of bounds for British tourists.

Lloyd Figgins, chairman of travel risk association Trip, said the decision will likely have a long-term impact. “I do think that the British Government and diplomats within Sri Lanka have received intelligence so significant to initiate this change in the advice,” he said. “Governments do not change advice lightly.”

“There are a number of different considerations that go into it, including things like trade and diplomatic relationships. They would never take this change lightly. It goes to show that Sri Lanka has deeper problems."

The FCO will now keep a close eye on the situation in Sri Lanka and assess regularly whether or not to re-open the country to travellers. As it stands, anyone who travels to Sri Lanka against the guidance will need specialist insurance cover.

“The threshold that needs to be crossed [for the guidance to be changed back] is that Sri Lanka needs to be able to demonstrate to the outside world that it has the situation under control,” said Figgins. “And until it can do that to the satisfaction of Western governments then this advice is going to remain in place.

“The last thing any government will want to do is to change their advice and then have their citizens involved in another situation.”

FCO restrictions can remain in place for years, as experienced by Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt after the downing of MetroJet Flight 9268 in 2015. Restrictions are still active. Tunisia waited for two years after the Sousse terror attack in 2015 to have the FCO allow the return of British holidaymakers.

Have flights been affected?

Flights are still operating in and out of Bandaranaike International. However, security has been stepped up at the airport. SriLankan, the country's flag carrier, is still operating its direct route between Colombo and London Heathrow.

For those planning to fly home, a statement from the airport near the capital, Colombo, advised passengers to arrive at least four hours before departure to allow for the additional security measures.

SriLankan said passengers should be able to reach the airport during the government-imposed curfew by producing their tickets and passports to security forces at checkpoints.

The airline said it wanted to thank its “friends and supporters across the world, who expressed solidarity, sympathy and words of courage in this hour of grief and despair”.

Fisherman at dusk in Galle Credit: istock

What is the full Foreign Office advice?

The FCO says it advises against “all but essential travel… due to the current evolving security situation following attacks on April 21”, but says the advice does not apply to anyone transiting through Colombo airport, providing passengers remain airside.

It says terrorists are “very likely to try to carry out attacks in Sri Lanka”. “Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners,” it says.

“Security has been stepped up across the island and a State of Emergency remains in place. The Sri Lankan authorities have made a number of arrests in relation to the attacks, and security operations are ongoing, including controlled explosions of suspicious packages and vehicles, and temporary evacuations of buildings.

“The authorities have also announced emergency regulations that, until further notice, ban the wearing of clothing or objects that conceal the face in such a way that prevents the wearer’s identification.”

What should you do if you are in Sri Lanka?

The FCO says you should keep in regular contact with your airline, tour operator and travel insurance company. It also advises being in touch with friends and family so they are aware of your plans.

If you choose to remain in the country, you should check the cover provided by your insurers. Foreign Office advice against travel to a destination often invalidates cover.

“You should ensure you have confirmed, pre-arranged travel plans in place before leaving your accommodation for the airport,” it says.

Will the travel restriction hurt tourism in Sri Lanka?

That is the concern. The country has seen a boom in arrivals after its 26-year civil war ended in 2009, with visitors numbers rising from 439,475 in 2008 to 2.3million last year. Much of the north of Sri Lanka has only recently been opened up to tourism.

From the beginning of May the country was to offer visa-free travel to British passport holders as part of a drive to bolster further its tourism industry, between May and October. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, one in five jobs on the island is created by tourism, and 12.5 per cent of GDP.

In response to the travel restrictions, the island’s tourism industry has launched the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance and its hashtag, #lovesrilanka, to keep travellers up to date with the latest news and encourage tourists to postpone their trips - rather than cancel.

Emma Boyle, Telegraph Travel’s Sri Lanka expert, said that a number of hotels had altered their policies to allow last-minute cancellations so that people might keep their bookings in the hope the FCO guidance changes.

“So many people in Sri Lanka depend on tourism (as many as one in 10 families) and everywhere is extremely quiet right now with many hoteliers, small travel companies, drivers, restaurant owners etc, all wondering what to do,” she said.

“Hotels are on sale too with many offering discounts until December while the main sites and national parks are mostly deserted.”