Business Times

On arrival visas to continue till online visa plans mature

Could affect spur-of-moment travellers
By Sunimalee Dias

The Government will continue with the Visa-on-Arrival (VOA) scheme from September for a short period while at the same time implementing the new online-visa for visitors, following concern from the trade that the move could reduce tourist numbers.

Deputy Economic Development Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena told the Business Times that both the current (VOA) and proposed online system will operate until the new system is fully operational and depending on the feedback from visitors.

The online visa scheme operative from September, ironically when the lucrative winter season starts, could turn into a crisis with industry sources saying this would affect arrivals . However some sources say the twin schemes, even though temporary, could also cause a lot of confusion.

The online visa system is likely to have a “substantial impact” on the tourism industry with figures set to drop as it is coming at a time just prior to winter arrivals, Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) President Anura Lokuhetty told the Business Times, days before Mr Abeywardene explained that both systems would work.

Mr Lokuhetty urged that this scheme be delayed at least until May next year when the industry comes around (improves). “Winter will get definitely affected,” he said adding that most arrivals from India will be impacted.

Currently, India is the number one market for the tourism industry in Sri Lanka overtaking UK and Germany with the highest number of arrivals for last month growing by 55%. While Sri Lanka continues to place restrictions with marginal or no promotions the country is set to lose in the backdrop of competing nations like Malaysia at 15 million visitors, Thailand with 14 million and Singapore projecting 12.5 million arrivals this year. These countries have “massive tourist arrivals but still there are no visa restrictions,” Mr. Lokuhetty noted.

Indian tourists are likely to be hit the worst as Jetwing Hotels Chairman Hiran Cooray pointed out they will not be able to come down to Colombo on the spur-of-the moment anymore. While the government notes that such a system is required for security concerns however, the industry believes this could adversely affect the budding sector trying to make a comeback and grab a slice in the highly competitive market.

The industry noted that any discussions with the government after decisions have been taken will be beyond them right now. “We have no say on the matter,” Sri Lanka Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) President Nilmin Nanayakkara said adding that this new regulation was to be implemented in August last year however; due to objections by the industry it was postponed.

He however noted that should the online visa system be “user friendly” as explained to them the impact on arrivals could be minimal. The new system could reduce arrivals from the 800, 000 target for this year although an increase is envisaged over 2010.

A similar move was averted by the tourism industry back in 2007 with the imposition of an additional 10% on visa fees, which was later postponed.

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