Tourists trickle into Sri Lanka after 10-month closure

Tourism players fear that visa fee and stringent health protocols may deter foreign visitors to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is slowly picking up the pieces of tourism devastation as airport operations resume after a 10-month lockdown, with arrivals for January 2021 numbering just 1,682.

In January 2020, Sri Lanka welcomed 228,434 arrivals.

Arrivals climbed the following month, with 2,700 visitors between February 1 and 25, according to official data.

Scheduled flights from Kazakhstan and Ukraine are helping to lift tourism arrivals to Sri Lanka

Madhubani Perera, director at Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, said tourism recovery is boosted by twice weekly scheduled flights from Kazakhstan and Ukraine to Sri Lanka’s second international airport in southern Hambantota.

Both services carry 200 passengers each every week.

In January 2021, Ukraine, Belarus, China, Russia and Germany were Sri Lanka’s top five international tourist source markets, with Ukraine accounting for 86.8 per cent of the total traffic largely due to an experimental month-long travel bubble involving 1,700 visitors prior to the airport’s reopening to foreign visitors.

Meanwhile, domestic tourism continues to keep hotels busy, especially during weekends.

“Our hotels are full on weekends, particularly during long weekends, with local guests. This is paying for our staff salaries and electricity bills,” said Hiran Cooray, chairman of Jetwing Symphony Hotels.

He hoped that foreign arrivals would pick up in summer (May/June), particularly from the UK as citizens would have been vaccinated by then. The UK was once Sri Lanka’s biggest source market.

He also suggested that Sri Lanka relax arrival guidelines to allow vaccinated tourists into the destination without PCR tests and other regulations.

While Sri Lanka does not enforce a mandatory quarantine on arrival, all visitors must get visas online with confirmed hotel bookings, pre-purchased PCR tests and a mandatory Covid-19 insurance cover providing US$50,000 worth of hospitalisation or medical bills for a month. All arrivals must present a valid PCR test taken 96 hours before arrival.

Locals are not allowed to mingle with tourists while there are 20 locations to visit by tourists travelling in a bubble.

A hotel manager from Kandy, a city famed for a sacred Buddhist temple and an annual street pageant featuring dozens of elephants that is popular with tourists, said this was the time for the industry to bring in fresh thinking and new tourist locations.

“This is a near-50 year-old product which hasn’t changed, where tourists are taken on the same routes to see the same places,” he remarked.

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