By Anton Peiris, Nyon, Switzerland
The tourist season, in Sri Lanka, will comence in November. Tens of thousands of tourists from Switzerland, Germany, Austria and a couple of other European countries, except Ukraine and Russia, will not visit Sri Lanka for the following reason: They hate quarantine in a Level 1 Hotel for 24 – 48 hours because they think that quarantine, is unnecessary and they are right, because they bring their Certificate of Vaccination to prove that they have been vaccinated twice. They have undergone a PCR test in their home country less than 72 hours before departure and they will bring the certificate indicating that the test result is negative. All they want is to leave the airport and go straight to the hotel of their choice in Sri Lanka without undergoing the 24 to 48-hour quarantine. They want the freedom to go anywhere in Sri Lanka immediately after leaving the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). Unfortunately, this is not possible in Sri Lanka. Level 1 Hotels are expensive. European tourists do not want to spend their foreign currency unnecessarily on accommodation in a quarantine hotel. This is another reason they hate quarantine.
Consequently, instead of coming to Sri Lanka, they will go to Zanzibar, Greek Islands, Sharm El Sheik or some other place because those certificates are accepted there and they can leave the airport immediately and go to the hotel of their choice without undergoing quarantine.
The correct method for the BIA authorities is to conduct PCR tests on them upon their arrival, take their contact details including their mobile phone numbers, and allow them to proceed to the hotel of their choice. They are to always wear a mask during their stay in Sri Lanka.
The risk of allowing them go is negligible because they have been fully vaccinated. Letting Sri Lankans who are not vaccinated walk on the streets in the country poses a much greater COVID-19 risk to the population.
Ravi Kumudesh, President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science, has told The Island of Wednesday , that the PCR lab at the BIA has the capacity to test 4,500 people a day and issue reports within 90 minutes. This lab is not operational because the Health Ministry has not authorised it to start administering PCR tests to tourists. The BIA lab has not received a single sample from tourists. Why? Because a group of Health Ministry officials have made large amounts of money from private laboratories and quarantine centres. Some of them are part-time practitioners in private labs. They continue to block the use of the state-of-the-art lab at the BIA premises built by the Airport and Aviation Authority. It is alleged that some of these ministry officials either own or have shares in these quarantine hotels and private labs. They keep sending tourists to Level 1 Hotels and quarantine centres and use their private labs to make money. They continue to maintain the unnecessary 24 to 48-hour quarantine regulation for European tourists to fill their own pockets. Are the Ministers of Health and Tourism aware of this racket?
Question: Who are the losers? Answer: The millions of ordinary people, hotel workers, tour guides, drivers, employees of National Parks, souvenier shopkeepers and many more, who have lost their livelihoods because tens of thousands of European tourists are not visiting Sri Lanka because of the unnecessary quarantine regulations of the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Tourism. Quarantine is necessary for tourists from Ukraine, Russia, India, Middle East and some other countries, but not tourists from Europe. More than 75 percent of the people in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and a couple of other European countries have been fully vaccinated.
The Swiss Edelweiss Airline brings 350 tourists per week from Switzerland and neighbouring Germany (Zurich to Colombo non-stop flight) during the period from November to April every year. That is about 9,000 tourists per year. Last year they had to cancel all their flights to the BIA because Europeans hate being subjected to quarantine at a Level 1 Hotel. I booked a flight with Swiss Edelweiss to come to Sri Lanka last March. One month before departure they informed me that the flight had been cancelled because they could not fill even 10 percent of the seats. They got their airfare refunded and I came to Sri Lanka on a Qatar Airways flight. I had to undergo two weeks quarantine in a Level 1 Hotel in Wadduwa despite being fully vaccinated. Moreover, I’ve had two PCR tests, one before departure and another at the quarantine hotel in Wadduwa on the day of arrival, administered by a private lab in Maggona. Both results were negative. You can imagine my frustration, I almost cursed those idiots in the Ministries of Health and Tourism. A spokesman for Swiss Edelweiss Airline says that they will have to cancel their flights to BIA this year as well unless the Ministry of Tourism abolishes this quarantine nonsense. They say that all their passengers have been vaccinated twice, that they agree to take a PCR test at the BIA, they will leave their contact details with the airport and afterwards should be free to go anywhere in Sri Lanka.
The other charter airlines in Germany, Austria, Sweden and a couple of other European countries that brought thousands of tourists to Sri Lanka say the same thing. So, we have lost tens of thousands of tourists from Europe.
This 24-to 48-hour quarantine regulation and the PCR tests administered by private labs for tourists is a racket invented by some unscrupulous officials of the Health and Tourism Ministries. They have turned a blind eye to the fact that Europeans are fully vaccinated. They want to continue to make big money from private quarantine centres and private labs. They don’t care two hoots about the millions of hotel industry workers in Sri Lanka who have lost their jobs.
Dear Ministers of Health and Tourism, please get the PCR test lab at the BIA up and running so all tourists from Europe can be administered PCR tests upon arrival. Take their contact details and allow them to go to hotels of their choice. They hate quarantine. Stop this 24-to 48-hour quarantine nonsense for tourists from Europe thereby opening the doors for tens of thousands of tourists to come to Sri Lanka. When you make things easier, more and more European tourists will come to Sri Lanka. The result: A million people in the tourism industry will get their jobs back. Additionally, take disciplinary action against those unscrupulous ministry officials who have been continuously blocking the authority of the PCR test laboratory.
It has been reported that Sri Lankans arriving at the BIA (those who are fully vaccinated) are now allowed to go home after taking a PCR test at the airport. The report is issued three hours after the test. If the report is negative, they do not have to go into quarantine and can leave home. Why not apply the same rule to European tourists as well?
Fully vaccinated travellers from Sri Lanka will no longer need PCR testing before departure for England. Our Minister of Tourism should apply the same rule to European tourists arriving in Sri Lanka because they will be given a PCR tests upon arrival at the BIA. Make things easier for them thereby gaining tens of thousands of European tourists who will provide the foreign exchange that Sri Lanka desperately needs.