The Scottish couple snapped out of their jetlag-fuelled New Year slumber as they came out of the aircraft. Drums had begun to beat, dancers were swaying and traditional sweetmeats were laid out in front of them. They were among the first tourists to land in Sri Lanka this year and the authorities – including a minister and top tourism officials – were at the airport to extend a traditional welcome as part of the `2011- Visit Sri Lanka’ campaign.
That campaign is likely to take a dent. So could tourism. Because the government in-principle has decided to withdraw a facility extended, for example, to the Scot couple -- the facility of an `on-arrival visa’, easily more comforting to tourists than free sweets.
Instead, an online application procedure would be introduced with a modest visa fee.
Protests from the tourism industry were immediate. “One of the reasons why we attract a large number of visitors is because of the easy access to the country. That is why we urge the government to defer this move until 2012,” Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) President Anura Lokuhetti told the Sunday Times newspaper. For an industry trying to pick up after three decades of civil war, the move was disastrous, stakeholders said.
One reason behind the government’s decision was that except for Maldives and Singapore, not a single other country – that includes India – reciprocates. The other latent fear is that members of the Tamil diaspora, still considered pro-LTTE and against the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, would slip into the country.
The move will impact Indian tourists. In 2010, 111129 Indian tourists came to Sri Lanka – the highest number for any country. A close second was UK with a few over 95000 tourists. For friends who came here last year, the 30-day tourist visa-on-arrival facility was a boon.
The government had withdrawn it in August but reversed the decision in less than a day after protests. This time, it seems more determined. A top tourist official has said the new online process will start being tested from January-end and could be fully implemented in three months. Most tourists could hope that it takes more time than that.