“Only a fool would go to Sri Lanka now”, I learned in a discussion on a travel forum. “It must have balls to go there now”, chimed in another discussant. I’m not crazy, I don’t have balls either, but I have two small children at home and I think carefully about what I will and will not do. But when the opportunity to go to Sri Lanka this August came up, I didn’t hesitate for a second. For anyone who is put off going to Sri Lanka by media reports or Facebook discussions, I wrote this blog. For myself, I can only say one thing to everyone: go, there is nothing to worry about and you won’t regret it. Sri Lanka is still just as beautiful, the people just as nice, the food just as good, it’s just that the country is now as it was 20 years ago – almost devoid of tourists, but the locals appreciate them all the more.
Why is Sri Lanka in an economic crisis?
Long story short – Sri Lanka went into debt for years, borrowing for megalomaniacal “investment” projects, from which it never got back a single rupee. Pervasive corruption, populist tax cuts at the most inopportune moment, an artificially regulated rupee exchange rate, and other problems then led to the country being on the verge of bankruptcy in April 2022. Two years of covid and the war in Ukraine, which drove up oil and food prices, were then just the last “nails in the coffin”. The locals started to live worse and worse, inflation went up sharply (reaching up to 70%), and the island started to run out of goods that needed to be imported and paid for in dollars (e.g. oil, gas, and other commodities), locals spent days in long queues for gas or petrol… Long power cuts started to occur, schools had to close because children had no way to get to them. The deepest economic crisis in the history of independent Sri Lanka began.
Why did the local people protest against the government?
Gradually, the people began to run out of patience and began to demonstrate more and more frequently, demanding the resignation of those whom they considered being the main culprits: the Rajapaksa family, which has been in power in Sri Lanka for the last two decades. And actually, they gradually succeeded in doing so. The demonstrations culminated on July 9, 2022, when hundreds of thousands descended on the capital and made their way to the presidential palace. And yes, they set fire to the prime minister’s residence. Hence the horrific photos with appropriately shocking headlines in the media. I should point out that otherwise, the demonstrations were peaceful and non-violent throughout. The President then fled the country and subsequently resigned. Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe was elected by Parliament as the new President. Not everyone is happy with this outcome, but the most common attitude I am seeing now is ‘back to work’. The people have done what they can, now it is up to the new government to show if it can make things a little better. And although it will be a long run, there are some results.
Is the country safe?
This is probably the most important question people ask me. And I answer with a clear conscience: yes, it is. And this is not just my personal opinion, but it is primarily the opinion of many countries that have already lifted their security warnings – for example, the UK, Spain, France, Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, all of them and many others are again considering Sri Lanka a safe destination. From my own experience, I can say that I felt as safe here as I ever have. Caution is definitely in order in the sense of being careful with your belongings, for example, I would have left my bike unlocked outside a shop before, but now I prefer to lock it. But I’m not afraid of the locals at all, even during the biggest demonstrations it was very clear that their anger was directed towards the government and not the tourists…
What about fuel shortages and transportation around the island?
The shortage of diesel and gasoline is a reality, as is the fact that the price of transportation has gone up. As I mentioned above, fuel needs to be imported and paid for in dollars, which is exactly what the government is not getting. The fuel situation was at its worst from about mid to late July, when a tanker arrived at the beginning of the month and there just wasn’t enough money to pay for another. Even at this time, however, we had guests at Tropical Garden and got a car for them to tour the island. Tourism is included in the so-called “essential services”, so officially registered tourist drivers are entitled to fuel priority. At this point, they’ve also managed to set up some sort of system in which locals can operate. Fuel is rationed via a quota system managed by QR code. Everybody with the QR is allowed to get the fuel based on what vehicle he has (van, car, bike…) It’s not ideal, of course, but at least people know what they can count on and don’t have to queue in vain. We didn’t encounter any during our stay in the south. Public transport has also been almost fully restored, and although it is very crowded, that is somehow part of the local custom. Even a tuk-tuk can be easily obtained at any time, so at this point, I would safely recommend Sri Lanka to the classic backpacker who wants to travel around the island on their own by public transport.
Can I get food and accommodation without problems?
Well, I came back to my country 2 kilos heavier than before I left. Believe me, you won’t suffer from hunger there. Some locals struggle because food prices have skyrocketed by up to 70%. The rice crop was poor this year and will have to be imported. And poor people cannot afford meals three times a day and more and more people are falling into poverty, having lost their jobs as a result of the crisis. But all this doesn’t mean there isn’t enough food (and people aren’t starving here either, don’t imagine you’ll see malnourished children at every turn). The shops are fully stocked, perhaps missing some imported goods like chocolate, but I always bought everything I wanted. There are fewer restaurants open than usual, but here in the south, this is also because it is low season. Even so, there is always a restaurant open, and local “bistros” are also open, or you can arrange with a local to cook for you – for example, we were happy to let the fishermen who prepared a BBQ for us right on the beach earn little money this way. In short, you don’t have to worry about the food. Oh, and as for accommodation, it’s no problem at all, most hotels are open, you just have to choose.
What about power outages?
The good news is that the situation is stable. Power outages are reported in advance, and you can find out from the media or locals when the power is out where you are. At the moment the powercuts are for about 2 hours a day, split into two periods during the day and evening. We didn’t even feel the daytime outage – we were either at the beach or on a hike, and the evening outage sometimes went until dinner – so we had a romantic candlelit meal (and most restaurants don’t even have that, because they have a generator). By the way, this too is like 20 years ago when our mom first headed here, outages were the order of the day and not reported at all. It didn’t bother us then and I think it can be handled without harm now. Oh, and for the discerning, there are plenty of hotels that have their generator as well, so you may not experience outages at all.
What are the prices in Sri Lanka now?
The biggest surprise for me so far – most things are coming out cheaper than before the crisis! Prices have indeed gone up tremendously, but at the same time, the rupee has devalued. In other words, while you used to get about 190 rupees for 1 USD, today it’s 360 rupees. This compensates for the increased prices. So just to give you a couple of examples, we paid 830 rupees for a meal at the bistro (two portions of rice and curry and one portion of string hopper) – so just over $2 for a meal for 3 people! In the evening at the beach restaurant, we paid Rs 6800 for two big portions of prawns, and one fish, all with salad and side dishes and drinks including beer – so $18.5 again for 3 people. What is definitely more expensive than before is the transport – but again, thanks to the exchange rate, not so dramatically. We used to pay Rs 20,000 (about $70 at the time) for a van transfer for 6 people from the airport to our place in the south, now it’s Rs 40,000 ($110).
So this is the current situation in Sri Lanka. As I see it, the country has emerged from the initial shock and has managed to set up a system in which it can function. And as tourists, you don’t even have to notice that anything unusual is happening. The country needs foreign travellers now more than ever. It’s going to take a long time for the economy to recover, but tourism is the fastest way to bring much-needed foreign currency into the country, and to directly help locals – from the lady you buy a coconut from at the market to the fisherman who’s happy to take you for a ride out to sea, to the accommodation operators who put other people to work. They’re all there waiting for you with open arms. Don’t miss this chance.