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Sri Lanka: Udaynaga's Travel bubbles

Nobody in his right senses would object to reopening the country to tourism if, and that is a very big if, the necessary precautions are in place to prevent such a measure triggering a new Covid wave here. 

by Manik De Silva

Nobody in his right senses would object to reopening the country to tourism if, and that is a very big if, the necessary precautions are in place to prevent such a measure triggering a new Covid wave here. This is imperative in the context of the ongoing global pandemic and is something that does not need underlining. Given the fact that our economy is greatly dependent on tourism earnings, and the livelihoods of hundred of hundreds of thousands of Lankans depend on this industry, even the smallest tentative step taken in that direction must be welcomed. This is what the concerned authorities attempted to do by bringing in some tourist groups from Ukraine into the country towards the end of last year with the first flights landing at the Mattala International Airport at Christmas time.

Whether this attempt has blown up in the faces of those who tried to swing it is something that is yet to be finally determined. There have been three positive Covid infected persons in the first tour group that arrived here. Some of these holidaymakers have already left the country, cutting short their vacations in the wake of the many necessary restrictions that had to be imposed to ensure that nothing untoward happens as a result of their arrival. There has been a public spat between Ms. Kimarli Fernando, the chairperson of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, and Mr. Udayanga Weeratunga, Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to Russia and Ukraine, over the bringing of these tourists here. Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga has backed Fernando. It is public knowledge that Weeratunga is a close kinsman (first cousin) of the ruling Rajapaksa clan. The media has leaped on the fact that his official address has been published as Temple Trees, Colombo.

Therein lies the rub. It was nearly a century ago that a British judge, Lord Hewart, pronounced that “It is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly, be seen to be done.” That famous quotation flowing from a minor court action involving a motorcycle accident and a fine of a mere 10 British pounds (even though money had a different value at the time) has since been accepted as basic norm of justice systems and become a common aphorism. What has been universally accepted in the judicial sphere must also necessarily apply elsewhere; and the fact that a close kinsman of the ruling family, a businessman with a well known past who had previously enjoyed Rajapaksa patronage, was chosen to pilot the ‘pilot project’ is a matter of no little consequence.

However that be, it can be credibly argued that Weeratunga was very well placed, or may even be said best placed, to kick start a project of reopening Sri Lanka’s beleaguered tourism industry to a Covid-wracked world. He had all the contacts and political muscle (not only here but also in Ukraine where he was once accredited) needed to get the project going. He has for good or bad, successfully or not, got it started. These obviously were factors that were weighed carefully before the first tourist flights from Ukraine were allowed into the country under his wing. Apart from the detection of the three Covid infected tourists, there have been video clips of the visitors with face masks covering just their chins widely telecast. Safari jeep drivers in Tissamaharama hired to drive the visitors to the Yala National Park have kicked up a public row over being quarantined following that assignment. Opposition politicians have waded into the fray alleging crony capitalism in the manner in which the business arising from the few flights that have already arrived has been allocated. The concerned authorities have been compelled to admit that there have been “shortcomings” in the experiment that was attempted.

But it is clear that what has been started will not be abandoned in the face of mounting pressure. It was reported on Friday that a fifth Ukranian flight had landed at Mattala the day before. The tourism minister, acknowledging the negatives already encountered, is on record saying that despite some hiccups the project was on track. There is no denying Ranatunga’s claim that what is being attempted is of pivotal importance to the country and it is to be hoped that all possible cooperation to make it succeed will be offered regardless of personal considerations. Weeratunga who was for long a fugitive from the law, and who attracted an Interpol Red Alert, did neither himself nor his patrons any credit by boasting that no indictment was served on him and that “I was smarter than them” (the law enforcers) appears to be going strong. Approximately 800 tourists from Ukraine have already arrived here and total of ten flights from there are due before the Bandaranaike International Airport is reopened on January 21. While the expected figure of nearly 2,600 tourists from that country is not likely to be achieved before the reopening of the BIA – previously postponed – with some of the previous bookings canceled, the majority will be coming, a report said.

UNWTO, the tourism agency of the United Nations has set up a Global Tourism Crisis Committee and developed a sector-wide response to the unprecedented challenges now facing numerous countries greatly dependent on tourism on both economic and employment considerations. The first set of recommendations in this regard has already been presented. We have no doubt that the concerned authorities here are keenly studying how the rest of the world is tackling the challenge. Each country will have problems that are unique to itself and will have to innovate measures to combat them. We too must do the same. So let us give a chance to what is being attempted without rushing to too hasty conclusions.

( The writer is the editor of Sunday Island, where this piece first appeared) 

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