Tourism industry embraces Ukraine despite Covid-19

After nine months of closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka’s airways finally opened to international tourists on 28 December with the arrival of 175 Ukrainian tourists. This initial group of tourists landed in the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) as part of a pilot programme conducted by Sri Lanka Tourism to attract visitors, starting with this special flight from Ukraine.

On 30 December, two days following their arrival, three of the 175 tourists tested positive for the virus, which led to widespread criticism of the Government’s decision and the safety measures observed during the welcoming ceremony of these tourists. However, despite this criticism, the stakeholders of Sri Lanka Tourism are supporting this attempt at restarting the industry.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning Business, The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) Chairman Sanath Ukwatte stated that this is the new normal the entire world must abide by and that the outbreaks of the virus can occur with or without tourists coming into the country, as seen by Sri Lanka’s second wave in October. He explained that in terms of the hotel sector, there are very strict guidelines in place to ensure tourists do not interact with locals during their first 14 days in the country.

“We have taken a lot of precautions to ensure guests coming from other countries do not come into contact with any locals during their 14 days of quarantine. We already have enough experience dealing with quarantined guests due to the repatriation of hundreds of guests coming into the country in the last few months.”

Moreover, Ukwatte stated that tourists will also have the opportunity to leave the hotels after their seventh day in quarantine to visit selected tourist sites such as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and Sigiriya. These visits will be co-ordinated during specific hours of the day when no locals will be allowed into the sites, after which the Ministry of Health will sanitise the entire location before opening them up to the public again.

“Not everyone can stay in the country for 14 days; some tourists only have a certain amount of leave and the average stay of a tourist in Sri Lanka was eight to 10 days even before Covid. So we want them to have a good experience during their stay, while also keeping the locals safe.”

He stated that even the drivers and staff working at hotels and serving these tourists would work in 14-day shifts, where they work for 14 days and are then quarantined for another 14 before being allowed to return home. He ensured that hotels have taken every step to ensure the virus will not spread to the local community.

“We need tourism to restart soon; there are over three million people depending on the industry in Sri Lanka. When I saw the video of the Ukranian tourists arriving, what stood out to me was that the first thing they did was go exchange their money to our currency, and then they went to buy themselves something to eat or drink. So we can see that our country began to benefit from the moment those tourists got off the plane.”

Mirroring Ukwatte’s views, Jetwing Hotels Chairperson Shiromal Cooray stated that they are supportive of the Government’s decision to let these tourists into the country, since this will be the new normal going forward and the industry has already experience running highly effective quarantine hotels.

“We are operating in a bubble, and we expected this to result in some positive cases. But this is a chance we must take; we need to experiment and see how we can manage this situation.”

Other stakeholders of the local tourism industry, including Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) President Mahen Kariyawasan, also agreed with Cooray and Ukwatte, and explained that this was a situation Sri Lanka Tourism was prepared to handle. He stated that in this current bubble, 25% of room inventory is reserved for such incidents, and the hotels also include in-house doctors to help with any potential positive cases.

He stated that Sri Lanka is not alone in this, as any country that opens its doors to tourists post Covid will face similar issues and will be tasked with adapting to the new normal as we have.

“We understand why the locals are scared, but the Ministry of Health, Sri Lanka Tourism, and the military have taken maximum precautions to prevent the virus from spreading to locals from the tourists. Our precautions are much better than those found in countries like the Maldives and Dubai, where tourists can just walk through,” said Ukawatte.