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Sri Lanka reopens for tourists after 10 months

Sri Lanka on Thursday reopened its borders for foreign tourists after about ten months, hoping to revive its pandemic-hit tourism sector.

The Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau has set up what it calls a ‘Safe and Secure’ bubble, mandating pre-departure PCR tests for tourists, restricting their stay to designated high-end hotels and beach resorts, and allowing access to select tourist spots, to limit visitors from mixing with the local community.

As per the arrangement, Sri Lanka does not require tourists to stay for a minimum number of days, while visitors are offered a ‘quarantine free’ experience. “The only requirement put in place for the safety of the traveller, 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,” Sri Lanka Tourism said in a statement.

The move follows a ‘pilot project’ in late December when some 185 tourists from Ukraine arrived in the island nation. However, with at least six of them testing COVID-19 positive on arrival, the government drew flak from Opposition for opening up the country in a hurry and ‘putting lives of locals at risk’.

Sri Lanka reported the first case of COVID-19 when a local tourist operator tested positive in March 2020. Though public health authorities, with the support of the military, controlled the first wave effectively, the second wave that broke out in early October persists, taking the number of cases from around 4,000 then to 55,189 as of Thursday. The fatalities have also risen more than ten times in the last four months, to 274. More recently, health authorities have reported the new, ‘U.K.-variant’ of the virus.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka is yet to begin its vaccine rollout. Colombo is expecting supply from different sources including India to arrive in about two weeks, according to health sector officials. India is among Sri Lanka’s top tourist source markets and the possibility of establishing a tourism bubble for the neighbours was discussed when External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visited Colombo earlier this month.

Faced with an aggravating economic crunch due to the pandemic, Sri Lanka decided to reopen the country for international visitors, after tourist arrivals in 2020 fell to a fourth of the nearly 20 lakh arrivals recorded in 2019. The country’s vital sector – it is one of the chief foreign exchange earners — reported $ 3.6 billion earnings in 2019, with the industry accounting for 4.3 per cent of the GDP.

Much of last year saw few international flights arriving at the Colombo and southern Mattala international airports, to repatriate Sri Lankans living and working abroad, even as several thousand Sri Lankan migrant labourers, employed mostly in West Asian countries, still await financial assistance to afford air tickets to travel back home.