Troubled Sri Lanka halts free VoA scheme due to roll out on May 1

Sri Lanka's visa-on-arrival for 39 nationalities suspended after officials found foreign links to terror attacks

Sri Lanka has suspended a free visa-on-arrival (VoA) scheme which was to roll out on May 1 and benefit nationals of 39 countries after the devastating Easter Sunday attacks that killed nearly 360 people.

“Visa to enter Sri Lanka was to be granted to citizens of 39 countries on arrival in the country from May 1 on gratis (free) basis as per a Cabinet decision earlier this month. However, owing to the current security situation following the terror attacks on Easter Sunday, the government has decided to put the programme on hold until further notice,” the Tourism Ministry said in a statement yesterday.

Sri Lanka’s visa-on-arrival for 39 nationalities suspended after officials found foreign links to terror attacks

In Thursday’s statement on the suspension of the free VoA, minister of tourism John Amaratunga was quoted as saying that investigations have revealed foreign links to the attacks and “we don’t want this facility to be abused”.

The VoA programme was conceived as part of a larger initiative to increase tourist arrivals to the country during the six month off-season period from May to October.

Hotels Association of Sri Lanka President Sanath Ukwatte was quoted in local media as saying that from initial estimates, tourism earnings would suffer a loss of US$1.5 billion this year due to the attacks on three hotels. Since the end of a 30-year civil conflict in 2009, tourism has been the fastest-growing industry and earner of foreign currency.

Ukwatte said this was the first time in Sri Lanka, even during the 30-year-old conflict, that terrorists attacked tourists and hotels.

Only a few people patronised the Kingsbury Hotel, one of three hotels hit by suicide bombers, which reopened on Thursday after Sunday’s attacks. Imara De Chickera, the hotel’s director of communications and spokesperson, said just two Chinese had used the restaurant in the hotel while there were no in-house guests. “We got a few booking inquiries for May-August,” she said.

The other two affected hotels, the Shangri-La has been closed until further notice while the Cinnamon Grand was having limited operations since the blasts.

Meanwhile the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) expressed concern and empathy over the attack, saying: “We have seen so many disasters and calamities affecting people from around the world and tragic incidents, like the recent shooting in Christchurch. But never before has such tragedy directly implicated ICCA members like in Sri Lanka.

“We were speechless when we heard that The Kingsbury Hotel has been attacked along with other member hotels, the Cinnamon Hotel and Shangri-La Colombo (a former member). We only hope that the authorities will restore order and security and the preparators and their mastermind will be caught.

“As a gesture of camaraderie, at the upcoming ICCA Asia Pacific Chapter Meeting at IMEX Frankfurt on 20th May, we will pay our respects to the victims of these Sri Lanka attacks”.

While the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has directed churches to cancel mass and avoid public gatherings, some Muslim ministers also urged mosques to cancel the routine Friday noon prayers which draw crowds, to avoid possible retaliatory attacks.

At least 359 people, including 40 foreigners, died in the attacks at the three hotels and three churches across the land on Easter Sunday. International Islamic terror group ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, the worst single strike even during the 30-year Tamil separatist conflict which ended in May 2009. The government has blamed a breakaway faction, with foreign links, of the Islamic group called National Thowheeth Jama’ath for the attacks.

The country has been placed under a security blanket and Thursday also passed with search operations across the capital and outside.

Security authorities said the country’s main Bandaranaike International Airport at Katunayake, 30km north of Colombo, was only allowing passengers entry to the exit and entry terminals while car parks near the building have been closed. Passengers and their vehicles were subject to thorough searches at military-manned checkpoints.

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