What it’s really like to be on holiday in Sri Lanka right now

In the days leading up to our flight to Sri Lanka, we knew what we were getting ourselves into. We’d read news reports about Sri Lanka’s worsening economic crisis, and were aware of the daily power cuts, soaring inflation and shortages of diesel, cooking gas and other essential supplies. Yet we felt that the pros of visiting and supporting Sri Lanka at this time far outweighed the negatives. We ended up touching down in the midst of a newly declared state of emergency and a social media blackout (which were revoked days later) and a 36-hour curfew aimed to prevent a planned country-wide anti-government protest. 

Just a few months ago, the post-Covid revival of tourism in Sri Lanka was looking promising. Despite the country’s bleak economic outlook, tour operators reported a flurry of bookings, and as hotels began filling up the mood was tentatively upbeat. In March, widespread reports of anti-government protests in the country – aimed at unseating President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the government widely blamed for the country’s financial woes – has cast a shadow over things and caused travellers some anxiety about visiting. 

Given the curfew, we anticipated a sombre mood in Sri Lanka, yet the staff at our hotel in Colombo welcomed us with warm smiles. As the curfew lifted the next morning, protests broke out again across the city – including at the handsome Independence Monument in the leafy, upmarket Cinnamon Gardens district and along the seafront Galle Face Green. Protests have gained momentum over the last week and seen unprecedented numbers come together irrespective of religion, race or social standing in a peaceful show of solidarity. Most protests are in Colombo (or other large cities) and easy to avoid.

Another tourist, Andy, also flew into Sri Lanka during the curfew, with his husband Edward. Despite being a little apprehensive before they left, they felt news reports made the situation sound “scarier than it actually was”. Relishing the quiet, north easterly white-sand shores of Nilavali, the couple has felt overwhelmingly welcomed by the local people who they believe are very keen to protect tourism. They haven’t had any difficulties travelling independently around the island, though recommend booking onward taxis a few days in advance. 

Andy (left) also flew into Sri Lanka during the curfew, with his husband Edward (right)

Down on the south coast, Toby Orr and his family have spent the last week near south-coast Galle, famous for its 400-year-old walled fort and profusion of surf-orientated beaches. “Everyone has been desperate to see visitors after Covid, and we have had the warmest of welcomes, from tuk tuk drivers to surf instructors, hotel staff and market traders,” he said.

Most visitors travel Sri Lanka on a round tour – usually with a driver. A shortage of diesel (exacerbated by panic buying and stockpiling) is a key issue for drivers right now, though to date, petrol (which fuels most cars and vans) has not been an issue. The sight of diesel-hungry lorries, buses, tankers and pickup trucks either parked or queued on roadsides leading to fuel stations may be the only visual indication a visitor sees of the current crisis. As we pulled up at one forecourt to get petrol, next to a serpentine queue of unattended jerry cans, the weary attendant told us that there had been no diesel for six days, and that when a fresh delivery does come he expects it to run out in a matter of hours. 

A shortage of diesel has also been behind the island’s prolonged schedule of frustrating daily power cuts (though there is hope that the imminent south-west monsoon will bolster the island’s hydro-power capacity). Yet, unless you stay at a local guesthouse, you may not even experience one as most mid- to high-end hotels and villas have generators that automatically kick in when the power cuts. Sourcing diesel for the generators is another task that goes on behind closed doors, yet every hotel we visited confirmed that they had not had any issues so far in getting what they needed.

We also visited Kandy and once again, the smooth operation of the hotel gave very little away. Generous breakfast baskets of freshly baked croissants, cakes and homemade bread greeted us each morning though we always preferred the local option – freshly steamed string hoppers served with dhal, fish and potato curries, and fiery coconut sambol. We felt that opting for local food or island produce (fish and seafood is plentiful) was also the most responsible option. Although we’d heard that some imported items (such as cheese, meat and wine) were getting harder to source, in reality, we didn’t encounter any issues.

Everyone has been desperate to see visitors after Covid, from tuk tuk drivers to surf instructors

Credit: Getty

Hiran Cooray, Chairman at Jetwing Hotels is remaining positive: “All signs point towards the fact that this situation will resolve itself soon,” he said. “As an island we are reliant on the income tourism brings – from our family at Jetwing to the tuk tuk drivers to the fishermen – and we continue to welcome visitors with open arms.”   

Some visitors we met in Sri Lanka were unaware of the issues the country was facing, which gives some indication into how little tourism is being affected (or how well it is being protected). Tourism in Sri Lanka is a vital industry, and the loss of revenue from tourism as a result of both the pandemic and the Easter 2019 attacks has also contributed to the island’s current crisis. It’s also made people more aware of the importance of tourism and its financial reach. People are facing terrible hardships but tourism gives them hope. We felt welcomed and appreciated, and felt confident our visit was the right choice.  

Five top tips for a holiday in Sri Lanka right now

Tip generously

Whether in Sterling, US dollars or the local currency, and refer to the current exchange rate. The Sri Lankan rupee has fallen to a record low so while your money will go further in Sri Lanka, remember that the devaluation of the rupee, combined with spiralling food costs (more than 30 per cent) and soaring inflation (more than 16 per cent) has made life very expensive for the local population. US dollars are always appreciated though ATMs are widespread (but they won’t work during power cuts). And, while it’s normal to haggle at souvenir stalls, use your judgement wisely.

Shop and eat out widely

Avoid eating all of your meals in your hotel or resort and spend in independent restaurants too. Buy a refreshing thambili (king coconut) from roadsides or street vendors – for many, this will be their sole income. Book a Sri Lankan cookery class in a local home and buy from village craftsmen and artisans rather than from tourist emporiums full of mass produced products.

Be considerate

Whether this means being patient if you need to wait in a queue for fuel, if your hotel is experiencing power cuts or is unable to source diesel for the generator. Expect shortages and be understanding if some imported food or drinks aren’t available. Some medicines in Sri Lanka may be in short supply so be self-sufficient and bring any prescribed medicines with you.

Book smart 

For the best protection, financial and otherwise, whatever the situation, consider booking your holiday through a reputable tour operator who will also be able to arrange your in-country transportation and provide support and local advice prior to and during your holiday. Experience Travel Group (0203 993 2566; experiencetravelgroup.com) offers bespoke two-week packages from £3,449 per person. If booking hotels direct, book your transfers at the same time. For getting around locally, you can rely on tuk tuks.

Keep posted

Always keep an eye on gov.uk. Currently, there is no advisory warning against travel to Sri Lanka but should this change prior to your holiday, you’ll need to get in touch with your travel insurance provider as it may invalidate your insurance.