ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s tourism regulator was not informed of a Ukrainian tour group’s excursions to Mirissa and Yala last week and the travel agents concerned had not been forthcoming with the itineraries, an official communication revealed.
In a letter addressed to Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranattunga dated January 02, Sri Lanka Tourism Chairperson Kimarli Fernando said the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) only learned about the excursions from media reports.
The arrival of Ukrainian travel groups as part of a pilot project to revive tourism in pandemic-hit Sri Lanka has been controversial, particularly since a number of travellers tested positive for COVID-19. Ukraine is considered a high-risk country, and Sri Lanka is currently battling a second wave of the disease with health authorities finding 600 to 800 new cases a day on average. Further questions have been raised regarding the project as damning media reports over the New Year weekend indicated that its politically connected promoter had overridden plans by Sri Lanka Tourism and SLTDA to gradually open the country up for tourism in stages. Fernando’s letter was leaked this afternoon amid speculation that the authorities were in danger of losing control of the situation.
“The agreement at the [economic revival] task force meeting was for the tour organisers to provide SLTDA detailed itineraries in advance, including details of the drivers and guides who would be involved in these excursions to be relayed to the regional health authorities for screening and quarantine purposes. The SLTDA Director General has tried to obtain the necessary information in this regard from the travel agents to no avail,” Fernando wrote.
The authenticity of the letter was verified by EconomyNext.
“We have heard that private boats are taking the tourists for whale watching and 28 safari jeeps would be taking them inside Yala. However, to this moment we have not received any of the above information from the promoter of this project nor the travel agents concerned. We are gravely concerned and seek your urgent intervention as when we requested information it was informed that he is working with the presidential task force,” she further wrote.
Fernando went on to say that the tourism regulator believed the task force had informed health officials and the National Operation Centre for the Prevention of COVID-19 (NOCPOC) in this regard and that necessary protocols were being followed.
“It is as you know expected that all details related to excursions are provided to us before the commencement of such tours to enable us to keep the Ministry of Health and COVID task force informed,” she added.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Tourism cancelled a tour that had been arranged for a group of Ukrainian travellers to visit religious and archaeological sites in Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. This was after reports surfaced that a visit by another group of Ukrainian tourists – all part of the same “pilot project” – to the Yala National Park had been mismanaged.
According to sources that spoke on the condition of anonymity, the directive to cancel the excursion had come from the ministry as it directly oversees the so called pilot project, with the SLTDA playing facilitator.
Locals were barred from entering the sites in Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa prior to the arrival of the Ukrainians who were scheduled to visit the areas tomorrow.
Officials initially said that the first Ukrainian tourists to arrive in the country would only be allowed to move in a secure bio-bubble between designated hotels and locations approved by the Ministry of Health.
As per the initial plan, the tourists were supposed to stay in their designated hotels for five to six days and then take a second PCR test when departing the island. However, that has allegedly not been the case.
Local safari drivers who took the tourists on the Yala excursion claim they were forced to be subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine without prior notice.
The Daily Mirror, a local daily newspaper, quoted one of the drivers as saying “only after we came back from the safari were we asked by the army to go into a mandatory 14-day quarantine. We knew nothing about this. We are helpless now. How do we pay the lease instalments [on our jeeps] when we are sent on quarantine? Our families are in distress now. How can we feed our children and families?”
So far Sri Lanka has received 567 tourists from December 28 onwards as a result of the pilot project, out of which two COVID-19 infected patients have been confirmed and are under self-quarantine in their hotel rooms. Some arrivals who had tested positive for the virus earlier later tested negative.
“Two of them tested positive for COVID-19. Taken as a percentage, that is 0.3 %,” Secretary to the Foreign Ministry Admiral Prof Jayanath Colombage said in a televised interview by the privately-owned Derana TV.
When asked about the Yala safari drivers issues Colombage said the drivers might have been asked to go quarantine as a safety precaution. He said that such things might be reconsidered in the future depending on protocols and guidelines issued by the army and health officials.
“If there were certain shortcomings in the bio-bubble concept we should rectify them and move forward. Otherwise, we will have to stop them,” he added.
Another flight, PQ555, carrying 97 tourists from Ukraine arrived in Sri Lanka at 1400 hours today while 21 tourists departed the country aboard the same flight. (Colombo/Jan01/2021)
By Mahadiya Hamza and Himal Kotelawala