Finally the new scheme pertaining to visas for foreign travellers gets underway in January, it was officially announced on Friday ending a near 18-month uncertainty over this new scheme.
The travel industry had earlier raised strong concerns over the scheme saying Sri Lanka needs to ‘get out of the woods’ and start marketing the country as a ‘new destination’ in the post-war period instead of bringing in new, cumbersome procedures which could turn away visitors. But the government has said the scheme was to just simplify the process although the real reason appeared to be to raise money for depleted government coffers and a way to screen visitors to the country.
The cash bonanza was emphasised, emphatically and enthusiastically by Immigration and Emmigration Director-General Chulananda Perera at a media briefing this week where he said revenues could go up in the ratio of 2.5 million visitors x $50 (per traveller) by 2016 which works out to more than $125 million annually – a sizable addition to state income.
According to the scheme, a processing fee would be applied to all travellers of $50 for short, 30-day stays while transit passengers are also required to apply for a visa and pay a $25 processing fee, a new rule.
Contrary to earlier reports that the ages-old, visa-on arrival scheme which applies to most western travellers/tourists (some 80 countries), would be discontinued with the visa on line scheme, both schemes will run parallel.
But questions abound about the new scheme though there is three months to sort out the confusion and for the trade to seek clarification before it becomes effective in January.
While industry officials say the trade would eventually settle down to the new scheme (or be compelled to), there is a growing view that it was an unwise move on the part of the government particularly at a time when tourism was taking off at the end of a bloody, near-30 year conflict.
“Oh! If they (government officials) had only listened …...,” lamented an industry veteran. “We pleaded that we be given a year’s time.”
Some of the issues raised vis-à-vis the new scheme is that Sri Lanka’s main competitors in the leisure sector – Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand or Vietnam – welcome visitors with on-arrival-visas and often at no charge, and the new move could slow growth or divert travellers to other destinations.
Most of Asia’s travel destinations offer attractive and competitive packages and a slight variation in costs could cost dearly to a travel agent, sending visitors packing to another location. Then there are the FITs (non group travellers), some of who decide on the spot to go on holiday, get on a plane and arrive at their destination which they may not be able to do anymore as far as Sri Lanka is concerned or they have to pay a higher fee - $75 which would add to their package.
This year minimum hotel rates were increased across the board, in some cases doubling from last year which has resulted in some handsome service charges for hotel staff like Cinnamon Grand (Rs 30,000 across the board) for example but dismay to some sections because the cost of the packages are going up.
This week the eternal lament from the trade was that in addition to hotel rates, all other costs – transportation, hotels, food, visits to cultural sights, etc have all gone up. “If a family of five visits Sri Lanka, they would have to pay $250 i.e. online. But if they opt for the visa on arrival facility, then they pay a total $375.. that’s a huge spend,” said a travel agent, adding: “This kind of added costs can make or break a destination because in today’s world, cost matters.”
How SriLankan Airlines will respond to the tax on transit passengers remains to be seen. The national carrier has been making huge revenues from Indian passengers transiting through Colombo to the Middle East and vice-versa making use of attractive packages which sometimes includes a one-night stay.
Will that have an impact on the airline’s profitability at a time when it has cut losses and aims to show profits in two years?
India is Sri Lanka’s biggest tourism source market and any move to disturb these trends is inadvisable to say the least.
Indian corporate meetings being held here is also big business for Sri Lanka and a new promotional push is being planned in January in India by Sri Lankan authorities aimed at increasing the numbers.
Overall things are looking bright for Sri Lanka tourism with only the cost-fact being an issue, and now an added burden: visa fees and online visas.
Yet tourism has been the most resilient industry in Sri Lanka, surviving through the conflicts of 1983, 1987-89 and 2006-2009, and this is just another challenge in the crises it has faced over the years, and have – and will - overcome.