Sri Lanka ready for Indian visitors

Sri Lanka Tourism’s first Virtual Summit that was conducted in association with Spiceland Holidays and supported by OneWorld on 22 June, 2020 received more than 7,000 registrations. Though its plans for the India market this year couldn’t quite pick up pace amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it hopes to now resume bilateral tourism relations.

Hazel Jain

Sri Lanka Tourism’s first Virtual Summit that it conducted in association with Spiceland Holidays on June 22, 2020, received more than 7,000 registrations. The chief speaker of this webinar was Arundika Fernando, State Minister of Tourism and Aviation, Sri Lanka, who announced that the destination is now ready to receive international tourists. “The plan is to open our two international airports in Sri Lanka – Bandaranaike International Airport and the Mattala Rajapaksa Hambantota Airport from August 1, 2020. They will follow all health regulations including conducting PCR tests. We also want to promote our Ramayana Trail in India,” he said.

The Ramayana Trail, that has a total of 55 sites, is a cultural and a spiritual product. To promote it, Sri Lanka Tourism has planned TV and cinema advertising in India as it has generated a lot of interest from the India market. In order to support the travel agents in selling this product, the tourism board is ready to offer customised promotional packages as well as promotional material.

Sri Lanka issues detailed guideline
Joining in as a panellist was Kimarli Fernando, Chairperson, Sri Lanka Tourism, who is also part of a COVID-19 Task Force in Sri Lanka. Explaining the on-ground situation, she said, “We had a gradual opening of the country. Like India, Sri Lanka also loves big weddings. So we allowed banquets to be held but only with 100 people. As we speak, we are totally open for domestic tourism. Regarding international tourists, we have a detailed guideline for them on our website which covers everything that they need to know. The auditing process to receive international tourists is currently on. Our Civil Aviation, Health Ministry, Tourism Board and the Immigration Department are working very closely with each other for this.” All attractions will also have time slots to ensure physical distancing. She explained that Indian travellers to Sri Lanka now need to apply for visas online and visa-on-arrival has been halted for now. Visa fee for all SAARC countries including India is US$20 for tourists and US$30 for business travellers. “There is going to be a minimum requirement of seven days stay for now. I think this might kill our M!CE business temporarily. But, we have no choice since the health ministry is keen on this. Tourists will have to choose one of the health-certified accommodations,” Kimarli Fernando added.

Also, all visitors have to get their PCR test done 72 hours prior to departure. “I know this will be a challenge for India. We are discussing this with the health ministry to remove this condition and it may be removed. When they arrive in Sri Lanka, they will have to do two PCR tests – one at the airport and one within five to seven days after arrival at a total cost of US$65. However, we are still negotiating with our health ministry to ease this. The travel agent or the OTA will be responsible for the hotel transfer from the airport. It is a tough guideline, I have to be honest. But, we don’t want to let go of our hard-earned win on COVID,” she shared. Sri Lanka Tourism is also busy creating a travel mobile App with the assistance of UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) as an emergency situation. This will be included in the process of the visa application form.

Key segments
Outlining the key segments that Sri Lanka wants to focus on going forward, Kimarli Fernando said, “We had so many plans for the India market this year. So it’s really frustrating that everything we had planned has been held up now. But, believe you me, it will be done the moment India opens up. The India market is exceptionally important for us.”

According to Madhubani Pereira, Acting Managing Director and Director, Public Relations Department, Sri Lankan Tourism Promotion Board, the destination reportedly received half a million Indian tourists in the first three months of 2020 before the travel ban came into effect. “The peak however was in 2018 when we received 5,00,000 Indians making India our number one source market. This is also one of the reasons why Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Board wants to explore regional tourism going forward.”

On priority are a few segments that it will aggressively target. The wedding segment is one them and it plans to do a special familiarisation tour just for wedding planners later this year or early next year. The other important segment is M!CE. It has one of the biggest M!CE venues in the region called Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) in Colombo, which can cater to 1,500 pax given the present condition. The third segment it wants to focus on is the Indian film industry for film shoots and is looking to offer speedy approvals to shoot for movies. “This is a very underdeveloped segment and a huge opportunity for us. In addition, niche segments like golf tourism and hosting cricket club matches, shopping and nightlife are key. We are looking at offering VAT refunds to help attract these segments,” Kimarli Fernando added.

Moreover, Sri Lanka Tourism and Sri Lankan Airlines will also start working together now to promote the destination in India. Ravindran V, Regional Manager (India & Bangladesh), SriLankan Airlines, said, “Looking at the current situation, the airline has made some drastic changes in its cancellation policy. It has liberalised it to a great extent, as well as extended the validity for cancelled tickets. We are also open to doing charter flights from India.”

Why choose Sri Lanka?
Kimarli Fernando said, “I think we have all changed due to the pandemic. We have changed emotionally and the experiences we seek have changed. We are all looking to being amidst nature and wildlife. As you know, Sri Lanka has immense natural beauty. We also have our own wellness called hela wedakama, and some of us are surviving using this and not Western medicines. But in terms of tourists, we need to move up the scale a little bit. I’m not saying only high-end tourists, but move up a bit gradually so that the return is better.” She also added that there is a perception among the travel agents that the tourism board doesn’t work with them. “It is not true. We need to look at the travel agents and the OTAs – the entire B2B segment is important for us,” she added.

Supporting the entire summit was Riyaz UC, Managing Director of Spiceland Holidays, and Member of the Advisory Committee at Department of Tourism, Kerala.

He said, “Tourism is the first one to get affected and the last one to recover. This is the time when India and Sri Lanka need to work together to overcome the setbacks to the tourism industry. One of the most beautiful island nations, Sri Lanka is getting ready to receive tourists and the Indian travel trade is always excited to promote it. I request the Tourism Minister to further ease the travel formalities to Sri Lanka for Indian tourists. Achieving a target of one million tourists from India is not difficult if you work on the demands of the Indian travel industry. On behalf of the Indian travel trade, I would request Sri Lanka Tourism to give priority to two points: new strategies to attract tourists from India and safe travel with proper measures for protection against the virus.”

Guidelines for Indian visitors

  • Apply for visa online
  • Visa fee is $20 for tourists and $30 for business travellers
  • Minimum 7 days’ stay for now
  • Choose a health-certified accommodation
  • Get PCR test done 72 hours prior to departure
  • 2 PCR tests in Sri Lanka, one on arrival at airport and one within 5-7 days at total cost of $65
  • Travel agent or OTA responsible for hotel transfer from airport

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