Tourism restarts against odds | Sunday Observer

Tourism restarts against odds

24 January, 2021

Sri Lanka is ‘ready and open’ to welcome back our visitors, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Chairperson Kimarli Fernando said on Thursday as the country opened its borders to inbound tourists.

Tourism stakeholders welcomed the new development that came after a hiatus of about 10 months. The once booming industry came to an abrupt halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic early last year. The Government has put in place several protocols that are strictly imposed as the industry is revived amid the raging pandemic.

Sri Lanka Tourism, in a statement, promised visitors a ‘quarantine free’ experience and has scrapped the earlier announced minimum number of days.

It added that the ‘only requirement put in place for the safety of the travellers, tourism stakeholders and Sri Lankan community is the need for the travellers to stay at a ‘Safe and Secure’ certified, Level 1 hotel or hotels in the initial 14 days of their stay’.


Level 1 includes accommodation service providers who will provide accommodation exclusively for international tourists during the first 14 days of their stay. These hotels are not allowed to accept bookings from locals and also are not allowed to hold any events or banquet functions for the locals.

International visitors will move in what is known as a ‘bio-bubble’ to keep everyone involved: locals, industry employees and the visitors, safe from a possible virus spread.

This ensures the creation of a bio-bubble for international visitors assuring the safety of the local communities, employees of the industry and the visitors to the country. Hotels and accommodation providers along with travel agents and tour operators will be entrusted to ensure that visitors don’t break the bubble of safety, the statement said.

Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said tourism businesses are bound to lose their business licence if they violate the provisions of the protocols in place.

Minister Ranatunga told a press conference to announce the reopening that nearly three million people depend on the industry.

“It is our national responsibility to take into consideration all needs of our citizens who depend on this industry,” he said, adding, “Our main goal is to prevent the virus from spreading from the community to the international tourists or vice versa.” He said all measures were taken to adapt to tourism in the ‘new normal’.

Last year, several relief programs were put in place to aid the struggling stakeholders. According to Sri Lanka Tourism, 2,026 Tour Guides were paid Rs. 20,000 totaling Rs. 40.52 million. This includes 1,062 National Guides, 802 Chauffeur Guide, 135 Area Guides and 27 Site Guides.

Relief for stakeholders

Others programs are VAT exemption for the tourism industry, moratorium for the industry till September 2021, renewal fees waived off for the SLTDA licensed establishments for one year, grace period of 12 months for utility payments, grace period of six months for vehicle lease rentals, provisional registration to support informal sector, Rs. 150 billion loan schemes for affected industries, including tourism, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the SLTDA with the Vocational Training Authority (VTA) to provide island-wide training for Tourist Drivers, the industry was given the opportunity to convert accommodation facilities to quarantine hotels and accommodate seafarers and Liquor Licence fee waived off for 2021.

Tourism is a major foreign exchange earner for the country. In 2018, the country earned USD 4.38 billion from the industry and fell short with revenue of USD 3.61 billion in 2019 as a result of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks.

In January last year, according to statistics by the SLTDA, the difference in tourist arrivals, from the corresponding period in 2019 was 6.5 percent, in February, it was 17.7 percent and in March, increased to 70.8 percent as Chinese travellers (major tourist exporter to Sri Lanka) was affected by the pandemic. Tourist arrivals from January – March 2020 were 507,311 in comparison to 2.3 million in 2018 and 1.9 million in 2019.

A pilot project that was launched in December to restart tourism has brought in a revenue of Rs. 420 million. Minister Ranatunga said that the experience will be used as the borders are opened.

SLTDA chief Fernando said the Tourism Ministry and Sri Lanka Tourism have worked closely with the Health Ministry and the Covid-19 Task Force in setting the guidelines and putting the protocols in place.

They also worked closely with the Civil Aviation Authority, Airport and Aviation, Department of Immigration and Emigration and with industry stakeholders in adapting these protocols to ensure that Sri Lanka is open in the right way.

Earlier, World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Managing Director Virginia Messina told the Sunday Observer that a delay in opening borders to tourists would delay the recovery of the industry.

Testing regime

“A comprehensive, globally coordinated testing regime is necessary to get travel back on its feet. In 2019, travel and tourism was responsible for 10.3 percent of the total economy in Sri Lanka and 11 percent of all jobs, which shows the importance of the sector in powering the economy post-Covid-19,” she said.

Messina said the recovery time of tourism was 19.4 months on average during the previous diseases. According to the WTTC Crisis Report, travel and tourism is becoming more resilient and could recover faster and specific recommendations such as public-private cooperation are essential.

In August last year, Sri Lanka received the WTTC Safe Travels stamp for safety protocols. WTTC President and CEO Gloria Guevara said, “The stamp represents a critical step in rebuilding consumer confidence in travel and tourism and allowing travellers to rest easy knowing that enhanced standards of hygiene are in place and they can again experience ‘Safe Travels’.”

Statistics showed that the total number of Covid-19 cases in the country surpassed the 55,000 mark on Thursday. Recently, the country detected the new ‘UK variant’ that is said to be more transmittable than the earlier one. The Health Authorities said that there was no risk of the new variant in spreading in the country.

With an islandwide vaccination due to be rolled out next month, the authorities are taking precautions to keep the virus at bay.

Accommodation facilities that will house the foreign tourists have been asked to leave 25 percent of its rooms vacant in case a Covid-19 patient is detected. If the patient is asymptomatic, he or she will be directed to self-quarantine within the hotel and taken to a hospital in case the patient develops symptoms.

Visiting sites

Tourists can visit about a dozen sites with caveats. These include the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Yala National Park, Udawalawe National Park Safari, Kaudulla National Park, Mirissa Whale Watching and the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. They can also visit the Temple of Tooth Relic any week day from 11.30 am to 1.30 pm. “Tourists’ footwear should be placed in polythene covers in proper hygienic procedures in the shoe counter reserved for foreign tourists and placed the footwear themselves in the given basket,” the SLTDA states. The tourists can visit other places after 14 days.

Tourists should get a Government-sanctioned health insurance ($12 US) and show proof of a negative Covid-19 test taken within 96 hours of travel.

They will be tested again on arrival and on the fifth and seventh days after arrival. The tourists staying longer than seven days will have to take a third test the following week. They will have to bear the cost of the PCRs ($40 US each).

Arrival of the tourists will depend on the testing capacity. Currently, the capacity is 2,500 tests per day. The authorities are hoping to increase the capacity to 3,300 in the coming weeks.

Minister Ranatunga said he is confident that restarting tourism will be favourable for the country economically.

“I can’t say that the operations will be perfect, but we have made all arrangements for a safe and secure system. It is up to stakeholders to follow these protocols,” the Minister said.

Sri Lanka Tourism has created an information portal on which will carry notices, updated safety protocols and processes, marketing materials and important contact information. A 24-hour operational centre has been set up by Sri Lanka Tourism to coordinate the operations and to support the industry with all clarifications and coordination support. The Centre can be contacted through the hotline 1912 and emailed through [email protected].