Shoot the messenger! That’s what the authorities initially planned against Sandaru Kumarasinghe, who – as they call it in colloquial Sinhala – created a ‘huta pattey’ (commotion) at the Colombo International Airport the other day. This was after a glitch in the immigration systems saw long queues of foreigners waiting impatiently to process their visas. [...]

Business Times

Shoot the messenger!


Shoot the messenger! That’s what the authorities initially planned against Sandaru Kumarasinghe, who – as they call it in colloquial Sinhala – created a ‘huta pattey’ (commotion) at the Colombo International Airport the other day.

This was after a glitch in the immigration systems saw long queues of foreigners waiting impatiently to process their visas. Kumarasinghe’s Russian girlfriend was also in the queue sweating it out with others which eventually led to immigration officials taking control of the VFS- run counter and sorting out the crisis.

The individual whose outburst and angry condemnation of the process was filmed by unknown persons and quickly uploaded on social media, creating a storm of protests, was subsequently directed to make a statement to the police with the intention of taking action for creating a scene at the airport. But saner counsel prevailed and the authorities decided to drop the matter.

What Kumarasinghe did was express his view and objections in a public place.

As I pondered over these issues, the home phone rang. It was cardboard Sando, the muscle man from the nearby Petti-kade, whom I hadn’t spoken to in a while. Sando is the amiable ‘thug-like’ character from the local vicinity who gives a helping hand to those in need.

“(Speaking in Sinhala) I say…..this drama at the airport….not good for tourism, noh,” he said, after exchanging the usual greetings.

“What that individual did was the right thing. If there was no angry outburst at the airport, this matter would have been swept under the carpet and the new visa fee of US$100+ would have prevailed, affecting tourist arrivals. He raised the issue and triggered a storm of protests from the tourism industry, which had also earlier sent a letter of protest against the new fee,” I said.

“This brings out an interesting point. I often raise issues at public places like banks when people break the queue or bank staff is slow to deal with customers and at public offices where people often have to wait long hours for service (remember, the officials are paid salaries from our taxes). Now if someone videos me in such a situation and uploads it on social media, will the authorities take action against me for ‘disturbing the peace’,” he asked.

“That’s an interesting question and I hope it doesn’t come to that because it involves freedom of expression and freedom to raise issues in a public place, if services to the public are at an appallingly slow pace,” I said.

The move to enforce the new $100++ visa fee for tourists (for citizens of SAARC it would have been less), double from the earlier $50 per visitor, drew condemnation from all quarters, initially sparked by Kumarasinghe’s criticism at the airport. When visa fees of Sri Lanka’s competitors in the tourism field are $50 or less, industry officials asked why “we were shooting ourselves in the foot” at a time when the country needed to move forward, attract more tourists and increase foreign revenue, a dire need in the economy.

Consider the visa fees of Sri Lanka’s competing nations to attract tourists from the west: Malaysia visa fee $4; Thailand $39-$50; Vietnam $25; Indonesia $50; while Maldives and Singapore are visa-free. How can you compete in the international market with a visa fee of $100++ when other countries were charging half that amount?

In fact, sections of the tourism industry were complaining when the minimum rates for Colombo hotels were fixed at $100++ late last year, compared to market rates of around $60 at that time, saying the minimum rates would shut out business traffic and those seeking to organise meetings and conventions in Colombo.

The controversial minimum rates which were supported by Colombo hoteliers will cease to exist after May 31, according to Tourism Minister Harin Fernando, who had also promised to address concerns of the industry over the $100++ visa fee and restore it to the earlier rate of $50 which is what eventually happened.

Along with this move, the President’s Office announced that immigration authorities will take over the processing and facilitation of visas from the foreign entities – GBS Technology Services-IVS Global-FZCO-VFS Global – involved in this process. Opposition politicians were also concerned about the foreign revenue these entities would have earned if they were charging a total of $25+ as facilitation fees (considering 2.3 million arrivals this year, these entities would have earned a princely $57 million or Rs. 17 billion a year).
The $50 visa fee includes a convenience fee of $10.

Whew! After analyzing all these issues, I needed a break. Going to the kitchen for a second mug of tea, I peeped through the window and saw the trio actively engaged in a conversation. They too were interestingly discussing the airport drama.

“Lankawe kenek virodathavaya pala karana ara video eka harima rasawath. Eka mae visa gena-ne (That video of a Sri Lankan man protesting at the airport was very interesting and something to do with visas),” said Kussi Amma Sera.

“Eka visa gasthu wedi karapu eka gananey, mama hithanney (I think it was about visa fees being increased),” noted Serapina.

“Mama balaporoththu wenawa apey meda peradiga wedata yana sahodara-sahodariyanta maeka prashnayak novei kiyala (I hope our brothers and sisters who go to work in the Middle East don’t have such issues pertaining to visa fees),” said a worried Mabel Rasthiyadu.

Industry bodies like the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) in a joint letter had urged the Government to restore a competitive and user-friendly visa process through a government-operated website, similar to the previous ETA system, to enable a tourist to obtain the necessary 30-day single entry visa with ease.

Industry officials welcomed the reversal to the old visa fee as the planned visa fee would have discouraged a family of five visiting Sri Lanka if they had to pay a total $500. In another move, the Tourism Minister said they were considering the introduction of a free visa scheme for 67 countries. If that was the case, why was there a hasty move to increase visa fees?

As I sipped my second mug of tea, it occurred to me that this whole episode seems to have occurred due to government officials and politicians working in compartments and not together. Otherwise, why should Minister Harin Fernando say he was not consulted, while the Public Security Minister Tiran Alles asserted that the decision was announced in Parliament and approved by the Cabinet?

It also exposed one flaw: in tourism-related issues, the industry must be consulted as they are responsible for attracting tourists from all over the world, yielding much-needed foreign revenue.


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