Sri Lanka reopened to foreign tourists on Thursday after a nearly 10-month pandemic closure that cut deeply into the Indian Ocean island nation’s lucrative travel industry.
Full operations also resumed Thursday at the island’s two international airports, accommodating commercial flights.
Under new protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19, travelers must be tested for the virus in their country 72 hours prior to their flight, when they arrive at their hotel in Sri Lanka, and again seven days later. They must stay in a “travel bubble” designated in 14 tourism zones without mixing with the local population. About 180 hotels have been earmarked for tourist accommodations.
However, it’s unclear that U.S. and U.K. citizens may travel to Sri Lanka. The U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka says no, not yet, though it notes limited international arrivals may begin January 26, 2021. The CDC also advises against all travel to Sri Lanka right now.
Acquiring a visa isn’t that simple, either. “You need to have a confirmed hotel booking, pre-purchased PCR tests, and a mandatory COVID-19 Insurance Cover throughout your ‘Safe and Secure Level 1’ hotel stay when making your booking,” according to Cinnamon Hotels, one of the WTTC’s Safe Travel sites. “The hotel will issue a reference number that you need to include in your visa form under the section ‘contact details’ and you will be requested to mention an ‘address in Sri Lanka’ under which you need to indicate your hotel name, address and the reference number issued.”
The resumption of tourism follows a pilot project that began December 26 in which 1,500 tourists from Ukraine visited Sri Lanka in such a travel bubble.
The government closed the country to tourists last March when an outbreak of the virus surfaced. The international airports were closed except for limited flights enabling Sri Lankans to return home.
Tourism is a vital economic sector for Sri Lanka, accounting for about 5 percent of its gross domestic product and employing 250,000 people directly and up to 3 million indirectly. Hotels, other businesses, and their employees faced crippling income losses.
Sri Lanka had fewer than 4,000 cases of coronavirus infection until October when clusters centered on a garment factory and fish market spread in the capital, Colombo, and its suburbs. As of Thursday, it has confirmed more than 55,000 cases with 274 fatalities.
COVID Travel Updates Across Asia-Pacific
Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said Thursday he’d signed orders that require international travelers to have a negative test within three days of leaving for Australia. All international passengers will also need to wear masks on their flights. “The success at home, the agonizing challenges abroad, the fact we have new more virulent strains that are emerging around the world—these remind us of precisely why we have been able to keep Australians safe,” Hunt told reporters in Melbourne.
New Zealand and a few Pacific Island countries are exempt from the new rules. This doesn’t mean Australia has reopened its borders just yet: On Tuesday, Health Department Secretary Brendan Murphy suggested that international travel may not resume in earnest until 2022; that debate is ongoing. These rules currently apply to anyone entering Australia, including returning citizens.
China is making some of its toughest travel restrictions yet as coronavirus cases surge in several northern provinces ahead of the travel rush for Lunar New Year. Next month’s festival is the most important time of the year for family gatherings and is often the only time many migrant workers are able to return to their rural homes. However, any wishing to do so this year will need a negative virus test within the previous week and may face sometimes-onerous restrictions, including quarantines, in some communities.
Officials in Bangkok have decided to ease coronavirus restrictions imposed at the beginning of the month because new cases in the city are steadily declining. Pongsakorn Kwanmuang, a spokesman for the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, said the city will allow 13 categories of venues to reopen starting Friday. They include beauty salons, tattoo parlors, gyms, and fitness centers. Bars and nightclubs, boxing stadiums, pool halls, amusement parks, child care centers, and schools are among 13 other categories that must remain closed.
Thailand experienced a resurgence of coronavirus cases in December originating with migrant workers from neighboring Myanmar employed in seafood markets and factories in a province next to Bangkok. A second cluster was found among itinerant gamblers who frequented illegal gambling dens. Health authorities reported 142 new cases nationwide on Thursday, bringing the total to 12,795, including 71 deaths.
Laura Dannen Redman contributed reporting to this story.