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Sri Lanka: after the terror attacks, what are travellers’ options?

Simon Calder
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Sri Lanka: after the terror attacks, what are travellers’ options?

Eight British citizens are among more than 300 people killed in suicide bombings at churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.

The country has long been popular with British tourists, and many UK citizens with Sri Lankan heritage were on the island for the Easter break.

Thousands more are booked to travel to the island in the next few days and weeks. These are the key questions and answers for travellers.

What is the latest official advice?

On Tuesday morning, 23 April, the Foreign Office updated its travel advice to warn: “Terrorists are very likely to carry out attacks in Sri Lanka. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners.

“Security has been stepped up across the island and there are ongoing security operations. This has included controlled explosions of suspicious packages and vehicles, and temporary evacuations of buildings.

“These may continue for a number of days. Follow the advice of local security authorities, hotel security staff and your tour company.”

The Sri Lankan authorities have declared a nationwide state of emergency and curfew, which currently extend from 8pm to 4am. Anyone with a flight booked from Colombo airport will be allowed to travel during the curfew provided they have their passport and a ticket valid for travel that day.

People who fly in to the airport during the curfew will be allowed to travel on to their intended destination on the island by road – again, with proof that they are bona-fide passengers.

The US State Department is warning American citizens: “Avoid public areas, especially hotels and places of worship.”

Among western governments, Australia is the only one to have raised the alert status for Sri Lanka. It is urging citizens planning to visit the island to “reconsider your need to travel”.

The Shangri-La Hotel, one of those attacked on Easter Sunday, has said: “We are deeply saddened and shocked by the attacks in Colombo.

“The Shangri-La Hotel Colombo team remains ready to offer any other assistance and support to our guests and their families during this difficult time.

It has set up a call helpline, +603 2025 4619, for affected guests and their loved ones.

For travellers in Sri Lanka who want to leave – what are the options?

Significantly, the Foreign Office has stopped short of warning against travel to Sri Lanka. Had it done so, British travel firms would immediately have had to launch a rescue airlift to fly home UK holidaymakers. As it is, there is no automatic entitlement to an early departure.

Abta, the travel association, says its members “are in close contact with customers currently in Sri Lanka, and are offering any support or assistance they may need”.

Colombo airport remains open with operations normal – except that departing passengers must arrive four hours ahead of their flights due to enhanced security checks.

SriLankan Airlines, the only carrier with direct flights to and from the UK, says: “We are doing our utmost to assist as many passengers as possible.”

Emirates, which flies many British travellers between the UK and Sri Lanka, says: “Flights between Colombo and Dubai are operating as scheduled.

However, customers who booked tickets on or prior to 21 April have the option to change their booking by up to seven days or can request a refund.

“Customers must contact their booking offices for any changes to their bookings.”

These options apply only to the airline, not to the tour operator Emirates Holidays, which is free to impose whatever conditions it wishes.

Qatar Airways, which has five flights a day between its Doha hub and Colombo with many UK connections, also offers some flexibility to passengers booked to travel to or from Sri Lanka up to the end of April.

The airline says: ”We appreciate that some passengers may wish to change their immediate travel plans.

“To address such requests and give flexibility to our customers, Qatar Airways will permit customers to make changes free of charge.”

Eligible customers should contact their local ticket office.

Trailfinders is one of the biggest travel firms to Sri Lanka, with around 500 clients on the island at the time of the blasts. It says the majority are continuing with their plans as normal.

What about people due to fly to the island but who no longer want to go?

The legal position is that travellers are generally not able to cancel without penalty; only if the Foreign Office were to add Sri Lanka to the “no-go” list would that be possible.

Insurance will not cover what is known as “disinclination to travel”.

Independent travellers who simply become “no-shows” stand to lose most or all their money.

People booked on package holidays may be in a stronger position. They can talk to their travel firm about deferring their trip to Sri Lanka or re-routing to somewhere else. Trailfinders has contacted everyone due to travel on or before 25 April but has had very few wanting to cancel. A spokesperson said: "The situation is fairly fluid, so we're having to deal with everything on a case by case scenario at this stage. but obviously we will do all we can to assist anyone wanting to amend their plans." Kuoni says any customers wanting to amend can ask for help finding an alternative. But such solutions will depend on the flexibility of airlines and hotels, and there are no promises. Other travel companies may have different policies. An Abta spokesperson said: “While the Foreign Office hasn’t put any travel restrictions to Sri Lanka in place, meaning normal booking conditions would apply if customers no longer wish to travel, travel companies’ policies will vary, depending on specific circumstances. “Some Abta members are offering customers who are due to travel imminently the opportunity to change their booking, should they wish to do so. Travellers should contact their travel company to discuss their cancellation policies, and the options available. “If you have booked all of your travel arrangements separately and you no longer wish to travel, you should speak to the individual companies about their cancellation policies.” In normal times, how risky is travel to Sri Lanka? A long and bloody civil war haunted Sri Lanka from 1983 to 2009, with many parts of the island off limits to UK. For most of the past decade the island has been relatively calm. But in 2018 violence flared again and a state of emergency was declared island-wide after inter-communal strife between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority. The Foreign Office warns “You should be aware of the risk of sexual assault, spiked drinks, road accidents and drowning due to dangerous tides.” But it adds: “Most visits to Sri Lanka are trouble-free.” http://players.brightcove.net/624246174001/default_default/index.html?videoId=5837728067001Support free-thinking journalism and subscribe to Independent Minds What effect will the attacks have on tourism to Sri Lanka? Tourism is the cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s economy. In a typical year, 200,000 UK citizens visit the country. This appalling series of attacks is presumably aimed at deterring visitors and causing maximum damage to the island’s prosperity and employment. It will inevitably deter some prospective travellers. Yet even during the civil war, tourism to Sri Lanka continued with British visitors especially keen to visit a beautiful, fascinating and welcoming island.