Travel news: Sri Lanka: safe or not?

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Travellers to Sri Lanka who compare advice from the British and Australian governments will see a sharp and confusing difference. The UK Foreign Office warns only against travel to the north and east of the Indian Ocean island - areas rarely visited by tourists. But Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs says the whole country is dangerous: "We advise you to reconsider your need to travel to Sri Lanka ... Politically motivated violence including assassinations, bombings in public places and on roads is escalating and there is widespread civil unrest".

Since 1983 conflict of varying intensity has raged between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, known as the Tamil Tigers). Five years ago, a ceasefire was agreed, but violence has flared up since. In 2006, a series of suicide attacks against government officials in Colombo killed 18 people and injured many more.

"There is a continuing risk of British nationals and other foreigners becoming indiscriminately caught up in attacks", says the Foreign Office. The Australians, though, have placed the whole island on the second-highest alert level, citing "ongoing civil unrest, the volatile security situation and the very high risk of terrorist attacks".

Australian diplomats in Sri Lanka have been instructed to avoid travel to locations that may be potential targets and "to curtail all non-essential travel". In particular, staff have been told not to travel on the section of the road between the capital and the Parliamentary Complex on afternoons when it is in session. Sri Lanka's tourist industry was badly hit by the catastrophic tsunami two years ago. It was recovering strongly, but last November, the LTTE announced it would pursue an independent state through struggle rather than negotiation.

The Australian government advice also points out that a group calling itself the High Security Zone Residents' Liberation Force "has threatened to attack civilian targets in the south including hospitals and dams".

* Sensitivity about photography is also running high in Sri Lanka, according to the Foreign Office. Visitors, it says, have been detained by the police after taking photographs of buildings or vehicles used by VIPs. "If you are uncertain you should assume you cannot take a photograph", recommends the FO.