Travelers to Sri Lanka can be justifiably concerned after the Easter Sunday bomb blasts in churches and luxury hotels in the capital, Colombo, which killed at least 310 people and injured more than 450.
While it appears local authorities in Sri Lanka were aware of threats to public safety, there were few warnings to foreigners. However, that has all changed and the UK government is now warning on its Foreign Travel Advice website that “terrorists are very likely to carry out attacks in Sri Lanka.”
The Foreign Office noted that security has been stepped up across the island, and there are ongoing security operations. “These may continue for a number of days and the situation remains dynamic,” it advised.
Similarly, the U.S. State Department is urging travelers to “exercise increased caution in Sri Lanka due to terrorism.”
“Terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks in Sri Lanka. Terrorists may attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, local government facilities, hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, parks, major sporting and cultural events, educational institutions, airports, and other public areas,” according to the State Department travel advisory.
For those travelers already in Sri Lanka, U.S. authorities recommend paying attention to their surroundings when traveling to tourist locations and crowded public venues, following the instructions of local authorities and monitoring local media for breaking events and adjusting plans based on new information.
The Canadian government on its travel advisory website is urging its citizens to exercise a high degree of caution.
“There are identifiable safety and security concerns, or the safety and security situation could change with little notice. You should exercise a high degree of caution at all times, monitor local media, and follow the instructions of local authorities,” it stated.
Global travel security advisor WorldAware noted that the targeting of high-profile luxury hotels in the heart of Colombo indicates that the attackers aimed to create an atmosphere of fear and insecurity that could adversely affect business operations and drive away tourists and multinational companies alike.
“The government will likely undertake preventive security measures in the wake of the bombings to prevent a sharp dip in tourism and minimize the departure of foreign businesses. Enhanced security is likely at tourist locations, high-end hotels, and critical infrastructure such as ports, airports, and train stations,” they noted in a security briefing. WorldAware also suggested that the government may designate areas in Colombo and elsewhere as “high-security” zones, limiting access to authorized government and security personnel.
What Should Travel Advisors Know About Travel Risk?
For the most part, leisure travel advisors are not expected to provide risk assessments for travelers — unlike their corporate counterparts whose clients are subject to duty-of-care obligations.
Sam Davies, regional security manager, Australasia, for global travel security provider International SOS, told Skift: “Duty of care does not apply to leisure travel in the same way that it does to business travel. A person going on holiday is generally seen as choosing to accept the risks, whereas business travel involves an employer exposing their employee to risks and is therefore responsible for mitigating them.”
This means the obligation falls directly on the leisure traveler to identify risks and to ensure his or her own safety; hence the extensive resources provided by most governments which encourage travelers to register their trips using Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) in the United States. The Australian government’s Smartraveller service similarly encourages travelers to register itineraries and contact details to help authorities contact them and their family in the event of an emergency. By signing up, travelers also gain access to a free email service to provide them with the updates to the government’s travel advice.
Besides government services, a number of commercial operators provide advice and assistance, some of it for free. Control Risks, for example, maintains an interactive Riskmap that identifies hot spots and disasters around the world.
International SOS works with many travel agencies around the world to support organizations and individual travelers to mitigate risks and respond in emergencies, according to Davies. One of its services is an advanced TravelTracker platform that sends travelers pre-trip advisories and alerts them to any incidents in their vicinity once the trip begins. “This could be something that you need to avoid like a major protest being planned for the next day, or it could be an emergency, such as an incoming cyclone or a terrorist attack,” he explained.
Putting the Sri Lanka Attack into Perspective
While events like the recent terror attack dominate headlines, Davies noted that there is a major gap between perception and reality when it comes to security risks. “In our experience, most people’s understanding of risk is closely aligned with what is in the news, so topics like terrorism and war are regularly the issues of highest concern. In reality, 1.25 million people die every year in road traffic accidents, and many more are injured. Similarly, natural disasters affect a large number of people every year, including business and leisure travelers, but this serious risk is rarely considered by travelers or organizations,” he said.
The UK Foreign Office warns travelers to familiarize themselves with the risks of terrorism before they leave the country, but terrorist attacks are just one of several risks identified on the advisory website.
Other warnings cover adherence to local customs and the serious penalties for breaking local laws, dangers from carbon monoxide poisoning in some regions, theft and crime risks, and the dangers associated with adventure sports.
“Think about what you are doing at all times and trust your instincts. Don’t take risks that you wouldn’t in the UK,” the site advises.
Most government travel advisories recommend comprehensive travel insurance for all travelers, and travel agents routinely sell insurance as part of their offerings. While insurance may not prevent problems, it can certainly help travelers in distress.
As Canadian authorities pointed out in a recent travel guide: “It is up to you to buy the best travel insurance you can afford and to understand the terms of your policy. Your travel insurance should include health, life, and disability coverage that will help you avoid the cost of hospitalization or medical treatment outside Canada.”
It appears that travel advisors have no legal requirement to ensure the safety of leisure travelers, but there’s a strong service imperative to “do their best for their clients,” and this should, at the very least, include pointing travelers toward the freely available resources that help identify and mitigate risk.