Tourism industry understanding of postponement

By Uwin Lugoda

Both The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) and the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) have voiced their support towards the decision to postpone the reopening of the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA).

Speaking to The Sunday Morning Business, THASL President Sanath Ukwatte and SLAITO President Mahen Kariyawasam expressed their support towards the postponement as the safety of the country comes first.

Ukwatte stated that it was a good thing that the reopening was delayed due to most of Sri Lanka’s biggest markets like India and Europe experiencing its second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. He explained that considering the challenges that those countries are facing and the general election that is coming up on 5 August, it was a good decision overall.

According to the 2018 Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Annual Report, India was Sri Lanka’s biggest tourism market, bringing in around 424,887 tourists to the country, and European countries like Germany were in the top five, with around 156,888 tourist arrivals.

According to Ukwatte, Sri Lanka is not the only country that is postponing their reopening as countries like the Maldives, for which tourism is 28% of their GDP, has also delayed their reopening from 1 July to 15 July, which is also not finalised.

Speaking about bookings, he stated that they have not received a lot for the month of August, and the ones they have received are from independent travellers, as local tour operators are yet to start operations.

“Countries like India, Germany, the UK, and Australia, some of our biggest markets, are experiencing new challenges and imposed lockdown in certain regions, so we have not received too many bookings or inquiries for the month of August,” he noted.

Ukwatte explained that from what they have seen, most of the tourists in European countries are opting to go on trips closer to their home countries. He went on to state that because of this, they are not expecting a huge number of tourists right now and are instead preparing for Sri Lanka’s main tourist season of December.

“Right now, the European market is choosing short-haul travel, so long-haul travel probably will only develop towards the end of the year,” he said.

For now, he stated that the THASL is planning to maintain Covid guidelines and get the hotels certified by an independent authority. He also stated that they are planning to advise visitors on the proper procedures to follow when entering Sri Lanka, such as doing a PCR test before leaving their respective countries, the PCR test conducted when landing, staying in a hotel until they receive their results, and the two PCR tests conducted after the next five and 10 days.

“It is a good thing we have these procedures, because we want to ensure that the people who enter the country are Covid-negative, and the foreigners understand that. These procedures also make the foreigners feel safe and secure when they are in Sri Lanka,” he reiterated.

Speaking for SLAITO, Kariyawasam stated that at the moment they are supporting the plans to postpone, as he believes that the correct protocols should first be in place to protect the health of the people of the country. He explained that there needs to be one verified voice that can add clarity to the protocols that are currently in place, before opening the airport.

“The priority has to be the health of the nation; we need to make the correct decision at the correct time before opening Sri Lanka to tourists. So the protocol for the tourists coming into the country has to be clearer, because there are some grey areas right now,” he noted.

Kariyawasam also suggested that the country should observe the other countries that are slowly opening, and look into opening a few corridors down the road, to countries that are currently less affected by the pandemic, like South Korea and the UK. He stated that the industry here should start talking to the governments of these countries and get on their safe travel lists.

After more than three months of closure of the BIA, following President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision on 17 March to ban the entry of visitors for one week in a partial shutdown of the airport in order to contain the spread of the virus, the Government aimed to reopen the country on 1 August.

However, speaking to The Sunday Morning, Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) Assistant Secretary Dr. Naveen de Zoysa said that it has been postponed as the return of expats posed a risk.

“If foreigners also start entering the country soon after, it could make matters worse. There is already a risk of a second wave as a result of a Sri Lankans returning from overseas,” he explained.

He stated that several countries that had supposedly contained the pandemic were now experiencing a resurgence of cases. He explained that countries like China and Australia have seen a sudden spike in cases due to the reopening of borders and easing of lockdowns.

Dr. de Zoysa said that a date to reopen could only be decided upon considering the conditions of the pandemic.