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How safe is the solo female tourist in Sri Lanka?


By Sajitha Prematunge

An 18-year-old Swiss girl was sexually harassed at knife-point in Nuwara-Eliya on January 4. A British national recently died under mysterious circumstances in Maligawatta, Colombo. It was in this backdrop that Minister of Tourism Development, John Amaratunga advised women to refrain from travelling alone. Crimes committed against tourists, immediately followed by such a warning coming from a state ministry invariably have adverse repercussions on the ocal tourism industry.

As per the UN Multi-country Study on Men and Violence 14.5 percent of the sample of Sri Lankan men had perpetrated rape at some point in their lives. Of them, 96.5 percent experienced no legal consequences and 11.1 percent had raped four or more girls or women. According to 'Sri Lanka Crime Stats', NationMaster, Sri Lanka is ranked 42nd out of 93 countries in assault rate. The assault rate, accounted based on the number of assaults recorded by police per 100,000 population, for Sri Lanka was 109.4 in 2011. Sri Lanka ranks 34th out of 80 countries with a rape rate (number of rape incidents in per 100,000 citizens) of 7.3 in 2004. The number of police officers per 100,000 population in Sri Lanka was 0.7 as at 2011 ranking Sri Lanka at 11th out of 17.

Oblivious tourist

However, German globetrotters George and Corina are quite oblivious to these statistics. This was their first visit to Sri Lanka and after two and a half weeks of extensive travelling, that also involved snorkelling with the turtles at Kosgoda, they were just winding up their vacation. "We took trains and plenty of tuks, stayed at hotels and did homestays," says George. When asked if she had ever had to face sexual advances by Sri Lankan males Corina answered in the negative. Her scariest experience in Sri Lanka is a spider in their hotel room. But on a more serious note, Corina admitted that they choose their accommodation carefully.

As a seasoned traveller who has visited India, Japan, China, Morocco, South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Europe and USA, George opined that Sri Lanka is absolutely safe. "We went to India about five years ago and we felt comparatively safer here than in India. The traffic in India is way worse than here. And the trains here are better than the sleeper trains in India. They were really packed." Obviously they hadn't been in a Sri Lankan train during rush hour.

"India didn't feel safe. It's just a gut feeling. It's difficult to describe," said Corina. George recounted how Indian trains were segregated into male and female only compartments. "It was new to us. I couldn't go to the female only compartment but Corina could join me in the male only. But it was awkward because all the men would look at us weird."

Referring to the recent sexual harassment incident in Nuwara-Eliya, George opined that such things could happen in any country, India, for example, in the recent past. "But we have never had to face such a situation," said Corina. But in Morocco last year Corina was walking on her own for just five minutes during which she was harassed by at least five people. "She went to the beach for 20 minutes yesterday, nothing happened," said George. So it's safe to say Sri Lanka is safer than Morocco.

They unanimously agreed that they'd come back for a visit and said that they have no qualms about recommending the country to their friends. "Just watch out for tuk-tuks when crossing the road," warned Corina.

Eleanor, aged 19, and Olivia, aged 23, from the UK have travelled extensively in Asia. "My sister's volunteering here," said Olivia, who thinks Sri Lanka is a perfectly safe country, despite the recent report of sexual harassment in Nuwara-Eliya. "But I never travel alone, where ever I go. There's safety in numbers you know," smiled Olivia. She added that travelling is better done during the day. "Just to be on the safe side." Among other safety tips for tourists they suggest keeping somebody back at home posted about their whereabouts at all times. "Just have your wits about you," said Olivia. "Keep necessary information on you at all times," said Eleanor. The duo has been able to take tuk tuks, buses and trains without being manhandled.

Leanna from Sweden has been visiting Sri Lanka every year for 18 years. And this year she had her mother tag along. The greatest change for her are the high-rises. "When I came here 18 years ago, there were none of this," she said dramatically sweeping her hand over the vista of high-rise building coming up around the Gangarama Temple area. But as far as security is concerned, Leanna is satisfied. "I don't think Sri Lanka is more dangerous than any other country. As a woman you should not travel alone. This doesn't just apply to Sri Lanka. You shouldn't travel alone anywhere." One of Leanna's friends living alone in Sri Lanka was robbed. There was an attempted burglary where Leanna herself was staying, but they had woken up and scared the burglars away. When asked about the level of security in the country and whether the presence of law enforcement officers is adequate, Leanna said, "It's the same as Sweden. I never felt afraid here."

Information for tourists

Independent tourists like George and Corina, Eleanor and Olivia or Leanna, were not briefed by any tourism-related local authority about what they should do if ever their safety was in jeopardy. Backpackers and low budget tourists, that make the bulk of our annual tourist arrivals, often fall through the cracks because they travel independently without the aid of a travel agency. How do the authorities keep a tab on them? Tourist data is vital to the industry for tourism promotion purposes. Besides, without an idea of how many tourists of which budget category are in the country how can these tourists be provided adequate protection?

Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), Director General, Malraj B. Kiriella offered to explain. "The annual survey on departing foreign tourists is a survey conducted by SLTDA at the Bandaranaike International Airport. This captures information from both package and non-package tourists." He further explained that such safety issues have not been raised so far. "However, the purpose of the establishment of tourist police is to ensure the safety of the tourists." The Tourist Police has recently received 18 bikes and four beach rovers from SLTDA and Kiriella informed that they will be stationed at key tourist locations across the country.

When asked why tourists are not provided safety guidance by any tourism related local authority. Kiriella said that such information is readily accessible at Tourist Information Centres established at the Airport and Sri Lanka tourism website. "Besides, nowadays tourists do their own research. Therefore, they are aware of the conditions in their travel destinations," said Kiriella. He added that the Tourist Police operates around the clock offering safety guidelines and assistance. The hotline for tourist police, 1912 is functional 24 X 7.

"We are also in the process of further strengthening the Tourist Police Division so that they can intervene in such situations more efficiently and effectively. The Tourist Police recently launched a separate campaign to raise awareness among tourists on their own safety. "These are direct measures. Indirectly, the licensing, regulation and streamlining processes, initiated by the SLTDA, are also aimed at ensuring the safety of tourists."

Tourist Guides

Tourist Guides operate independently as well under authorization of the Tourism Ministry. When asked what is being done to regulate tourist guides, Kiriella said that under the SLTDA Act, it is mandatory for tourist guides to register at SLTDA. "When registering as guides, they are required to submit police reports, report from the Grama Niladhari, medical certificates and driving license. So, specific standards are maintained," assured Kiriella. Registration is subjected to cancellation under certain circumstances.

There are mainly four kinds of tourist guides. National Tourist Guides and Chauffer Guides are expected to follow a course conducted by the Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management (SLITHM), informed Kiriella. Moreover, random spot checks are carried out by Officials of SLTDA and the Tourist Police Division in order to maintain standards and avoid undesired issues.


"Some tourists hire unregistered guides because they are cheaper," observed Sri Lanka Institute of National Tourist Guide Lecturers, Interim Committee Secretary, Sumedha Chandradasa. He reiterated the importance of hiring a reputed guide registered under the Ministry of Tourism. He also pointed out that there are many loopholes in the legal system. "Independently operating guides are not regulated because there is no enacting body. Plus there is no law to prosecute the guilty."

Concurring with Chandradasa's statement Jetwing Travels, Managing Director, Shiromal Cooray pointed out that the Tourist Police lacks authority to prosecute perpetrators. "This provides greater leeway for offenders to take advantage of and could lead to increased political interventions."

Chandradasa pointed out that the strength of the Tourist Police force is inadequate in popular tourist destinations such as Kandy and beach destinations. "There have been multiple reports of tourists being harassed by three-wheeler drivers," observed Chandradasa. "Tourist police officers in civvies and uniform can be deployed in such places to avoid such unpleasant situations."

Cooray suggested that while the Tourist Police be strengthened in numbers, they should also be empowered by formulating relevant laws which would allow them to arrest and prosecute offenders. She opined -that the Nuwara-Eliya incident, being an isolated incident, would not affect the country's tourism industry. "It could happen anywhere, even in a developed country." She pointed out that female tourists are expected to take certain precautions wherever they go.

Chandradasa observed that Sri Lanka is relatively safer than other countries in the region. "But by going solo you're only asking to be mugged or harassed," said Chandradasa, reiterating that tourists are expected to take certain individual safeguards.

Pix by Kamal Bogoda

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