No approval for on arrival visa extension

– Original programme ended on 31st January

By Madhusha Thavapalakumar

Sri Lanka is currently not offering visas on arrival for tourists as the free visa on arrival programme expired on 31 January and the requested extension of it is yet to be approved by the Cabinet, The Sunday Morning Business learns.
Therefore, tourists from 48 countries who were eligible for free visas on arrival under this programme are now not entitled to this facility for the first time in six months. This was confirmed to us by the Department of Immigration and Emigration on Thursday (6).
An official from the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation told us that an extension of the free visa on arrival programme has been sought by Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation Prasanna Ranatunga until the end of April.
“The Minister has sent the proposal to the Cabinet. We are now awaiting Cabinet approval to inform the Department of Immigration and Emigration,” the official added.
All the countries which were placed under this scheme of free visa on arrival now have to pay and obtain the Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) in their home countries itself. ETA holders will be issued a 30-day short visit visa at the port of entry to Sri Lanka, according to the Department.
Three days prior to the expiration of the programme, Sri Lanka suspended free visas on arrival for Chinese tourists with immediate effect following a Chinese national in Sri Lanka being tested positive for coronavirus. The suspension was made to prevent the virus from spreading in Sri Lanka.
The free visa on arrival programme was to be introduced by the previous Government from 1 May 2019 for a period of six months, to help the country achieve the tourist arrival target set for the year. However, it was postponed due to security concerns following the Easter Sunday attacks that devastated Sri Lanka’s tourism industry.
However, the programme was ultimately launched on 1 August to promote the terror-hit tourism industry for a period of six months, allowing nationals from 48 selected countries to enter Sri Lanka with a free visa valid up to a month upon their arrival.
In December, an official from the Ministry of Tourism told us that the Ministry is planning to extend it further as it would be beneficial for the country. In addition to this, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) then Chairman Johanne Jayaratne also told us that the visa fee exemption facility would be reviewed at the end of 2019 and will either be continued or disconnected depending on its success.
Tourists from 48 countries, including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Singapore, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, the UK, the US, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Canada, Singapore, New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand, and Switzerland, benefitted from this programme. India and China, Sri Lanka’s two biggest tourism source markets, were not included in the original list, but were added just before the implementation date.

Success or failure?
According to SLTDA data, tourist arrivals into Sri Lanka were gradually recovering since June, following the Easter incidents, but dropped to 108,575 in September, the second month the free visa was in effect, compared to 143,587 in the previous month and 115,701 in July. The largest source market for tourists was India, followed by China and the UK.
Even though August arrivals recorded month-over-month growth, arrivals during the month were boosted mainly by Asian tourists as most of the western markets recorded lower arrivals compared to a month prior. Furthermore, the overall figure was boosted by the visitors who came down for the Bohra Global Convention held in Colombo.
Sri Lanka’s top two traditional tourism-generating countries – India and China – saw month-over-month growth during August, as they brought in 32,115 and 26,558 tourists respectively, compared to 18,309 and 6,926 tourist arrivals in July respectively.
However, the UK, Germany, France, Australia, Canada, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, the traditional western countries generally in and around the top 10 tourism-generating markets of Sri Lanka, reported lower numbers of arrivals in August, compared to July this year.
Arrivals in September were 1,376,312, mainly contributed by 28,917 Indian tourists, 9,231 Chinese tourists, 8,322 British tourists, and 6,895 Australian tourists. Arrivals from top two tourism markets India and China witnessed a drop during this month compared to a month ago, resulting in negative month-over-month growth in overall tourist arrivals.
However, October arrivals witnessed moderate month-over-month growth compared to a month prior, with 118,743 arrivals during the month. India, China, the UK, and Germany were among the top tourism markets during this month with 33,217, 11,683, 8,763, and 7,820 tourists respectively.
The total number of international tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka during November 2019 was 176,984. In comparison to November the previous year, when the arrivals were 195,582, there was a decline of 9.5%. The largest source market for tourists was India followed by Germany and China.
December arrivals recorded at 241,663 compared to 253,169, a year ago. December arrivals were a sharp recovery as it managed to reach the pre-Easter Sunday incident levels. India, United Kingdom, and Russia were the top three tourism-generating markets during this month.
The previous Government aimed to bring down 2.1 million tourists last year through this programme, in spite of the impact of the Easter attacks on the tourism industry. As of 31 December 2019, 1.9 million tourists had visited Sri Lanka – a decline of 18.6% when compared to the 2.3 million tourists who visited the country in 2018.
In January 2020, the last month under the free visa on arrival scheme, attracted 228,434 arrivals which is a 6.5% decline compared to 244,239, a year ago. India was the top country followed by China, despite the coronavirus outbreak, and the UK.