Move to scrap visa facility shocks travel trade

By Anthony David

The Government and the travel trade are locked in a battle over the decision to scrap on arrival visas for foreign visitors to Sri Lanka. Immigration and Emigration Controller of Chulananda Perera told the Sunday Times yesterday the facility afforded to visitors from 83 countries would be scrapped. “The only exception will be Singapore and the Maldives. These two countries issue on arrival visas to visiting Sri Lankans,” he said.

However, the travel trade is up in arms. “The theme for tourist promotion in 2011 is visit Sri Lanka. Any change in issuing on arrival visas will have an adverse impact. It is not going to help the country promote tourism,” Tourist Hotels Association president Anura Lokuhetti, told the Sunday Times.

One of the main reasons that prompted the Government’s decision to scrap the visa on arrival scheme was its abuse, particularly by those from India and Pakistan. The Sunday Times in its front page lead story last week revealed how citizens from these countries used the visa on arrival to seek refugee status, asylum or menial jobs here.

Ms Jennifer Pagonis, Deputy Representative in Sri Lanka for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said there were 225 recognised refugees and 250 asylum seekers in Sri Lanka. An Immigration official said though the UNHCR registers those arriving in Sri Lanka utilizing the visa on arrival facility, they were not provided accommodation. Hence, they violated the assurance given to the UNHCR and sought employment mostly in restaurants, hotels and households.

Controller Perera said he had instructed officials at all entry points to Sri Lanka to exercise greater caution when issuing visas on arrival. This is to prevent abuse and those availing themselves of the facility becoming a burden to the country.

He said that an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) scheme would soon be introduced to make it easy for any tourist wanting to visit Sri Lanka to obtain an on line visa. The modalities of this scheme, he said, were being worked out by officials of the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Defence.

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