Tourism revived under the ‘new normal’ | Daily News

Tourism revived under the ‘new normal’

The chartered aircraft from Ukraine at the MRIA
The chartered aircraft from Ukraine at the MRIA

Former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia, Udayanga Weeratunga who spearheaded the pilot project to revive the tourism sector in Sri Lanka said the government was prepared to detect and handle the cases that tested positive for Covid-19 among the group of Ukrainian tourists who arrived in the island recently.

After conducting initial tests, seven people tested positive for the virus among the group. However, after conducting additional PCR tests, only five of the 394 foreign tourists who arrived in the country through the newly rolled out project were confirmed to have tested positive for Covid-19, eliminating two of the previously confirmed cases.

“We were prepared for this. I was expecting five to eight percent of the tourists to test positive for Covid-19. As a precaution we allocated 25 percent of the hotel rooms to treat the patients and to accommodate the doctors, medical staff and the Army,” Weeratunga said.

Sri Lanka saw the first batch of foreign tourists entering the country after the once blooming tourism industry came to a standstill due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, early this year. Despite the pandemic still showing no signs of slowing down, Weeratunga, along with the Ministry of Tourism, decided to launch a pilot project to revive the industry under the strict supervision of the health authorities.

The first charter flight carrying around 180 tourists landed at the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) on Monday, December 28. The event was applauded by the shareholders of the tourism industry as it was a sign of progress, nearly nine months after the Government took the decision to stop foreign tourists from entering the country to facilitate the repatriation of Sri Lankans employed overseas.

The country was preparing to welcome tourists since August 1, but had to abandon the plans due to the sudden surge in the amount of local Covid-19 cases. Health authorities pushed to postpone recommencing the planned revival of tourism as the sudden increase in Covid-19 patients meant they needed more hospital beds and quarantine centres.

On Thursday, December 1, 2020, the death toll of Covid-19 victims reached 204 after five people succumbed to health complications caused by the virus. Statistics by the Health Promotion Bureau showed that by Friday, January 1, morning the number of Covid-19 patients detected in the country, including the tourists who arrived on the charter flights this week, was nearly 43,300. The newly arrived tourists had tested positive for the virus despite testing negative through PCR tests recommended by the authorities and conducted prior to their arrival in Sri Lanka.

The tour groups were subjected to PCR tests prior to their departure to Sri Lanka and also underwent PCR tests upon arrival in Sri Lanka. They were accommodated in four designated hotels where they had zero contact with the locals other than those employed at the hotels.

The Director of Operations at the Sri Lanka Airport and Aviation Services, Shehan Sumanasekara said the tourists will stay for seven to eight days in four designated hotels during which time they will have zero interaction with the locals.

Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga had a positive attitude towards the project to restart tourism. “About three million people are depending on tourism in Sri Lanka. For the past nine months they had no business because we didn’t have tourists. This pilot project will revive the tourism sector. The tourists will travel in bubbles and therefore will not mix with the locals,” he said.

Responding to issues concerning the pilot project, especially the detection of Covid-19 cases, Deputy Director of Health Services Dr. Hemantha Herath said the shortcomings will be rectified.

Although the tourism industry is one of the country’s key foreign revenue generators, the industry only recorded 507,311 tourist arrivals in 2020. These numbers were recorded during the period between January and March, when the pandemic brought the industry to a standstill. No tourists arrived in the country as a result of the termination of all passenger flights and arrivals of ships to the country from March 18 onwards. According to the findings of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), tourism dipped by 69.7 percent in 2020 compared to 2019.

The new project initiated by Weeratunga, the former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia, follows a ‘travel bubble’ concept and is expected to continue till January 19, 2021. This project is expected to ensure the arrival of tourists from Ukraine in 12 charter flights to Sri Lanka.

During an interview, Weeratunga said the guests would be offered visits to the Elephant Orphanage, Galle Fort, Spice Gardens, Turtle Hatchery, and to Laksala while operating under strict health guidelines. The initiative is expected to bring revenue of about US$ 10 million to Sri Lanka. Hotels will also offer an all-inclusive package at no less than US$ 100 per day. “We wanted to kick-start the tourism industry, considering the economic situation we are facing. I took responsibility because I knew the tour operators in Russia and was able to initiate this pilot project with them,” he told the Daily News.

Join UP!, TPJ and Compass have agreed to work with the Sri Lankan government on this project and are expected to bear any losses incurred.

The Government tapping into the New Year holiday season, he said, was a great opportunity. However, Weeratunga said it was hard to revive tourism with the guidelines that are put in place by the health authorities.

Some tour operators said the pilot project could create a monopoly among major tourism players.

Responding to this claim, Weeratunga said, “Someone has to take the full financial responsibility of the charter flight that is bringing the tourists into the country. If we are selling a package worth US$ 1,500 per tourist, the financial responsibility is that figure into around 200. Who will be willing to bear that? That is why I spoke to the airlines and also to major tour operators to share the responsibility. Otherwise, the plans are not possible. That is my main project. I am not concerned about who works with these tour operators. The Government is not involved in the business but in bringing the tourists down legally.”

He said that anyone willing to bear the full financial responsibility has the freedom to bring tourists from anywhere in the world and is not restricted to Russia and Ukraine.

“If we can’t do this it’s going to be harder. But if we consider the health guidelines, we can’t start tourism. I have faced many issues after bringing down the tourists. But I will not always be with them. I will only get involved in the start. As a government we have to make sure that there is space to restart tourism,” Weeratunga said.