Thousands of tourism workers are to be vaccinated under the first stage of a plan worked out by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) and approved by the Health Ministry.
About17,000 tourism workers come into direct contact with tourists and that is the main reason why they are to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.
The workers include staff of certified hotels (those declared safe by the SLTDA), certified tour operators, guides and drivers.
In safe and certified hotels some 12500 employees have registered to receive the vaccine along with 2737 tour guides and 1816 tourist drivers. Apart from that staff members of all four government institutions including the Tourism Ministry, totaling 658 people have also been added to the programme.
All other hospitality industry members–around 250,000 of them–will be vaccinated under the second stage.
The SLTDA is also having talks with the Health Ministry to reassess some of the guidelines now in place to facilitate the tourism bubble. At present, visitors are required to take three PCR tests before entering the community at the end of a 14-day hotel stay period. One test is taken upon arrival, a second between the fifth and seventh day, and the third between the tenth and twelfth day.
“We have requested the Health Ministry to remove the second test and administer the last PCR test about three days prior to the guest’s moving into the community,” SLTDA Chairperson Kimarli Fernando said.
She said she hopeful the Ministry would respond positively. The change would be convenient to both local authorities and tourists it would provide both parties with the necessary paperwork while reducing costs, time and discomfort.
The SLTDA had also proposed the removal of the 14-day quarantine period for staff of designated safe and secure hotels unless a COVID afflicted patient is found within the hotel. The current regulation could be prohibitive as the quarantine requirement extended to non-contact staff as well, Ms Fernando said. The Authority had suggested that a PCR test be conducted instead and for quarantine to be imposed only on staff when COVID-19 patients were found.
Under consideration too, was the possibility of allowing level 1 hotels to open their reception spaces for local events. From all safe and secure certified hotels, these were permitted to provide accommodation exclusively to international tourists during the first 14 days of their stay. They could not take bookings from locals and also were not allowed to hold any events or banquet functions for locals.
The proposal was to withdraw these restrictions under strict conditions where reception spaces were completely set apart from the rest of the hotel and had separate entrances and kitchens with zero opportunity for contact between locals and tourists. The SLTDA would conduct physical checks on any hotel that applied for this permission and obtained individual approval from the Health Ministry.
“The tourism industry is responsible for three million jobs, a majority of which are small and medium enterprises,” Ms Fernando said.
Hotels that violated the stringent regulations were being penalised, she said. An approved hotel had recently lost its safe-and-secure certification as it had allowed a local to visit his partner staying at the hotel. A total of 125 hotels were currently certified, which was 30 percent of Sri Lanka’s room capacity.
Only nine COVID-19 cases were reported out of the tourist bubble. But by the end of last month, 5048 tourists came to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s top three markets–India, China and the United Kingdom–were currently closed for outgoing flights.The SLTDA was therefore looking into expand its reach to the West Asian market while Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhastan were also being targeted.
Ms Fernando met the Indian High Commissioner earlier this week for discussions regarding an India-specific bubble.
“We are positive about an upturn in July, for the summer season,” she said.
The request to reduce staff quarantine periods in hotels where no patients were found was fair give the low rates of positive cases inside the tourist bubble, Hotels Association President Sanath Ukwatte said. While quarantine had initially been imposed to curb community spread, the intensive PCR testing conducted on tourists at frequent intervals was sufficient to ensure safety.
The Association was in constant contact with relevant authorities to update the guidelines based on new findings and changes, Mr Ukwatte said. It was under these conditions that the Association had requested the opening of reception areas.
The removal of one PCR test was a welcome change as the Association felt the current number was excessive, according to tourists who had visited Sri Lanka within the last month. They were also usually subjected to a test before boarding the plane. This took the total to four tests.
Flying in from Dubai last month, tourist Fiona Deeb, said she felt the number of tests conducted within such a short period was too many. She had also received her vaccination before leaving Dubai.
Coming from Lisbon, tourist Lilian Buchner, agreed that being subjected to four tests was unnecessary and a reduction would be welcome. Nevertheless, most respondents agreed they would be willing to follow whatever guidelines Sri Lanka’s health authorities recommended as the safety of the community was a priority.
Sunday Times | By Tharushi Weerasinghe