Travel

Sri Lanka is running out of food, medicine, gas, and money — but the tourists just keep coming

Business Insider US
Burned buses near Sri Lanka's former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa's official residence, a day after they were torched by protesters in Colombo on May 10, 2022.
NurPhoto / Contributor / Getty Images
  • Sri Lanka is experiencing its worst economic crisis on record.
  • Grocery-store shelves are empty, medicine is running out, and people are waiting hours to get gas.
  • Even so, tourists keep coming — and the locals keep encouraging it.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za

Maumita Sarkar flew from India to Sri Lanka in mid-April. It was Sinhala New Year when she arrived, which is traditionally a time of renewal and celebration: People clean their homes, carry out rituals, and set off firecrackers. But by April this year, Sri Lankans were taking to the streets to protest soaring prices, food and gas shortages, and a life they could no longer afford to keep living.

Against the backdrop of growing discontent in the country, Sarkar considered her travel options.

The blogger spoke to the Sri Lankan embassy, a friend who had recently returned from the country, and a handful of local travel agents. They all assured her that things were, as she put, "absolutely fine."

She decided to go forward with her trip.

"As soon as I landed there, the airport had so many foreigners, it seemed all normal," Sarkar told Insider.

"While the media kept showing all the protests, I saw nothing except a handful of people in Colombo," Sarkar said of her impressions of the Sri Lankan capital. "The whole place was very calm."

She spent the next 10 days traveling around the country, taking trains across Sri Lanka's lush landscapes, catching sunsets in the beach town of Mirissa, and Instagramming her way through mangrove wetlands and sacred temples.

Even as the country buckles under the weight of its worst economic crisis on record, tourists continue to flock to Sri Lanka. While photos from the capital show the burned-out shells of cars and buses toppled over into lakes, international visitors continue to fly in, hoping to take advantage of a cheap tourism market still in post-pandemic recovery mode.

In April, the Sri Lankan rupee hit a record low; food, medicine, and gas are in short supply; and the country is seeing rolling blackouts. On 10 May, the government ordered troops to shoot anyone on sight if they were seen destroying property.

And still, the tourists just keep coming.

Motorists queue along a road to buy petrol at a Ceylon petroleum corporation fuel station in Colombo on May 17, 2022.
ISHARA S. KODIKARA / Contributor / Getty Images

A country in crisis

In recent years, Sri Lanka's relationship with tourism has been one of turbulent symbiosis. 

The island nation off the southeastern tip of India is home to 22 million people. With its white-sand beaches, temple ruins, and tea plantations, it draws in tourists searching for adventure, spirituality, and off-the-beaten path itineraries. 

The country's tourism scene had been on a steady, decade-long upward trend that culminated in 2.5 million internationals arrivals in 2018, data from the World Bank shows. In 2019, before the pandemic, travel and tourism accounted for 12% of Sri Lanka's GDP.

With its white-sand beaches, temple ruins, and tea plantations, Sri Lanka draws in tourists searching for adventure, spirituality, and off-the-beaten path itineraries.
NurPhoto / Contributor / Getty Images

But on Easter Sunday in April 2019, coordinated attacks carried out by suicide bombers across the country killed more than 250 people. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, international arrivals to the country dropped by as much as 70%. Arrivals in 2019 fell to 2 million and plummeted to barely more than half a million in 2020 as the pandemic gripped the world, per the World Bank.

Sanjaya Sri Chandra Kumara is a Sri Lankan who, first as a tuk-tuk driver and now as a tour operator, has had a front seat to the country's many tourism swings.

"When I started in 2017, tourism was a good job, it was my only income," he told Insider. "The money was good everywhere in Sri Lanka. We had a good life."

"In 2019 after the terror attack, tourism was torn down again, but all over the world people wanted to help Sri Lanka, so people wanted to visit," Kumara added.

The country's dependent relationship with tourism, as evidenced by authorities' interaction with travelers, is still on display in the current crisis.

"There is a police presence and road blocks occasionally. We have been stopped once," Clair Louise Todd, a Brit currently on a monthlong trip across Sri Lanka, told Insider. "The police were very friendly, even happy to have a photo taken."

Now, as many countries across the globe reopen their borders and reap the financial benefits of welcoming back tourists, Sri Lanka is facing a fresh crisis. With its foreign reserves at a record low, the country is on the brink of bankruptcy, and the economic crisis has become a political crisis. The country's leadership has declared a state of emergency twice since the beginning of April. Sri Lanka is also facing a food crisis, with imports down and domestically grown food on a decline thanks to a fertilizer ban.

People have taken to the streets by the thousands in protest. As protests deepened and the death toll rose to five with another 190 people injured, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned from his post on May 9. On May 14, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the newly elected prime minister, told the BBC he would ensure families get three meals a day — but also said the crisis was going to get worse before it got better. Three days later, he said the country was down to its last day of gasoline.

"This has been building for years and years," said Gary Bowerman, a travel analyst who runs a weekly podcast called the South East Asia Travel Show. "It's the perfect storm after Covid-19. Sri Lanka hasn't had any foreign exchange reserves for three or four years. The year before Covid there were the bombings, which really hit tourism hard, and tourism is such a vital source of foreign exchange in Sri Lanka."

Bowerman stressed that government mismanagement is at the root of the problem: "It's been debt mismanagement for decades."

'I was just there, didn't even notice'

But you probably wouldn't glean the severity of the situation from looking at the Facebook groups where travelers swap tips.

One of these, called "Sri Lanka Travel and Tourism," has 47,000 followers. The page keeps lighting up with comments from people trying to suss out whether or not they should currently visit Sri Lanka, looking for rides out of the airport, and seeking advice on getting gas in the fuel-strapped country.

"Is it possible (through Uber) to go to one city to another due to the petrol shortage?" a French member of the group asked on 17 May.

The comments on these questions are full of travelers chiming in with their own advice, name-dropping gas stations and convenience stores where they managed to refuel. Consistently, tourists and locals alike encourage people to keep visiting.

"I was just there, didn't even notice. I had an amazing three weeks," one woman wrote on 11 May in response to another user's question about protests and safety. "There are protests but as soon as you're out of Colombo you're in a holiday bubble."

A series of disconnects

The story of traveling and living in Sri Lanka right now reads like a series of disconnects. Visitors don't describe the same reality locals do; some locals say they don't see the version of life the media is portraying.

Bowerman, the travel analyst, said the disconnect could be partially attributed to geography. "Sri Lanka is very small, and the protests do seem to be contained in the capital of Colombo. Tourists tend to head out of Colombo and not spend huge amounts of time there."

"If you head down to one of the resorts in the south of the country, you may not notice it quite so much," he added, referring to the shortages and blackouts.

Mount Lovina beach, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
John Harper / Getty Images

Caroline Crowder, an American who lives in Singapore and works in education tech, booked a flight to Sri Lanka in January. While her visit ended before the protests began, she said she experienced fuel and food shortages even back then.

"Every place I ate had something crossed off their menu that they couldn't provide because they couldn't get the food imported," Crowder told Insider. "At a nice Japanese restaurant at Galle Face mall, they had no liquor and no meats with the exception of chicken."

Since then, things have gotten worse.

Sarkar, the blogger, left the country in May. "The only change I had to do in itinerary was to take the shortest route to optimise fuel usage," Sarkar said of her trip.

Soldiers stand guard at a road checkpoint in Colombo on May 11, 2022. Sri Lankan police have been ordered to go on the offensive and use live ammunition to stop rioting.
ISHARA S. KODIKARA / Contributor / Getty Images

Like Sarkar, Clair Louise Todd, the Brit who described the police presence, researched the trip before going through with it. Todd and her partner arrived in Sri Lanka on 10 May and found protests, burning hotels, and looting: "We were quite shocked and were stopped four times in Negombo by protesters as we were traveling to our first hotel."

The couple rented a tuk-tuk for the entirety of their trip. While gas lines can stretch kilometers long, Todd said locals keep helping them out. In the central town of Dambulla, the owner of a closed garage gave them fuel out of his own car; elsewhere, they bought five liters off a local man who had some gas to spare.

"Another time, a garage that was closed had a small amount so they let us fill up," Todd said. "Within minutes, hundreds of people started queuing when they saw us filling up. The owner closed up again and told everyone, 'no more fuel.'"

Authorities urge travelers to reconsider their plans

The US Embassy has been publishing demonstration alerts on its site consistently since the beginning of April. It issued a level 3 "reconsider travel" advisory in mid-April due to fuel and medicine shortages. As of mid-May, countries including the UK, Ireland, and New Zealand have all advised against non-essential travel to Sri Lanka.

"If you're a tourist and you're thinking, 'well, I can help the country, I can bring in my dollars,' there is an element of truth in there, but there are also a number of dangers," Bowerman said.

"From a tourism standpoint, there are a lot of issues you need to think about, and this is definitely going to get worse," he added.

Some travelers say they are changing their plans. A woman from Greece in the Sri Lanka Facebook group told Insider she's leaning towards canceling the flight she'd booked for the end of May, and some Facebook commenters are suggesting travelers cancel or delay their trips.

MAY 19: Sri Lankan riot police officers fire tear gas and water cannons during the university students anti-government protest amid the economic crisis on May 19, 2022 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Buddhika Weerasinghe / Contributor / Getty Images

Meanwhile, multiple Sri Lankans described a state of crisis that's bled into their own lives — but it's not stopping them from welcoming tourists.

For some, it's practical.

Kumara, the tuk-tuk driver, said that having tourists in his car is one of the only ways he has a shot at getting gas or getting through protestor-blocked roads: "When I have tourists in my car, they give me a chance, every place in Sri Lanka — but only when tourists in my car. If I go alone, they don't give me a chance."

Others view tourism as the way out of the country's economic crisis.

Sachintha Lakpriya, a Sri Lankan who described himself as a full-time traveler, said he's spent as much as six hours waiting in gas lines: "In some cases, despite waiting in line for a long time, there were times when I finally had to go home without gas or fuel."

Even so, Lakpriya said he was "really happy" to see tourists in Sri Lanka right now: "Currently we are facing lack of foreign reserves, and tourism will help us to raise them again."

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