COVID-19 is viewed as an existential crisis that will not end soon and neither does it have a defined ending, hence, the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) and the Mattala International Airport (MIA) are gearing to open their gates for tourists, on 21 January 2021, following strict health guidelines, travelling in a bio bubble environment , having in mind the prevalence of the pandemic in the country.
The preparation for this has been hectic for the tourist sector amidst the uncertainty, but a whole lot of new things have been introduced at the two main international airports, keeping the Jaffna International Airport (JIA) operations shut.
JIA has not created demands
According to Chairman of Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) Upul Dharmasena, there should be demand for airline traffic not received so far. If there are requests to fly into JIA and any applications demanding to fly, then the operations can restart he added. The airlines have to make use of the private sector to create demand to use the JIA, he said.
One of the key elements in the new tourist arrival plan is that all travellers will have to obtain their visas, air tickets, and payment for visas and PCRs tests online personally. There will be no assistance from anyone other than their tour operators.
The tourists have to be in the bio bubble until they leave the country or after a 14-day quarantine, they can move out from the bio bubble to travel separately under the guidance of Sri Lanka Tourism.
There will be no PCR tests at the airports but 72 hours before boarding the flight, they will have to do their PCR and clear their health condition before landing in Sri Lanka. The PCR tests will be conducted before checking into the hotels and not at the airports as it was done earlier and this is to curtail the rush at the BIA and the MIA.
The two airports are hoping to clear the arriving tourists, of not more than 3,300, within one hour and 30 minutes, on a daily basis, the airport authorities told Ceylon Today.
There would be no minimum mandatory stay. The number of PCR tests depends on the duration of the stay. Currently, visitors from all countries, excluding the UK, are permitted to enter Sri Lanka.
Tourist belongings would be disinfected and highly trained sniffer dogs, to combat drug smuggling, will also be introduced at the airports.
The Civil Aviation Authority purchased 20 highly trained sniffer dogs for Rs 23 million and the dogs are at the BIA and the MIA and they would be actively engaged under the Sri Lanka Air Force.
There will be no taxi service from the airports unless the Tourist Board or the tour operators book them for travellers. If a family requests a cab, the BIA and MIA would organise it for them with the approval of the tourist board and they will have to go to only the destination mentioned in the itinerary.
The task to open the airports for tourism comes as scheduled after giving lots of thought to it. Sri Lanka has managed to keep the country under wraps from the horrendous virus spread comparatively better than other countries.
Several tests, trials, financial losses and upsetting moments were experienced last year with garment factories closed and workers going helter-skelter when sudden curfews and lockdowns were announced by the government-run task force. There were matters also with some of the sea fearers, who came to the country on board ships, being infected with the virus and eventually the Government shut them out too.
Still, problems remain. These are related to repatriating Sri Lankans stranded overseas, which came under severe criticisms. There was a mixture of political sensitive activities, the raging outcry from the public, misunderstandings and miscommunication with the arrival of the Ukrainian travellers, who came much before the tourism stakeholders were prepared for the launching of the tourist arrival.
It also ended up in heated arguments between those who arranged the Ukrainian tourists and Sri Lanka Tourism which was gearing for a structured tourism plan.
However, from lessons learnt, from the last three batches of the Ukrainian tourists, an end to all pilot projects with the Ukrainians came with the itinerary given to them by their tour operators.
Vice President Marketing Cinnamon Hotels and Board member of Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau Dileep Mudadeniya said, “It’s a great initiative to open up the airports for commercial and charter flights.” He added that it was an opportunity to have tests and trails with the pilot project with the Ukrainians so that the new operations could be smoothly run.
The travellers moving in the bio bubble will be checked-in at only selected hotels. There would be around 40 hotels that have applied for KMPG certification. The category one hotels would be for overseas tourist and, for the locals it would be different planning, where the foreign tourist will not mix with the locals.
“We have learnt many lessons and how to run the international operation under the current situation.” They would need maximum freedom. However, under the new normal we will have to balance and apply maximum positivity in the operation and market the destination as well,” Mudadeniya added.
Former Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) President Mahen Kariyawasam said that they are very happy to note the request for reopening of Sri Lanka for tourism and are thankful to the regulatory authority for making the necessary arrangements. In the new health and safety guidelines there are some grey areas which need to be relooked at, he added.
The methodology of obtaining insurance, if clients can use the hotel beach, moving in within the level one hotels etc., need to be more flexible, he further added.
“This is a good initiative to restart tourism which will help nearly 2.5 million people in Sri Lanka who are directly and indirectly involved in tourism,” Kariyawasam added.
The Tourist Board (Also known as SLTDA: Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority) states that until the mobile Tourism Application is incorporated into the Immigration online application, the PCR test cost of Rs 7,500 each, agreed with the five Private Hospitals and Insurance cost of USD 12 for one month COVID-19 premium, with Peoples Insurance, is to be paid to the hotel when making the booking.
Sri Lanka Tourism was awarded the ‘Safe & Secure’ certificate recently the service providers that have been Audited by KPMG, an Independent Auditing firm and had met the requirements of the COVID-19 Health Protocol.
The Certificate comes with a unique QR Code. The certified service providers should display the Certificates or a copy in the common areas so that it could be easily accessed by international and domestic guests. By scanning the QR code anyone, including guests, can verify all key details related to the certified establishments and service providers thus, avoiding the possibility of fake certificates.
SLTDA has introduced a complaints report to be forwarded through the app with photo evidence if available, of any violations, by the service providers of required procedures and hygiene practices outlined in the tourism operational guidelines.
The certified service providers should maintain the highest operational standards at all times and act with responsibility when conducting tourism activities during COVID-19 pandemic.
Unsatisfactory operational practices found during periodic spot audits, conducted or through reported violations or complaints, will be treated very seriously and could result in cancellation of the certification status.
Sri Lanka was recently bestowed the World Travel and Tourism Council’s (WTTC) Safe Travels stamp along with 16 other countries. Sri Lanka joins the ranks of leading destinations to be stamped safe, including Indonesia, Dubai, Tanzania, Portugal, Mexican Caribbean, Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Turkey, Bulgaria, Jamaica, Mauritius, Ontario, Saudi Arabia, Rwanda and counting, having had its protocols validated by WTTC to be in line with those devised by the global organisation.
Sri Lanka tourism will have its presence in three provinces this year to assist registration, to support registered entities, improve infrastructure and joint provincial promotions, Representatives from local authorities and Director General Tourism Dhammika Wijayasinghe said.
Considering key digital trends, lending obsolete the desktop versions of websites, pushing mobile to the fore, Social Media becoming the new normal decreasing search validity, Email being replaced by Messaging and Emotional destination messages, showing power over rational messages, all setting new standards to consider when planning Destination Marketing.
Director Operations at Mattala International Airport (MIA) Shehan Sumanasekara told Ceylon Today that the MIA has already opened and it has been busy with passengers and has welcomed 400 airlines lately. The airport that was downgraded as the ‘emptiest airport’ in the world is now in demand, he added. He said, despite the COVID 19 scare, even last year (2020) it has been the airport for seafarers, migrant workers, expatriates and several distinguished guests. He even said several private jets have also landed for re-fuelling.
The MIA has a three-million litre fuel storage facility and technical staff and employees numbering 400. “Beginning from 2020 January, up until the end of the year, we had 16, 000 passengers at the MIA and it’s increasing with more arrivals from the Ukrainian tourists” he added.
The MIA is disinfected including the aerobridge and masks are offered to every visitor on arrival. The entire staff is geared with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for COVID 19.
If passengers fly to the MIA they enjoy discounts too, even before the recent operations started. The waiver was to attract more tourists.
The MIA, which is designed to accommodate one million passengers annually, is hoping to reach the 500,000 passenger mark in the coming years.
Currently, Indigo Airlines (daily flights), the Maldives Airlines (three times a week), the TUI (TUI Group, an Anglo-German multinational travel and tourism company) a charter flight (weekly) and Ukraine’s SkyUP, are flying to MIA.
The Manager Operations also noted that very soon Afghanistan Airlines (Air Astana) will fly to MIA.
The MIA needs to be promoted aggressively and the promotional activities are carried out by Sri Lanka Tourism he added.
The MIA could be prominent because it is so close to tourist spots in the country like Mirissa, Yala and even within the reach of Ella in the Hills, as it takes only about 90 minutes to reach there. Even the East coast is rather close from the MIA than from the BIA.
The MIA will be called the Exotic Tourism Destination Airport, noted Sumanasekara, but its Duty-Free arcade is yet to upgraded and they have been looking at several competitive biddings. “Within the next two months, we can have a fully-fledged duty free area he added. The MIA has coaches and taxis ready and would work closely with the Ministry of tourism in the operations.
All is set to welcome tourists and locals at the BIA says Chairman of Airport and Aviation Services Sri Lanka Limited G.A. Chandrasiri. Speaking to Ceylon Today, he noted that his 4,000 workers will be in their PPE with 2,000 of them frontline managers running the show from 21 January.
The passengers will go up to the health desk (seven cubicles) where seven PHIs and MOH will be present.
There would be 18 immigration counters, manned by personnel in protected gear, from where the passengers will be able to move to the duty-free area. The staff at the duty-free will also be in PPE and the guests are not allowed to spend too much time there. The locals can book their items and leave and after serving the quarantine period they can collect their items.
The Chairman went on to say that there would be two different areas; one for tourists and other for the repatriation of migrant workers, which is handled by the Sri Lanka Army.
The tourists will reach the coach arranged by the tour operators and if some have requested a taxi, then with the consultation of the Tourism Authority, they would be afforded a taxi to reach the destination stated in their itinerary.
“Each flight carrying 300 passengers will be cleared within 90 minutes and two flights per day can be cleared in the existing conditions,” he added. “We can accommodate 3,300 passengers per day at the BIA and the MIA based on PCR test capacity.”
The BIA earned Rs 2.5B in January 2020 alone, but with that, the virus hit the country he added. “We are hopeful this year we can reap benefits as many leading airports are still closed.” He also added that on 21 January, tourists from Germany are set to arrive.
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan