Focus/Spotlight

Restarting tourism under travel bubble concept: All precautions taken for revival  

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa 

 

At a time when the citizens of this country are finding it difficult to obtain even daily essentials due to the ongoing travel restrictions imposed by the Government to control the spread of Covid-19, concerns were raised over allowing tourists to visit Sri Lanka by reactivating the travel bubble concept. 

The concept was introduced early this year to revive the badly affected tourism industry, by enabling a selected group of travellers from certain countries to visit approved tourist sites at designated times without going on a compulsory 14-day quarantine period. 

Nevertheless, the third wave of Covid-19 hit the country in April and air travel restrictions were once again imposed, putting the travel bubble plan on hold. However, it was reactivated at the beginning of this month. 

The Sunday Morning learnt that tourists can now enter the country and stay in a travel bubble without undergoing the 14-day compulsory quarantine period, or they can go through the mandatory quarantine period and move freely on their own without any restriction. 

Following the reactivation of the travel bubble concept, a group of 750 French Navy personnel were on a four-day visit in Sri Lanka from 7 to 11 June. The visit was co-ordinated by the Foreign Ministry on a request made by the French Embassy, and access to hotels and other locations was facilitated by a Navy escort team, it is learnt.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Director Dhammika Wijayasinghe said that the group of French Navy personnel were granted the opportunity to visit national parks including Yala, Udawalawa, Habarana, and Sigiriya. 

According to her, the visit was co-ordinated on a request by the French Embassy in Sri Lanka from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while health-related permissions have been obtained by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

Wijesinghe said the SLTDA has only provided access to locations including national parks and Sigiriya. All other related services have been co-ordinated by the Foreign Ministry and the Tourism Ministry. 

Accordingly, 101 members of the French Navy have visited Yala National Park, 86 visited Udawalawe National Park, and 235 visited the Habarana area. 

“We didn’t co-ordinate this particular tour, but the bubble system is active and tourists are arriving now. They are not specifically larger groups like this naval group, but families and individuals. All of them have to undergo a travel bubble system and are permitted only at selected hotels. They are not free to choose their travel partners, transportation, and the locations. They have to choose from authorised travel service providers,” she stressed. 

When asked about the safety of the concept, Wijesinghe noted that at a recent meeting held with health authorities, they had decided that every sample collected from the tourists that tested Covid-positive would be sent to Sri Jayawardenapura University to identify the specific Covid-19 variant involved. 

“As of now, under the bubble system, we can guarantee that there is no chance at all to expose the tourists to the outside, as all service providers are being monitored. We inform the Medical Officer of Health (MOH) of the area and conduct PCR tests on tourists continuously, together with private hospitals,” she explained. 

According to her, from January to 7 June, a total of 16,253 tourists have visited Sri Lanka and a majority of them are from Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Germany.

The bubble concept includes staying at approved Covid-safe properties, having insurance coverage, testing regularly for Covid-19, and refraining from interacting with locals. While travellers are not permitted to leave their hotels during the initial “bio-bubble” period, travel to the attractions can take place via travel agent or hotel-arranged independent transportation. 

According to the SLTDA Monthly Tourist Arrival Report, the total number of international tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka during May 2021 was 1,497.

It is stated that the sharp contraction in arrivals in comparison to April is mainly due to the closure of borders from 21-31 May, imposed with a view to control the Covid-19 situation in the country.

As at 21 May, 15,294 tourists had visited Sri Lanka for 2021, which is a decline of 97% over last year, when 507,311 tourists visited the country from January to 18 March. The largest source market recorded for the month of May was China, followed by Germany, and the US. 

Accordingly, Europe became the largest source of tourist traffic to Sri Lanka with 48.5% of the total traffic received in May. Asia and Pacific accounted for 31.3% of the total traffic, Americas 15.2%, Middle East 4.3%, and Africa 0.7%. In comparison to arrivals up to May last year, all regions have recorded a decline in arrivals. The emergence of new variants resulting in escalating Covid-19 cases, as well as strict travel restrictions including mandatory testing, quarantines, and local lockdowns, have contributed to the curtailment in international travel. 

The report further states that China, Germany, the US, the UK, and Russia were Sri Lanka’s top five international tourist generating markets in the month of May this year. China was the largest source of tourist traffic to Sri Lanka with 15.8% of the total traffic received in the above period. Germany accounted for 14.8% of the total traffic; while the US, the UK, and Russia accounted for 10.2%, 10%, and 6.3%, respectively. 

The SLTDA stated that the presence of countries from the Americas, Western, Central, and Eastern Europe, and the Asia Pacific regions among the top source markets reflects the gradual revitalisation of the tourism industry fuelled by factors such as gradual improvement of traveller confidence, lifting of travel restrictions, and rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine. 

When contacted by The Sunday Morning, Navy Spokesman Captain Indika De Silva said the Navy was facilitating the access of those Navy personnel who were on an official visit. 

“We have provided escorting services to make sure the visitors were not exposed to outside society. Once they were sent into hotels, the hotel management took responsibility,” he added. 

However, he noted that depending on their level of exposure, the Navy personnel engaged in escort services would be sent on 14-day quarantine. 

Commenting on the reactivation of the bubble concept, The Hotel Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) President Sanath Ukwatte said this was the only solution at present to revive the industry. 

“At present, a total of 191 hotels have been identified as Level One hotels. These hotels engage in a bubble system,” he added. 

According to him, the restrictions should be further relaxed for visitors who have obtained both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. 

“The more the restrictions, the less attractive the tourism industry becomes,” he stressed. 

In the wake of the country being opened up for tourists, it is reported that several Covid-19 variants have also been detected in Sri Lanka. Accordingly, Sri Jayewardenepura University Allergy, Immunity, and Cell Biology Unit Director Dr. Chandima Jeewandara said the Indian and Sri Lankan variants have been detected in two areas. 

The B.1.1.7 Covid-19 variant (Alpha) detected in the UK has been reported from nine areas in Sri Lanka; namely, Colombo, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Kuliyapitiya, Wariyapola, Habaraduwa, Thissamaharama, Karapitiya, and Ragama. B.1.617.2, the Indian variant of the virus (Delta), has been detected within a quarantine facility in Waskaduwa. 

Dr. Jeewandara said the B.1.411 strain, which is the Sri Lankan variant of Covid-19, has been reported from Tissamaharama. 

Accordingly, healthcare workers who were detected with the UK variant (Alpha) two weeks after receiving the second dose of the AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine, have all recovered. 

In the meantime, the Association of Medical Specialists (AMS) pointed out that the weekly infected Covid-19 patient rate increased by nearly 12%, while the weekly reported mortality rate increased by nearly 28% during the past week. 

In a letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the AMS stressed the importance of stricter measures in carrying out travel restrictions to further curtail this pandemic, as healthcare facilities are being overwhelmed with a staggering number of symptomatic cases and the number of patients requiring oxygen. 

 

Meanwhile, speaking to The Sunday Morning, Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga assured that the revival of the tourism industry would take place in accordance with the health guidelines and all service providers engaged in travel bubble tourism promotion at present are strictly advised to adhere to the health guidelines. 

 

“There are no reports saying that a new cluster has been created from the tourists arriving in the country. We are always working closely with the health authorities and maintaining and updating the health guidelines in order to prevent any new variant or cluster being created out of tourists. At present we have prohibited the entry of tourists from India, Vietnam, South Africa and South American countries. We are monitoring the situation very strictly and there was no room for exposing a Covid-19 variant from bubble tourism,” he said. 

 

Responding to a query, Minister Ranatunga said those who have obtained the two shots of the Covid-19 vaccine also should undergo compulsory 14-day quarantine and they are also handled as per the guidelines issued by the health authorities. 

 

When asked about the other sectors of the tourism industry other than the sections that engage in bubble tourism and quarantine purposes, Ranatunga stressed that any hotel could apply and come on board for the travel bubble system. “Some hotels don’t like to serve tourists and engage in quarantine services as they are mainly targeting the locals. During the last new year vacation, we have seen an increase of local visitors. So the revival of tourism has to be done according to the health guidelines and therefore, there are no major plans as of now,” he added. 

 

Sri Lanka has so far reported 218,923 positive cases of Covid-19 and among them, as many as 30,334 virus-infected patients are still being treated at designated hospitals and treatment centres. 

The death toll from the outbreak of the virus meanwhile stands at 2,073. 

 

PHOTO KRISHAN KARIYAWASAM