How to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka

In many Asian countries, foreigners enjoy liberty unavailable to them at home. It is fun to use ‘Monopoly money’ and drive liberally. However, it is important not to let such freedoms lead to hooliganism.

Ella panorama

Sandy beaches and coconut trees are a dime a dozen on Sri Lanka’s south coast. Many praise the ‘Wonder of Asia’ for its verdant jungles, luscious flora and elephantine fauna. Indeed, there is something to suit every person, every taste: romantic lagoon retreats for couples, backpackers’ hostels for the solo traveller, five star hotels for the affluent and honeymooners. The question is, can you luxuriate ethically? How easy is it to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka?

The beaten path is well trodden. Kite surfers go to Kalpitiya, surfers to Weligama or Arugam Bay and history seekers flock to Anuradhapura, the sacred city, and Sigiriya, one of the world’s many ‘Eighth Wonders’, for Lion’s Rock. For less than a day’s salary in some parts of the world, you can find yourself in the back of a jeep, inches from the lowly flapping ears of an Elephas maximus (Sri Lankan elephant).

Such activities are well and good—they are well infrastructured and cater to the taste buds of tourists. However, those who want to stay a bit longer, as well as those who just fancy something different, may like to add a few things to their itinerary. For people who don’t have the money for safaris and kitesurfing equipment, who can’t afford to hire a driver for a week, enrol in a scuba course or to stay in plush resorts, what remains? What should be known? What are your responsibilities as a tourist in Sri Lanka?

Values: Essentials

Resorts and upscale hotels are typically western-owned. European, American and Australian banknotes buy more than Sri Lankan rupees, so locals often cannot compete with a foreigner with a few years’ savings under their belt. For this reason, staying in such places can further concentrate the wealth in the hands of the comparatively rich.

Homestays and even entire houses can be rented monthly at remarkably low cost, and feed money into the local community.

Due to large differences in cultural habits and behaviours, many western hotel owners find themselves increasingly frustrated by the perceived incompetence of their Sri Lankan staff. Rather than take it upon themselves to learn about intercultural communication, train their staff appropriately and appreciate the reasons for such professional differences, western capitalists grow weary, condescending and even abusive towards their staff. As members of a ruling class, granted privilege by a history of barbaric colonialism and exploitation, it is the responsibility of foreign property owners to act with cultural sensitivity and respect—and our responsibility as consumers to hold them to it.

If you witness an exchange which makes you feel uncomfortable, between a western tourist or business owner and a Sri Lankan employee, call it out.

The Police: Know Your Rights

In many Asian countries, foreigners enjoy a liberty unavailable to them at home. It is fun to use ‘Monopoly money’ and drive liberally. However, it is important not to let such freedoms lead to hooliganism. Do not drop your guard.

Sri Lanka is tightening its policing laws by the year. Do not be caught out as, in most situations, the police hold all the cards. There are many misconceptions regarding their powers, so be aware that a police officer is permitted, by law, to: enter your home without a warrant; use firearms if deemed appropriate; and seize your driving license without stating what crime you have supposedly committed.

However, it is also important to know that police officers frequently stop, question and demand arbitrary fines of tourists and expats alike. If one claim is refuted (“No officer, I did not overtake on a double line”), another will appear. For example, that you did not stop quickly enough when they flagged you down, or you must pay a penalty for not carrying the correct documentation.

To avoid trouble, you should:

  1. Carry our license with you, and your IDP (which, if you are from the UK, you can apply for online), and your insurance card, and your tax documents. The police can catch you out on any of these.
  2. Understand your rights, and theirs – penalties for road traffic offences were increased in July 2018, and are set to increase again. Such increases will render offences like driving without valid insurance cover and driving through railway crossings ‘in a haphazard manner’ punishable with fines of up to Rs. 30,000 (currently £131).
  3. Know when to stand your ground – on-the-spot fines are often dished out clumsily, and find their way into the pockets of the police officer who dealt them. Because we lack a deep understanding of the local language and legal system, it is easy for officers to take advantage of foreign ‘offenders’ who do not want to deal with the hassle of going to court and making a statement. Often, if you demand that a penalty notice be officially written, the value of the fine will be significantly reduced.

You can read about my/our experiences with the police in Sri Lanka here and here.

Where, and how, to eat as a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s national dish, a plate of rice served with a variety of curries, coconut sambol and papadum, can be incredibly tasty. It can also be incredibly cheap. There are myriad roadside eateries serving large portions of rice and curry for as little as Rs. 100 (£0.44 at time of writing). Or, you can go to a restaurant and pay the tourist price, which is typically Rs. 800.

What you might miss in terms of service, you will regain twofold by the look on the cook’s face when you walk into his or her rice and curry shop.

Look after yourself, please

Despite a plethora of online articles lauding the friendliness of Sri Lankans, it is fundamental to your wellbeing to face two harsh truths.

  1. 90 per cent of Sri Lankan women have experienced some sort of sexual harassment on public transport (I have written about this here);
  2. One in three Sri Lankan men admits to having carried out some form of sexual or physical abuse on a woman.

Yes, taking a local bus is an experience worth having. Yes, Sri Lanka is known for its spectacular train journeys. It is also true that the majority of Sri Lankans value your happiness over your body. However, due to a combination of western cultural exports, ignorance and behavioural differences, harassment of western tourists is frequent and often severe. I have heard testimonies from other foreign residents of groping in plain sight, incidents within hotels and massage parlours ranging from creepy propositions to unambiguous assaults, joggers being pursued and harassed on beaches, hotel owners entering rooms late at night without consent, hostel owners taking advantage of impressionable young women, and the list goes on.

Modest dress does not preclude harassment.

So, while taking in the sights and sounds of the ‘Wonder of Asia’, be sure to keep your wits about you. While to some you are a welcome guest, to others you are a promiscuous piggybank. As a traveller from a relatively affluent and sexually liberal society, you are subjected to various prejudices. Be aware of them.

* Further reading (external links):
Being a Woman and Travelling Solo in Sri Lanka
Find out the truth: Sri Lanka Police
Groundviews: Sri Lanka’s Pandemic of Sexual Violence


You can also find this article on Medium, along with several others. Read about issues faced by tourists in Sri Lanka, namely sexism and police corruption, as well as the joys that can be experienced there – for example, the (vegan) food.


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