Easter Sunday Bombings: Sri Lanka Travel Advice and Updates

by Sam Clark May 7, 2019 0 comment

Following the Easter Sunday bomb attacks in Sri Lanka, Experience Travel Group have set up this rolling blog to keep our clients (and prospective clients) and travel community up-to-date on what is happening on the ground in Sri Lanka in regards to travel and tourism.

We are not political experts so will avoid commenting from that perspective. We are going to stick to what we know is happening on the ground via our office in Colombo, as well as our network of guides, partners and clients throughout the country. Of course, we are also closely following the recommendations of the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) with regards to travel in Sri Lanka at the time.

The updates will come directly from Sri Lanka and our UK office.

18th May 2019

Following the disturbances last Monday, peace was restored in the North West of Sri Lanka. The Government of Sri Lanka lifted the curfew in that region and the nationwide ban on social media. It is Vesak today, one of the most important dates in the Buddhist calendar and though it was officially cancelled, people seem to have decided to celebrate it anyway, with the beautiful coloured lanterns appearing all over the country.

We have updated our emergency cancellation conditions for future bookings to Sri Lanka:

  • We will refund in full anyone travelling before the 25th of May
  • A 25% cancellation charge applies to anyone travelling before 31st August
  • Outside of this date, normal cancellation conditions will apply
  • We will endeavour to postpone or change the destination for any future booking to Sri Lanka. Additional costs will be kept to the minimum possible
  • We have suspended balance payments on Sri Lanka holidays until further notice

Note that these emergency cancellation conditions will immediately revert to normal once the FCO change their advisory.

14th May 2019

We launched our Crowdfunding initiative on Sunday and have been delighted by the response so far. At the time of writing, we have raised £5300 from over 100 clients (and not-quite-clients-yet). We’d love to get to our target of £7500 by the end of the week and then get well beyond it – so we can help even more chauffeur-guides with a long term bridging advance on future earnings. Read here for more details or to donate. Your money will work double as hard: firstly as a loan and then as a donation to The Foundation of Goodness charity to help victims of the recent attacks re-build their lives long term.

Our initiative was also picked up by Conde Nast India.

Local Travel News

Last night a curfew was imposed in the North West of Sri Lanka. This curfew remains in place.  A countrywide social media ban has once again been imposed. Several groups have attacked Muslim owned shops, houses and businesses in the areas around Chilaw, Kurunegala and Gampaha.

The north-west around Puttalam is a region not generally frequented by many tourists. It is an area with a very mixed population of Muslims, Christians and Buddhists.

The ETG co-founder and Director, Tom Armstrong, is also one of the co-founders of The Mudhouse, an eco-hotel in the heart of the region. Currently, it is quiet and peaceful in the area immediately around The Mudhouse itself.

 

13th May 2019

A group of our hotel and other partners in Sri Lanka have put together a fantastic campaign to help ensure that the Sri Lanka tourism industry gets back on its feet as quickly as possible once the FCO change their advice against ‘all but essential travel’ to the island.

There is some direct reporting from the ground and a clear stating of the facts as well as a reminder of what we all love about Sri Lanka. Have a look here. Well done to the Sri Lanka tourism sector who put this together so quickly and a special mention to Malik Fernando of the Dilmah Tea dynasty and Resplendent Ceylon (Tea Trails, Wild Coast & Cape Weligama) who has taken the lead with this.

Several clients have asked us whether they would be able to travel to Sri Lanka for their planned trips, even if the FCO’s advisory remains in place at the time of travel. The answer is that this is their prerogative. They would need to confirm with their travel insurance provider that they are still covered and if not, they could put an alternative policy in place.  Our preferred travel insurance partner, Campbell Irvine told us the following about staff travel insurance:

“I can confirm that the Staff Annual Multi Trip Travel Insurance Policy would continue to cover an insured person travelling in Sri Lanka, however, Underwriters would exclude any claims that arise directly and indirectly from any of the reasons that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise against travel to an area, city, country or region.”

Our advice about safety on the ground would be to refer our clients to the FCO advice at that moment, tell them the situation at the various hotels and places they planned to visit around the country and restrict ourselves to that. Our Director, Tom Armstrong, is back in Sri Lanka now and will be assessing the situation on the ground himself.

12th May 2019

We have launched a crowdfunding campaign to support the Sri Lankan chauffeur-guides. Many chauffeur-guides work freelance and, as such, have effectively lost their jobs with the vast number of trip cancellations over the summer (a key booking period for them, in which they will make much of their annual salary). Our idea is to advance the guides their salary to tide them over this tricky period. Once we are able to give them work again, they will pay this money back into the Sri Lankan charity, Foundation of Goodness. To donate, or find out more about the campaign, click here.

 

10th May 2019

Reports from our contacts on the ground all over the country are that Sri Lanka has mostly returned to normal so far as tourists and tourism-related activities are concerned. The notorious Colombo traffic is back with a vengeance, and the cafes and restaurants are again full of locals. Weddings are continuing as planned including a major one for the son of the President. Security is tight at large hotels and will remain so for the foreseeable future; just as it is in India and Thailand to name two of our other destinations.

There have been more arrests this week, and the Government says they have now caught all the members of the small terrorist cell involved. They have stated that much of the information which led to the arrests came from within the Sri Lankan Muslim community, appalled at the acts supposedly done in the name of their religion. The State of Emergency (which gives the army the power to make arrests) is still in place, and curfews are being imposed sporadically to ensure that sectarian violence does not flare up, particularly in towns where there are significant Christian and Muslim populations.

Next week is Vesak, one of the significant events in the Buddhist calendar and the remaining schools and universities will re-open.

Hotels in the Cultural Triangle, Kandy and around the country are operating as usual, albeit with a far lower than average occupancy rate. Excursions are continuing as standard, and all the national parks are open with fantastic wildlife spotting opportunities.

This comment came in from a contact who owns and runs a lovely villa called Uda Kanda on the south coast:

“I live in Galle, but last week I travelled to Colombo and also Kandy. Life in Sri Lanka is almost exactly the same as it was before Easter. Blanket curfews are over; Social Media and messaging apps are working normally; planes, trains, automobiles, and buses are all running on schedule. The only noticeable difference is an increased police and armed services presence, and sporadic checkpoints around some locations (e.g. transport hubs, Galle Fort, places of worship, and other strategic installations). Plus some schools and universities have yet to fully return to their schedules. The country is still in a “State of Emergency”, but the impact that has on the population is negligible. Otherwise, it is “business as usual” for almost all citizens and residents here.”

 

8th May 2019

President Maithripala Sirisena made a wide-ranging statement today saying that normalcy had been restored in Sri Lanka and that the security operation following the Easter Day Bombings had been “99% completed”, with almost all involved now in army custody.  We welcome the reassurance and will await news that the Government of Sri Lanka is confident that the operation has been completed to their satisfaction.

Several clients returned from Sri Lanka over the weekend and, we are delighted to report they had a fantastic time despite the difficulties.

 

7th May 2019

We have received the photographs below from our office in Colombo. It seems that things are tentatively going back to normal, with many local people supporting the Cinnamon Grand by continued visiting and via social media (hashtags including #BackatCG and #CinnamonGrand are becoming popular).

In addition, we have received the following message from one of our favourite hotels in Colombo, Maniumpathy Hotel:

“In general Maniumpathy Hotel is fully operating normally with due care and caution. I have been to all our properties since Easter and certainly for those outside Colombo it is very calm and those guests remaining in SL are comfortable (and notably very supportive which is nice to see in these circumstances). There have been no disturbances in the respective local areas but anyway we have reviewed our security procedures with some augmented protocols

Within the very centre of Colombo, there has obviously been some tension and nervousness. Security is very clear and present, but certainly last week offices and shops etc back to normal as everyone tried to resume business as much as usual as possible.

For Maniumpathy, the hotel has been physically unaffected by Easter’s events with all staff safe and is running normally, we have increased security and the location has led to guests feeling relatively secure as on Kynsey Road and that area all is normal.”

British Security Minister Ben Wallace MP visited Sri Lanka at the end of last week, and you can read the official report of his trip here.

3rd May 2019

Updates from around the country:

  • Negombo is back to business as usual, but while shops are open, Hotel Road remains quiet because there aren’t many visitors in the area and a heavy security presence
  • Kandy is getting back to normal but not there yet. Many are carrying on as usual but there are still fewer people on the roads, and everyone heads home as soon as possible because no one wants to take the risk of staying in a crowded place
  • Galle feels like business as normal
  • Cultural Triangle is very quiet. Locals are carrying on as usual, but several small hotel have closed temporarily because tourism has dropped significantly
  • Our friends at Colombo City Walks are operating their walking tours in downtown Colombo. However, there is a lot of security and the area still feels tense

 

2nd May 2019

We wanted to thank so many of our clients for their patience and forbearance during this difficult time. We have contacted all of our clients booked to go to Sri Lanka and have a good idea where most people stand. We can’t thank all of our clients enough for bearing with us while we did this.

So many of you are keen to continue with your holiday in Sri Lanka as planned this summer. This is a great message to send to our colleagues and partners in the country.

At the present moment, we would not allow a client to travel to Sri Lanka. We are currently relying on the guidance from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for this decision.

Meanwhile, we have been receiving messages from around Sri Lanka and beyond and thought we’d share some a couple here:

“I am so sorry that SL is having such a terrible time, and that this will be having repercussions for business.  I am sure things will be up and running again soon: as you well know, SL has an amazing capacity for recovery…”  John Gimlette. Friend of ETG and author of the superb Elephant Complex.

Meanwhile, the wonderful Hen Cottam, whom many of our clients will remember as the host of Why House in southern Sri Lanka said:

“Galle is quieter but still seems to have plenty of foot fall and i have been in several times and feel very safe. Lots of military which makes me feel secure.

I do feel confident and despite a small flurry of cancellations we haven’t been too badly hit and it is low season after all so hopefully recovery will be swift.”

Our Co-founder, Tom Armstrong, spends much of his time in Sri Lanka but was in Nepal at the time of the attacks. He has just returned to Sri Lanka and will report back directly in the next day or two.

 

30th April 2019

Many of our lovely clients and trade partners have asked us to set up a means of facilitating donations to the victims and the families of the victims of the Easter Bombings. We have even had the pledge of a fantastic work of art too, from a recent visitor to Sri Lanka. All of these gestures meant a great deal to our colleagues in Sri Lanka. We wanted to let you know that we are working with our charity partner in Sri Lanka to set something up. We must do this correctly. Please bear with us.

An update from our office in Colombo who has been calling around to our hotel friends and guides around the country:

  • Galle is carrying on as normal. Shops are open. There is security still in place here and there to stay vigilant
  • Colombo is almost normal. People on the roads, offices all open and working as usual. Police and army are still present around the city for security. Even though curfew was lifted, most people head home before it gets too late
  • Kandy – The temple was closed for about two days, but now most shops are open. There are fewer people on the roads, most clearing out before dusk
  • Hill country – we have clients in the Hills, and the chauffeur guides have said other than for rain, there is nothing out of the ordinary in Haputale and Bandarawela
  • Life is normal in the Cultural Triangle as well
  • The curfew has not been in place since Sunday, except in Kamune (remote Eastern Sri Lanka) where security operations are ongoing

We had several enquiries for holidays to Sri Lanka yesterday and today. These were for holidays departing later this year or next. We will be accepting conditional bookings for Sri Lanka – dependent of course on the FCO removing their advisory.  We are encouraged that so many of our clients are keen to support Sri Lanka and are willing to travel as soon as it is deemed safe to do so by the FCO.

We are so grateful to our suppliers and partners in Sri Lanka for offering us full refunds for the bookings we have had to cancel up until the 15th of May. We are not able to purchase insurance that would cover this, and we have refunded our clients in full as we are obliged to do.

 

29th April 2019

Thushni, our ‘Local Experience Manager’ in Colombo has sent the following update to our UK office this morning. We decided to print it here, verbatim:

“Sri Lanka has mourned for a week and we have now decided to move on. Traffic is as bad is it usually is which, now is a good sign. Most offices, even in Colombo, are open for business.
Police and army are still to be seen everywhere.
Arrests have reduced.
We still wonder if every crack of thunder could be an explosion but that too will fade.
Getting back to normal!”

We have received many messages from around the country, but we particularly liked this one from Kumukgaha Villa, which is a lovely little place close to Sigiriya:

“Greetings from Kumbukgaha Villa, Sigiriya! It’s been a week since the sad events of Easter Sunday and we are all standing up strong and determined like never before to overcome all challenges and rise again as a Nation.

At Kumbukgaha Villa and the surrounding areas it’s peaceful and tranquil as always. The paddy fields have been harvested, the forest is lush after the recent rains and wild peacocks and birds continue their unending orchestra! The pride of our wilderness, the great Asian Elephants still amble around our property. So around Kumbukgaha Villa, the world is how it should be.

In this setting, we look forward to welcoming our guests back soon to treat you to the very best of Sri Lankan hospitality.”

 

27th April 2019

Our clients in the country are all continuing to enjoy their holiday as normal. They all decided that they felt safe and secure where they were. We gave them as much information as we could and encouraged them to make up their minds. We have of course taken precautions with their route and activities in accordance with FCO advice.

Countrywide updates:

Colombo -there is a heavy security presence around the centre of Colombo, and the streets are quieter than usual. Shops are closing at 3 pm.

  • Galle – there are some checkpoints and a bit of security but otherwise operating as normal.
  • Negombo – the main ‘Hotel Road’ is closed…. A lot of security around still and even further away from hotel road, things are still very quiet.
  • Kandy – the Temple of the Tooth is open. Shops close around 3 pm, and clear’s out. Otherwise, Kandy is operating as normal.
  • Cultural Triangle – apart form increased security at the main sites, the situation is quite normal.
  • Airport – every vehicle in and out of the airport is being searched leading to queues and delays. We had a departure today which went ahead as planned.

 

26th April 2019

As a result of the change to the FCO advice, we have amended our cancellation and amendment policy for clients booked to travel to Sri Lanka, and we have set up a dedicated team ready to offer help and advice.

The FCO advice remains to advise against all but essential travel to Sri Lanka.

We note that the Foreign Secretary is quoted as saying the following:

“We all hope the situation will return to normal very soon, and that the Sri Lankan tourism industry is able to get back on its feet following the terrorist attacks. We will do all we can to help the Sri Lankan authorities.”

The advice is very much about the current situation and relates to immediate departures. We believe the FCO has taken a very measured and careful approach to this decision and will continue to do so. We do not doubt that the level of advice will change as soon as the FCO consider it to be safe again to travel to Sri Lanka.

We have contacted all 14 of our clients in the country and given them the FCO advice. They have all decided to remain on their holidays as they feel safe on the ground in the small hotels and rural locations where they are currently staying. We have of course advised them as per the FCO to ‘avoid crowded public places, large gatherings (including religious gatherings and places of worship”. We will facilitate any changes they might want to make and have advised them to contact their travel insurance providers. We will remain in contact daily.

Our emergency cancellation conditions for future bookings to Sri Lanka:

  • We will refund in full anyone travelling before 15th May
  • Outside of this date, normal cancellation conditions will apply
  • We will endeavour to postpone or change the destination for any future booking to Sri Lanka. Additional costs will be kept to the minimum possible

We will contact our clients again with more detailed information very soon. In the meantime, for more information, please contact our dedicated disaster response team on 0207 924 7133.

 

25th April 2019

4 pm: The FCO have updated their travel advice to Sri Lanka to “advise against all but essential travel to Sri Lanka due to the current evolving security situation following attacks on 21 April 2019.” At this stage, we are offering a full refund to all clients travelling before 5th May 2019.

We are making contact with our clients currently in Sri Lanka via both via our guides and directly at this time. The safety of our clients in the country is our priority.

10 am: The entrance to the airport was closed briefly this morning, but flight departures and arrivals were not affected. We had another client arrive today at lunchtime. The Sri Lankan authorities are understandably being ultra-cautious at the moment.

Movement in Colombo is still restricted, and we continue to advise our clients to avoid Colombo itself. Travel elsewhere is unaffected.

Our colleague Matt is currently on holiday in Sri Lanka, and he has kindly written this update from his hotel on the south coast:

“I wanted to write a little bit about what it is like being here on holiday at this time and what it feels like in general. I’m in shock like everyone else really, and it’s just hard to rationalise that it happened.

I’m tucked away down in the south coast near Tangalle, on the beach at the moment. I guess the equivalent would be staying somewhere like Filey in the UK (fewer palm trees) – so I do feel in a bubble. I’m very far from Colombo, and generally, things are happening as normally as they can be from where I am. There are other guests where I’m staying, and we all had a family style dinner last night which was lovely. It feels like a home from home to be honest with a big dining table on the veranda.

I came from Yala national park where I went on safari. We had an elephant roam into the hotel grounds as it’s in the buffer zone of the park and that was very cool.

Mentally, I feel a sense of relief because I wasn’t anywhere dangerous at the time. I also feel a little guilty because I’m on holiday in a country that is currently going through so much. Equally, Sri Lanka is very close to my heart, and I know how much the people rely upon and love tourists being here. I do feel safe because I’m away from it all and I haven’t altered the rest of my trip. I’m working my way along the coast and then finishing up in a small hotel about an hour from the airport and then heading to the Maldives to test out a few new hotels.

I have lots and lots of friends and family checking in with me which is lovely. I have a chauffeur guide Shirley who is taking me around and showing me parts of Sri Lanka that I’ve never seen (and this is my 6th visit!). I’ve kept closely in touch with Thushni in our local office, who is doing an incredible job. Her resilience is just a testament to the people that live in this magical country. ”

Updates from around the country today:

  • A curfew is again in place from 10 pm until 4 am
  • The sites of the cultural triangle are all open, and our excursions are operating as normal
  • Kandy is as normal, and everything is open. However, it is very quiet as most people are choosing to stay at home Normal cancellation conditions apply
  • Our excursions in the hill country are operating as normal

 

24th April 2019

4.00 pm: In a statement released today, the Sri Lanka Tourism Board said they “wished to reassure tourists already in the country, unaffected by the attacks, that police, tourism police and security forces were jointly implementing a comprehensive security plan to ensure their safety across the island, including all-important tourism sites”.

They also said that a security briefing was held on April 22 for hotel owners and operators on the new safety measures being rolled out and to seek their cooperation strengthening security at hotels and resorts.

“In the immediate aftermath of the explosions, Sri Lanka Tourism deployed trained emergency response teams and representatives at hospitals, affected hotels and the airport to assist tourists [with] hotel transfers, airline bookings, airport transfers, itinerary changes, hospital treatment, contacting their loved ones and reuniting missing family members through diplomatic channels.

Sri Lanka Tourism would like to reassure the world the country is open for business and all possible measures have been taken to ensure the safety and security of tourists. Our world-famous tourism sites, hotels, resorts and other tourist attractions will remain open as usual. There are no road closures or restrictions on movement anywhere on the island.”

1.30pm: We have received the following statements from our office in Colombo:

Thushni de Silva, our Experience Manager in Sri Lanka, wrote: “This Sunday’s attack took us all by surprise and left us in a state of shock. Having grown up in a country that was plagued by war for decades, we had never experienced devastation of this nature. Our hearts were shattered, irrespective of race or religion, for our brothers and sisters who fell victim to such a heinous crime.

In the face adversity Sri Lankans have always shown remarkable resilience and have supported each other up, and I do not doubt that this time will be the same.”

Lalajith Manawadu, an Experience Travel Group guide, wrote: “It’s been a very difficult experience seeing the suffering this has brought to our country. I take great pride in showing my nation to the world and was hopeful for the future with tourism being on the rise. Now I fear this will push us back a great deal. However, I have received many emails and texts from clients who toured with me Sri Lanka, some from years ago, to share their love and support. This gives me hope that people will continue to come to Sri Lanka and experience everything it has to offer.”

11 am: We had two further groups of clients arrive safely in Sri Lanka yesterday with another arriving shortly today. They have continued on their tours as usual.

We will be collecting updates from around the country again today and some reports from colleagues on the ground.

In the meantime, the facts on the ground regarding tourism and travel are as follows:

  • The Temple of the Tooth remains closed as a precaution
  • All other excursions operating as normal
  • Udawalawe Dam is closed for security, which means Udawalawe National Park is being accessed via dirt tracks rather than the main road
  • Shops open around the country
  • Schools will remain closed until the 29th of April
  • Airport open and flights arriving as normal but travellers need to aim to be there four hours in advance
  • Shangri La and Kingsbury are closed, but Cinnamon Grand is operating. CG explosion was at the Taprobane restaurant which is on the floor below Ground level, so they have only closed that floor
  • Security has been stepped up at the larger hotels and airports
  • As per FCO advice, travel companies are not using trains for transportation until further notice

 

23rd April 2019

2 pm: Another curfew has been put in place, but this time from 9 pm until 4 am.

12.50pm: Today is a national day of mourning in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, people hold funeral houses which are open to everyone. It is expected that you should visit if you have any connection at all. One of our guides, from Negombo itself, has 130 to visit today and tomorrow.

Our excursions are continuing as normal, and we had another two clients arrive today. The airport seems to be operating normally now.

We have been overwhelmed with the response from our email offering messages of support to Sri Lanka and mentioning many of our guides by name. Many have expressed support for Sri Lanka and the tourism business there. We will pass on all of these messages to our guides personally and will read them out at our annual conference in May.

We have been asked by many former clients whether we can organise a collection for the injured and the families of the victims. We think there will be a definite need. Some of these people were among the poorest in Sri Lanka, particularly those from Batticaloa. If we can ease the burden, then it has to be worth considering. Having been involved with raising money several times before, we know the crucial importance of using a reliable on the ground charity. Our usual partner in Sri Lanka is the Foundation of Goodness, and we have discussed setting up an appeal with them. Please watch this space. We hope to have something set up by the end of the week.

Our travel policies in full:

  • We are accepting bookings for Sri Lanka as normal
  • We will defer bookings departing within the week
  • Normal cancellation conditions apply
  • We will defer full payment deadlines for two weeks on a case by case basis

 

22nd April 2019

A day later and the situation is still fluid. We have now had confirmation that all of our team of guides are well. One of our chauffer-guides was supposed to be attending St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo where over 100 people died. He slept in and so didn’t go himself or take his family. We contacted all of our previous clients to let them know that our team in Sri Lanka were alive and well.

General Updates:

  • There is a curfew in place from 8 pm till 4 am
  • The curfew is put in place on a day by day basis
  • A state of emergency has been put in place. This gives police powers to arrest and detain suspects – it is unrelated to tourism
  • Tuesday is a national day of mourning
  • The Temple of the Tooth is closed as a precaution
  • All other excursions operating as normal
  • Most shops are open as normal
  • Schools are closed until Wednesday
  • Airport open and flights arriving as normal
  • Security has been stepped up at the larger hotels and airports

Local Updates:

  • Cultural Triangle – excursions are running to normal. We spoke to clients, and they said everything seems normal, but obviously, everyone is sad
  • Kandy – things seem to be back to normal there as well. People are getting on with life as usual. Some increased police presence on the road
  • Galle – no changes there either. Tourists are moving about freely
  • Batticaloa – Roads are quiet. Muslim shops are closed and have been given security.
  • Colombo – Roads are quieter but there are people on the roads. Smaller shops are closed just supermarkets are open mainly. Increased police presence. Security forces were checking hotels around the country.

The situation with our clients is as follows:

  • Clients flew out as planned last night and arrived safely today
  • A further group of clients due to fly out tonight have been contacted and confirmed that they were happy to travel as planned
  • All clients in the country continuing their holiday as planned

 

21st April 2019

We are aware of the situation in Sri Lanka and have successfully contacted all of our clients currently in the country. None of them was directly affected. We have re-routed clients away from Colombo until further notice as a precautionary measure. As it stands, we have no information suggesting that our clients should cancel or amend their future holiday plans. We shall continue to monitor the situation via our office in Colombo and the FCO, and we will update all of our clients personally.

  • Our thoughts are with all those affected.

 

If you would like to talk to a Sri Lanka specialist yourself regarding the implications of the Easter Sunday attacks on travel, please do get in touch on 0207 924 7133.

 


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