Tourism pilot project will open doors for business as usual | Sunday Observer

Tourism pilot project will open doors for business as usual

10 January, 2021

The former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia, UdayangaWeeratunga, the brainchild behind the tourism pilot project launched at the end of December 2020 said the Covid-19 health protocols that are in place is a key hurdle when bringing down high-end foreign tourists.

The pilot project based on the ‘travel bubble’ concept where tourist groups travel according to a pre-planned itinerary approved by the Government was launched to identify shortcomings in the process that should be rectified before opening the country to welcome commercial and charter flights officially. The Government anticipates to do this by about January 23, though the date hasn’t yet been confirmed.

Weeratunga told the Sunday Observer that he had the confidence to bring down 44,000 tourists from nations of the former Soviet Union. Since the launch of the project, flights carrying nearly 750 Ukrainian tourists have arrived at the Mattala International Airport in five flights by January 7. Twelve charter flights carrying tourists will arrive in the country under this pilot project which is due to end by January 19.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: Why was Ukraine chosen as the destination to bring down tourists in the pilot project? Weren’t there other options?

A. The first flight from Russia was due to land here on December 26 but that flight was cancelled. The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Chairperson, Kirmali Fernando translated the health guidelines into Russian and sent them to the tour operators in Russia, after which the flights were cancelled.

But Ukraine was willing to send their citizens to Sri Lanka despite the restrictions that were put in place. I spoke to the two airlines and they were willing to be a part of this project.

We wanted to do this as a promotion. To make this project successful I spoke to everyone including the hotels and the Mattala International Airport officials to provide their services at a concessionary rate.

Q: There is a plan to bring 500 German tourists to Sri Lanka. Are you involved in this too? Do you think it would be successful?

A. No, I am not involved in this. Bringing tourists to the country is not an easy task. I challenge anyone to come forward and do this.

Q: Do you think the pilot project was successful?

A. The last charter flight in the pilot project is due to land on January 19. Thereafter, they will continue to bring tourists to the country in the normal way. This project was very important because, for the first time we have international tourists coming directly to the Mattala International Airport. That didn’t happen before.

I think the pilot project was successful. But at the last minute the Tourism Board created issues and we had to cancel several tours. The tour group that came on December 28 and 29 left on January 7 and only half of them got the chance to visit Yala.

With the health guidelines that are in place we can’t bring tourists to the country. If the tourists are willing to travel in a bubble, we have to give them special consideration. Even the guidelines issued on January 6 are not hundred percent satisfactory.

Q: The way the Ukraine tourists conducted themselves was criticised. People said they were acting irresponsibly. What do you have to say about this?

A. These tourists come in a group, like a family. They sit in a flight together for 14-16 hours, and are transported together. They even stay in the same rooms. But, during the next excursion the tourists will wear face masks.

Only two of these tourists tested positive for Covid-19. They are receiving medical assistance in their hotels. Even though seven tested positive for the virus, five of them were later cleared.

Q: Do you think we can officially restart tourism on January 26?

A. The travel bubble project was initiated for us to get first-hand experience in restarting tourism. We had several issues such as the Yala incident. We have identified them and we need to find ways to rectify them.

This is the best time to do this because people in European nations travel during the winter period. That ends in March-April. If we don’t do this now, we have to wait till September.

The tourism industry is already crippled as employees have started to find alternate jobs to support themselves financially. The Association of Small and Medium Enterprises in Tourism (ASMET) said they welcome the Government’s plan to officially restart tourism by the end of this month. A further delay, they said would completely paralyse the once flourishing industry.

ASMET president M B Jayarathna said that other tourist destinations are already welcoming tourists, and that Sri Lanka has to follow suit.

Commending the tourism pilot project, he said there could be mistakes, but what is important is to rectify them and continue. “We are losing our tourists. We have to start bringing them here keeping the health guidelines in mind,” he said.

The Ministry of Health issued new guidelines for the tourism industry this week.

This included a per-confirmed hotel booking of up to 14 days, a negative PCR test taken 96 hours before boarding, and a mandatory stay at a safe and secure certified (level 1) hotel during the first 14 days. They are also to travel under a ‘bio-security bubble’.

Senior council member of ASMET Rohan Abeywickrema expressed dissatisfaction at the Sri Lanka Tourism Chairperson, Kirmali Fernando allegedly failing to support the tourism pilot project. He said she was planning to open the country to high-end tourists. “We don’t have rooms to cater to the up market. We should give VIP service to them, but we can’t do that,” he said adding that the Chairperson has to listen to the private sector that ‘runs’ the travel trade.

He commended the government and the health authority for the pilot project. “Even the repatriation flights came during this time”, he said adding that tourism and repatriation of migrant workers can be handled parallelly.

“We are very happy that they are opening the country for everyone. From the beginning the SLTDA opened to high end tourism. They were not targeting the SMEs of the country,” Prabuddha Jayasinghe another senior council member of ASMET said adding that they welcome wholeheartedly, the move to bring in tourists.