After a series of terrorist attacks that devastated the country and shocked the world just a few weeks ago, and a UK foreign office ban on all but essential travel to the Indian Ocean Island, thousands of people are asking the question; is Sri Lanka safe to visit?
“The country is in a safe position right now.” said Sri Lanka’s President, Maithripala Sirisena in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday 7th May. He justified his assertion by adding that, “99% of the suspects in Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels have been arrested and their explosive materials seized, and it is safe for tourists to return.”
However, the answer is, of course, a lot more complicated than that.
Terrorist attacks, by their very nature, render a place unsafe to visit, by introducing an ever-present, widely felt fear of follow up attacks. This is how terrorism works, it uses randomly placed, brutal violence as a means to create terror and fear among the masses to achieve a religious or political aim. Attackers often hit places where feel generally feel safe, instilling a fear that was not previously present in their wake.
Rather than asking if Sri Lanka is ‘safe’, perhaps let’s examine terrorism as a risk relative to those we’ve been previously happy to accept.
As John Green of Sri Lanka Backpackers put it in a facebook post on the subject; “Backpackers are quite happy to hire scooters, go surfing, hang out of trains and use buses in Sri Lanka,” as they are all part of the experience but statistically, you are much more likely to die from one of these experiences, than a terrorist attack.
John goes on to suggest ignoring the advice from anyone who tells you Sri Lanka is completely safe to visit right now, as most peddling it will have a vested interest in you travelling to this beautiful island. The only person who can decide if it’s safe enough is you.
But before you make your decision, here’s some food for thought.
Have you experienced the magical waves in Indonesia any time since the 2002 bombings in Kuta, Bali? Indulged in traditional Tapas in Spain after the Madrid train bombings in 2004? Or done a yoga retreat in India after the Mumbai attacks in 2008? Or watched the Northern Lights in Norway any time after the shootings in July 22nd 2011?
The chances are, many of you will have answered yes to at least one of these. In 2001 (around) 5.1 million tourists entered Indonesia. In 2002, the year of the Kuta bombings, 5 million of you still ventured East to surf the perfect left-handers and that figure has steadily risen since, reaching an impressive 16 million by 2018.
Sri Lanka is a fragile country still recovering from one of the most bloody civil wars in recent history, which ended in 2009, having cost the lives of over 100,000 civilians and 50,000 soldiers. There was also a massive tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004, which killed over 30,000, ruining most of the south west, south and east coastlines. This latest tragedy completes the trifecta of devastation.
Sri Lanka needs tourism. These mindless attacks have not only killed hundreds of people but could also potentially take away the livelihoods of the thousands more who rely on our Western tourist dollar.
You may remember our feature on a hot young surfer from Sri Lanka called Lucky a couple of years back, who used to get paid less in a day than the cost of a block of wax. Well Sri Lanka’s rise in popularity among surfing tourists has seen him build a couple of flourishing businesses in the years since, enabling him to live his dream of surfing every day. And he’s a fully fledged ripper nowadays, getting props of pros like Felipe Toledo (whilst tearing Lakey’s to pieces). I asked him if he was worried about next season, he replied was a laugh and a wiggle of the head, before telling me he believed the cheaper flights would probably make it even busier.
He also asked me with a bit of a cheeky smile, how business was at our surf school in Cornwall after the London bombings in 2005. And his facetious question makes an important point. These attacks were in Colombo, the capital city and not in the small surf town of Weligama, which sits two and a half hours away.
Fawas Lafeer, who owns and runs SAFA Surf Camp in Arugam Bay is very aware that the current FCO travel advisory ban is bad for business and has written off May in terms of bookings, but he shares Lucky’s optimism for the future, seeing this as an opportunity to give his staff some time to “chill out” whilst enjoying the quieter waves at the Main Point. He’s sure that in a couple of months everything will be back to normal.
So the old English phrase ‘yesterday’s news, today’s chip paper’ or more aptly roti packaging, is the vibe on the ground out here and all of the locals I’ve been interacting with have been overwhelmingly friendly and eager to chat about life, my family, their families, my plans, my country and my impressions of Sri Lanka. When mentioned, the terrorist attacks are deemed a sad thing, done by bad people who don’t define Sri Lanka.
In their eyes, the people that do define their beautiful country are those who work studiously to protect it in times of fragility. The people who continue to radiate beauty, love, kindness, compassion and positivity in all corners, come what may.
This eternal optimism among the locals is admirable, but not every country bounces back from this kind of thing so easily. Remember when everyone was buying package holidays to Egypt back in the day? Over 14 million sun-seeking revellers amassed in the country’s tourists resorts in 2010, then in 2017 a number of terrorist attacks ravaged the country, sending the number of tourists plummeting to a mere 4.3 million in the following year. It’s the same vibe in Turkey. In 2014 the culturally rich country attracted more than 40 million visitors, but a few years of terrorist activity and political instability saw that number almost halved by 2017.
So would I travel to Sri Lanka this year? Yes of course. I’m actually cruising around the island in my tuk tuk right now, scoring empty waves. And yesterday I got chased by an elephant, which is also on the long list of things more likely to kill you than a terrorist attack.
But whether you should travel to Sri Lanka this year is up to you.