A two-way street | Daily News

A two-way street

Sri Lanka has an ambitious programme to register 2.5 million tourist arrivals per year in the short term. It is only right that we should provide various incentives to entice them to Sri Lanka, as the competition in our region for tourist dollars is immense. We should focus on our Unique Selling Propositions (USPs) such as Nature, Culture and Adventure in a compact island to attract them.

Sri Lanka already has one of the most liberal visa regimes in the world, with citizens of most countries able to apply for an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) on payment of a reasonable fee. On the basis of reciprocity, citizens of Singapore, Maldives and Seychelles do not have to fulfill this requirement. Citizens of only around 20 countries need a visa in advance to visit Sri Lanka.

Now, in a bid to attract more tourists, Sri Lankan authorities plan to offer 180-day visa free access to citizens of several countries from April 1. The Cabinet has approved the proposal presented by Tourism Development, Wild Life and Christian Religious Affairs Minister John Amaratunga to grant a six-month free visa period for selected countries.

Accordingly, visa free entry to Sri Lanka will be granted to tourists from Thailand, United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea, Canada, United States of America, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand and countries of the European Union. This is indeed a laudable move that will help attract more tourists and business travellers from these countries and regions.

President Maithripala Sirisena, who has sometimes opposed certain decisions taken by the Cabinet, has wholeheartedly endorsed this move and suggested that the visa-free facility should be extended to citizens of the predominantly Buddhist countries in Asia such as Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. This too will be a timely move since Sri Lanka has many Buddhist and other places of worship that can attract pilgrim traffic from these countries. Take away the hassle of obtaining a visa and all a traveller has to do is buy an air ticket and get on the plane.

But it is time that the Government spared a thought about the hapless Sri Lankan traveller too. The stark reality is that Sri Lankans can travel on visa free, Visa on Arrival (VOA) or E-Visa basis to only 45 countries. Given that some of these are remote islands and territories that no one visits anyway, the actual number of countries that Sri Lankans can go to on a visa-free basis is far less. This is why the Sri Lankan passport is often called a “powerless” one.

According to the Annual Passport Index released a couple of months ago, the World’s Most Powerful passport this year belongs to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Their citizens can gain entry to 167 countries visa free. Singapore is in second place, tied with Germany, with visa free entry to 166 countries. The fact that two Asian nations hold the top positions is significant. Singapore’s neighbour Malaysia has the eleventh most powerful passport in the world, with visa-free entry to 161 nations.

Maldives is ranked 51, with visa-free entry to 83 nations including the UK, while India’s passport is ranked 66th, with visa free or VOA entry to 65 countries. Sri Lanka is languishing in the 84th spot, shared with Libya and Lebanon. There are several other passport indices such as Henley, which places the Sri Lankan passport even lower, at the 95th position.

This is no place for Sri Lanka to be in and indicates a dismal failure by successive Governments to negotiate with other countries for visa-free or VOA travel on behalf of Sri Lankans. To add insult to injury, even some of the poorest countries in Africa are far ahead of Sri Lanka in the passport indices. True, some of the factors such as the 30-year internal conflict were beyond the control of the Foreign Ministry per se. But now 10 years have passed since the war ended and negotiations must begin with other countries on removing that stigma, which may have prevented them from giving visa free status to Sri Lankans for many decades.

The Foreign Ministry has successfully negotiated with many countries for visa-free travel for holders of diplomatic passports, which does not serve any purpose for people-to-people contact. Sri Lanka is now a Middle Income country with a considerable percentage of the population having a good disposable income. The rise of Ultra Low Cost Carriers has made travel affordable even for the Middle Class.

It is therefore surprising that the authorities have not negotiated proactively at least with more Asian countries such as Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippines as well as African and South American countries to give Sri Lankans VOA, without waiting for countries to give it unilaterally, like Indonesia did. Now that Sri Lanka is giving VOA to a number of Buddhist-majority countries in the region, VOA for Sri Lankans should be negotiated with all of them, without exception, through Visa Waiver Agreements. We cannot go up the passport rankings automatically – we should work hard to make the Sri Lankan passport feel more welcome around the world.


 

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