Nearly 300 Ukrainians Leave Sri Lanka Without Seeing the Sunny Side
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
Sri Lanka’s tourism industry that was grounded almost two years ago (beginning from Easter bombings in April 2019), is gearing to take off from 23 January with the reopening of the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), while the mission to curb the coronavirus (COVID-19) spread is continuing amidst fear and criticisms, especially on tourism and the handling of Ukrainian tourists by both the tour operators and Sri Lanka Tourism (also called the Tourist Board) which is quite disturbing and appalling.
The main concerns are, whether the government has given a clear picture not only to the tourists who would arrive but also to Sri Lankans settled overseas especially, the migrant workers in the Middle East on the government’s plan on the reopening of the BIA, as there could be backlash and confusion similar to what the Ukrainian travellers are facing at the moment.
Ceylon Today learns that when the tourism programme is also planned with strict travel bubble, back-to-back programme, and at the same time, repatriation programme for migrant workers would be ‘first-come first- served basis’ and giving priority to those who need to come first as the Foreign Ministry said on Friday (8).
While nearly 70,000 migrant workers, mainly from the Middle East are yearning to return, they should not be confused by the opening of the BIA for tourism while there are strict measures followed for the migrant workers. How this would be propagated and implemented would be known only after the BIA is reopened for commercial flights.
Unwarranted new conditions
Regarding the Ukrainian travellers status quo, Ceylon Today checked with Udayanga Weeratunga on Friday. He is well-versed in Russian language and remained in the Ukraine for a longer period than which he was supposed to be as Russian ambassador during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency. He wanted to bring around 2,580 Ukrainian tourists for low cost stay in Sri Lanka to boost tourism, However, he failed miserably when he could not facilitate them properly due to unwarranted new conditions that were imposed on the tourists.
After the tour operators took the Ukrainians for whale-watching in Mirissa and to Yala, allegedly without the permission of Chairperson of Sri Lanka Tourism Kimarli Fernando, she rebuked them for the manner Udayanga and the tour operators conducted the travel plan and for failing to inform them of the itinerary. Following which on 3 January 2021, the tourists were prohibited from travelling anywhere until clearance was obtained.
The Ukrainian tour plan was informed to the Ministry of Tourism and the SLTDA however, the blame was cast on Udayanga, that he came through the backdoor (promoting tourism) while the SLTDA had been on a mission planning how to welcome the tourists under their initiative. Udayanga, on the other hand, says that the Tourist Board was informed well ahead and they assured to cooperate with their travel plan in the country.
“Already 909 Ukrainians have arrived (on Friday another 150 arrived) where only 97 were able to visit Yala and about 20 of them were able to go whale watching, but thereafter, they were prohibited from travelling anywhere within the country.
Before their arrival there, the Tourist Board was waiting for the Health Minister to issue the guidelines for the travellers, which was delaying. It was before the guideline was issued the Ukrainian travellers had arrived.
“They are stuck in their rooms, after paying enormously for the tour from a snowing land to breezy Sri Lanka,” noted Udayanga.
Already a batch of the Ukrainian travellers has left the country without touring the island. What the Tourist Board wanted was to do a third PCR test that was not outlined for them.
“It was announced that these travellers would do a PCR before boarding the flight to Sri Lanka and do another test before checking in the hotels. If the group deviates from the bubble, then they would be subjected to another PCR was the plan. However, these travellers were asked to do another PCR to which they had refused as it is not in the guideline. I am certainly wondering whether they are promoting Sri Lanka Tourism or PCR but it looks like PCR tests,” noted Udayanga. He underlined that for 14 days only two PCR tests were ordered but, today many left without seeing the country despite taken two PCRs,” he added.
“I was told that Fernando has said she will undertake the rest of the teams’ tour plans in Sri Lanka and I have agreed to stay away. However, I am watching what she is doing as she has said that I am not letting her do the needful for the travellers whom I have brought. All I know is that it’s damaging the image of Sri Lanka tourism,” he added.
“The 8 January batch of Ukrainians and Russians are lodged in Centara Ceysands (46 of them) Cinnamon Bentota Beach (9), Cinnamon Bay (18), Taj Bentota Resort and Spa (66) and the Long Beach Resort (14).
“ The way the guidelines are issued, I don’t think these travellers cannot go on any excursions. The travellers don’t want to do any more PCR tests and they are unhappy on the entire tour but the Tourist Board has done nothing to support them at this hour,” noted Udayanga.
He added that he cares less about the slandering and that he had been in prison however, this should not influence the activities we all collaborated to work on.
He said that all of them decided to help us and organise the travel but what is vital is to promote tourism but not treat this tour badly because I invited them to Sri Lanka.
“Another six flights of Ukrainian tourists are expected but with these three PCRs being made mandatory for travellers, has irked the tourists as it is not mentioned in the guidelines and it also means they will have to spend more,” Udayanga explained.
He also said that Sky Up Airline also has its tour operators and they don’t work when new methods are introduced.
Government stance on repatriating migrant workers
On the repatriation programme of the migrant workers, Chairman, Civil Aviation Authority G. A. Chandrasiri said still the discussion is going on and on Monday (tomorrow) the responsible body will hold discussions as to how to get them down when the BIA is open.
He noted that the final decision would be taken on Monday. He said anyone can travel to Sri Lanka but under strict rules and health guidelines.
This means that the migrant workers would still have to undergo the hassle of inconvenient procedures as well suffering with the financial planning as seen in the past.
The migrant workers are waiting with bated breath to return to their country which they say is unlike other countries, Sri Lanka has not shown any compassion to them but only to a tourism plan.
The Government says the obvious reason is that there is a limited number of hospital beds and lacking other facilities and they are compelled to take migrant workers batch by batch with serious screening and also giving priority to those who are stranded sick and pregnant.
Foreign Minister says …
However, on Friday, the Foreign Ministry in its official statement clarified on their repatriation process citing it is ‘People-Centric and Transparent’ and in that context, will continue facilitating repatriations without any financial burden on Sri Lankans.
Secretary Jayanath Colombage made it clear that the role of the Missions is strictly confined to organising repatriation flights for returnees who are tested on arrival, offered all logistical support and are quarantined at Government facilities free of charge.
The returnees are drawn from the list of overseas Sri Lankans registered in the Missions and Posts and repatriated depending on their vulnerability levels and on a ‘first-come first-served basis’.
In addition, the Foreign Employment Bureau and their representatives are working with overseas missions on the safe return of the expatriates working for the community on the same basis concerning availability of flights and clearance by Airport Authorities in the relevant countries.
The number of passengers who are permitted to travel per day, however, is determined by the Task Force chiefly based on a periodical appraisal and inputs provided by the Army in charge of quarantine centres and the Ministry of Health which is entrusted with the task of implementing health guidelines.
In circumstances where the local quarantine and medical care facilities are fully stretched, repatriation on payment basis becomes an option for those returnees who could afford such facilities.
Charter flights for overseas Sri Lankans are approved and organised through Sri Lanka Missions on the request of Sri Lankan community groups who prefer paid quarantine, testing, and other logistical arrangements involved in the repatriation process.
Cargo flights and a few selected commercial flights are also approved by the Ministry for repatriation; the third type of facilitation offered to relatively small groups of passengers who could afford to pay for quarantine and other requirements involved and a maximum of 75 passengers per flight are permitted as per the latest directive of the Covid Task Force.
The General Sales Agents (GSA) of respective Air Lines have been authorised to deal with the passengers on charges of air tickets, PCR tests and quarantining and the Diplomatic Missions have not been mandated to handle payments whatsoever concerning the travel requirements except for extremely special cases of requests for such facilitation.
As the pandemic situation remains fluid and unpredictable a regular re-appraisal is undertaken, based on which the process of repatriation is periodically reviewed.
Ceylon Today learns that many of the Middle East workers are welcoming the opening of the BIA however say that they are not sure of their travel plans to Sri Lanka.
A Gender, Poverty, and Development scholar of the University of London, Meenu Sethi, based in the UAE, who is working closely with the stranded Sri Lankans, stated that the stranded workers have no hope in the Government of Sri Lanka because they were duped many times.
Her contacts have told her that nearly 70,000 Sri Lankans are stuck in the Middle East, which is a strange land for them. She also noted that the other workers have been criticised about how the Sri Lankan embassies are not treating those workers compared to many other embassies.
“There are thousands of them jobless, homeless, and penniless. First of all, get them all the air tickets because nearly 30% of them have no money to buy their air tickets,” she told Ceylon Today.
She said many of those stranded have been shocked to hear that at least Rs 7,500 per day package for quarantine in Sri Lanka that would last for 14 days. Will the government do away with this practice; those who are stranded asked the activist.
Ceylon Today hears many different versions of the planning of the opening of the BIA and the repatriation of migrant workers from various top individuals from Sri Lanka Tourism, Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment and the Airport and Aviation Authority, however, when putting it to practice, let it be free from confusion and misinformation and lack of communication as we have seen so far. – [email protected]
German tourists will land after the reopening of the BIA - Director General Sri Lanka Tourism Dhammika Wijesinghe
Director-General of Sri Lanka Tourism Dhammika Wijesinghe noted that there was a delay in reopening of the BIA as we had to watch over the global trend and prepare the health guidelines according to that.
She also said that Sri Lanka Tourism and the tour operators are working on flying the Germans on January 23. The mobile application to coordinate the travellers’ movements is also under way like streamlining the immigration department and the regional authorities to work together on their movements in the country.
She pointed that the matter with the Ukrainian travellers was that there was a major miscommunication that led to some failures but now their travel itinerary has been informed to the Tourist Board and they are working ‘cordially’ with the Ukrainian tour operators. “We got the date and time and the visit to places now.”
They would be in a bubble and all those who are working with them would be together until their departure, she pointed out.
She also noted that as per the new Health Guideline for travellers issued by the Health Ministry, the travellers will not be subjected to PCR test at the airport on arrival but before checking into the hotels. They should have done PCR before boarding the flight, she noted.
“What we don’t want to see is a community spread with the virus hence we will take strict measures while the travellers are moving about and keep away the locals while they are present in a place. Despite all the touristic spots will be opened, the locals will be far away from the foreigners, she added.
She also pointed out currently Sri Lanka has been promoted in many countries and they can plan their trip with safety measures taken in hand. The tour operators can bring them in any commercial flights or charter flights but they will all be in bio bubble.
Wijesinghe also pointed out that Sri Lanka is promoted in Myanmar too along with France, Germany, China etc, however, the United Kingdom has been on halt due to the new strain of the virus was identified there.
Tourists, Sri Lankan expatriates, dual citizenship holders, locals married to foreigners holding foreign passports can join travel under this category, according to her.
She also mentioned that the migrant workers travel plan is different from the tourist arrival plan.