Jan 05, Colombo: According to health guidelines, Sri Lanka’s international airport and the country will be officially opened to tourists from the 21st of this month, Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said.
Accordingly, Bandaranaike International Airport at Katunayake and Rajapaksa International Airport at Mattala will be open after 10 months for commercial flights from the 21st.
The Minister hopes that commercial flights to the airport will return to normal by January 23.
The Minister said that nearly 3 million people in the country are directly and indirectly dependent on the tourism industry and they have become extremely helpless due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Considering this situation, it was decided to open the country to tourists in accordance with health guidelines.
He was speaking at a special media briefing held at the Monara Festival Hall of the Tourist Hotel Management Institute this morning (05). The discussion was convened to explain the future course of action of the pilot project to open the country to tourists.
Minister of State for Aviation and Industrial Export Processing Zones D.V.Chanaka, Secretary to the Ministry of Tourism S. Hettiarachchi, Chairperson of the Tourism Development Authority Kimarli Fernando and Director General Dhammika Wijeratne also participated in the discussion.
Speaking further Minister Ranatunga said, opening the airport and the country to tourists according to health guidelines is not a decision taken today or yesterday.
He said that nearly 3 million people directly and indirectly dependent on the tourism industry in this country have been severely affected by the COVID-19 epidemic and it is the responsibility of the Tourism Development Authority to regulate the tourism industry, 99% of which is contributed by the private sector.
“For the first time in our history, we have provided relief to those engaged in the tourism sector. There may be problems and shortcomings. As there is a responsibility for the 3 million people who depend on tourism, we took steps to re-start this business expeditiously. Negotiations to formulate the relevant guidelines began last June, but this was delayed due to the second wave of COVID-19. In December, we set up a tourism guidelines with the health sector and launched a pilot project to bring tourists. Accordingly, from December 26, we informed the relevant agencies to bring in tourists under this pilot project by special planes. Accordingly, three tourist agencies have agreed to bring in tourists from the Russian region. These Ukrainian tourists come to the country as a travel bubble.”
The Minister said they have identified the shortcomings of this regulatory project and will open the Mattala and Katunayake airports for commercial flights from the 21st of this month.
“We are currently updating the Functional Health Guidelines for the Pilot Project. Any institution that brings tourists into the country is bound to follow these guidelines. If anyone does not follow these guidelines, we will take legal action against them and will no longer allow them to bring tourists to the island. We look forward to publishing the relevant guidelines in the media,” he added.
He said they have have identified 14 places that tourists can visit if they are negative for COVID-19 after PCR tests and Temple of the Tooth in Kandy is one place.
“We are not prepared to close these places on the days when foreign tourists visit them. We have asked the wildlife and archeological institutes to which these places belong to make arrangements so that local and foreign tourists do not mix. The Temple of the Tooth has already made arrangements for this. It also enlists the assistance of local health authorities. We have no plans to close places of worship for local tourists due to the influx of tourists. If the Maha Sangha is against tourists visiting the Temple of the Tooth, we will not direct tourists to it. So no one should be afraid of this. We do our best to prevent contact between local tourists and foreign tourists. Also, hotel guides who work with these tourists, such as drivers, work in a travel bubble so there is no exposure to society.”
Minister Ranatunga said the Opposition is making absurd allegations regarding the opening of airports and the country to tourists.
“These allegations are baseless. The Opposition alleges that the country is being opened to tourists to fill the pockets of a few government officials. They said that the airport and aviation taxes were reduced for that purpose. On February 26, 2020, we submitted a proposal to the Cabinet to attract airlines to the Mattala and Ratmalana International Airports. It was then that a number of proposals were put forward, such as offering discounted fuel prices for the airport’s ground service. Now some are trying to say that this is also a decision taken to fill the pockets of the people of this government. We took this decision even before the COVID-19 epidemic,” Ranatunga explained.
When journalists questioned about his view on quarantining the Yala Safari drivers, who took the Ukrainian tour groups, the Minister said the Yala safari drivers are currently in the bubble and they continue to transport Ukrainian tourists.
“It's not quarantine, it's isolation. There's a little coordination problem. We fixed it now. A country cannot be mortgaged because of 28 people. That is why they were kept apart. We provided food for their families,” he said.
When asked about repatriation of stranded Sri Lankans, Ranatunga said the Foreign Ministry is responsible of bringing the migrant workers back to the country.
“Nearly 69,000 people have already been brought in. Also, 500 to 600 people come daily and with the opening of the airport they too will have more opportunities.