Sri Lanka welcomes first tourists in nine months since COVID-19 outbreak

Photo Credit: Anton Lecock / Unsplash

Colombo – Sri Lanka on Monday welcomed its first batch of nearly 200 tourists, more than nine months after the country closed its borders for foreigners due to the coronavirus outbreak.

A flight operated by Ukrainian airline SkyUp, carrying the visitors, landed at the Mattala International Airport in the afternoon, thus resuming tourism in the Indian Ocean Island.

Each of the visitors had to bring a necessary pre-departure proof of negative tests for coronavirus carried out within 72 hours of their arrival. Moreover, they will have to undergo another test after arriving in the country.

“They will stay for 7-8 days in four designated hotels until they are cleared of the virus. During their stay here, the tourists will have zero interaction with the locals,” Shehan Sumanasekara, Director Operations, Airport and Aviation Services, told EFE.

The visitors are part of a pilot project to test the feasibility of resuming Sri Lanka’s tourism sector, one of the biggest revenue generators and hard currency sources for the island nation. The pilot will continue until Jan.19.

The government has established a travel corridor to allow visitors with restrictions.

Tourism is one of the mainstays of the Sri Lankan economy and among its largest sources of foreign currency.

According to official figures, 507,311 tourists had arrived in the country between January and March 2020, when the government banned all passenger flights and ships.

Tourist arrivals dipped nearly 70 percent this year compared to the previous.

The government had initially planned to welcome first tourists on Aug.1 after the virus outbreak, which has so far killed 191 people and infected more than 41,000 patients. But the plan failed after coronavirus infections surged drastically.

The tourism resumption pilot project, which began on Monday, will operate 12 flights to carry tourists from Ukraine.

“We are extremely secured. For the past two weeks, we were preparing to welcome the first charter flight of tourists,” Sumanasekara said.

Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said he was very optimistic about the project to restart tourism.

“About three million people depend on tourism in Sri Lanka. For the past nine months, they had no businesses because we did not have tourists,” he told EFE.

He said the government was encouraging other countries to fly down tourists on charter flights to Sri Lanka.

“They will travel in bubbles and therefore not mix with the locals,” he said.