Critics point out that the COVID-19 virus may spread further in the country because the Ukrainian tourists have engaged in tours disregarding health guidelines
- The Ukrainian tourists who are here are said to be reluctant to accept their PCR test results. They have engaged in tours completely disregarding their PCR test results
- According to Sampath Galappatti two drivers are kept in one room with the daily room charge being Rs. 2000 and these drivers do not have money to pay the room charge
Ukrainian tourists are visiting Sri Lanka at present with the involvement of the former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia Udayanga Weeratunga; the latter’s involvement seen as an attempt to get the tourism industry back on its feet. Several parties opine that this programme, which was meant to uplift tourism in the face of challenges posed by COVID-19, has started to backfire already. They say that Ukrainian tourists are visiting the island disregarding the health guidelines specified by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority and Sri Lanka Health Authorities. Three COVID-19 patients were identified from the first group of Ukrainian tourists; which comprised 186 travellers who visited the island on December 28. Five tourists in this group have tested positive for COVID-19 and according to media reports five of them are receiving treatment at Kotalawala Defence University.
The Ukrainian tourists who are here are said to be reluctant to accept their PCR test results. They have engaged in tours completely disregarding their PCR test results. Several parties condemn that because of the Ukrainian tourists the bio bubble concept introduced by the Government may be negatively impacted and the COVID-19 virus may spread further in the country again.
" However, several incidents during this visit have led to suspicions whether those drivers were informed of necessary health guidelines to be followed at the time the Ukrainians were here"
Sri Lankans returning from overseas are required to undergo a mandatory quarantine period of 14 days. But the Ukrainian tourists have only quarantined themselves for 6-7 days following arrival on December 28. Some of them have toured even before the release of their PCR results. One party has gone to visit whales in Mirissa and another party has visited Yala National Park. None of them seem to follow any health guidelines. Drivers who were involved in the Yala tour said that Army officers informed them that 28 drivers were quarantined because some tourists had tested positive for the virus.
Safari drivers also said that those who worked for the SLPP during the previous election had been given preference when safari jeeps were picked for the tour. Tissa PS member Gayan Sandaruwan was entrusted with the task of selecting these safari jeeps.
"Yala lot number two’ is currently at risk as Ukrainian tourists have got off vehicles to roam around the place by violating health guidelines. There is information that these tourists had broken journey in Tissa while travelling to Yala"
According to Tissamaharama safari drivers supporters of Namal Rajapaksa had been given prominence in this venture. An individual engaged in the business said that some persons were unsettled as a result. Sandaruwan gets the Yala tours of the Ukrainian tourists through a private tourism company. The company has requested him to prepare Toyota jeeps for the Yala tour. Sandaruwan said that the company did not mention any special health guideline to be followed during the pandemic other than wearing masks and using sanitizer. The company has also informed that if needed the tour drivers will have to place themselves in self-quarantine. Meanwhile Udayanga Weeratunge has asked Sandaruwan to obtain the necessary vehicles. He has also said that wearing a mask and using sanitizer were enough. The tour was thus organised.
Around 750 safari jeeps are available in Tissamaharama to tour Yala. The owners work together under the umbrella of several associations. However, several incidents during this visit have led to suspicions whether those drivers were informed of necessary health guidelines to be followed at the time the Ukrainians were here. The Ukrainian tourists were brought on the instructions of the Tourism Ministry, the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority and the health authorities as a pilot project. The task was to be carried out as a bio bubble. However, it is obvious by now that the bio bubble concept has been completely violated and the organizers and the advisory companies have failed to follow health guidelines. The participants were advised to wear suitable protective equipment and to follow health guidelines. They were also advised not to halt vehicles or to allow passengers to get off till they reach their destination. There were plans only to take the tourists whose PCR results were negative on the tour.
"Tissa Safari Jeep Association Secretary Sampath Galappatti said said that that they even refused to wear masks. They have also not maintained social distancing as they have travelled in groups of 4-5 in one jeep, he said. They have walked everywhere within the Yala National Park and Padalangala beach"
Yet it is doubtful whether those guidelines had been followed during the Ukrainian tour. They have not been instructed to wear protective equipment or to follow another method. The Ukrainian tourists who visited Yala in ‘Yala lot number 2’ have not followed any health guideline. Tissa Safari Jeep Association Secretary Sampath Galappatti said said that that they even refused to wear masks. They have also not maintained social distancing as they have travelled in groups of 4-5 in one jeep, he said. They have walked everywhere within the Yala National Park and Padalangala beach. They have also used the washrooms there and have proceeded to have close chats with the drivers, who have opposed such moves. Weeratunga has also visited Yala before the arrival of these tourists. Safari drivers who could not engage in their jobs due to COVID-19 were happy that tourism activities restarted with political guidance. They also found it to be a great solution to their daily struggle. However their happiness lasted only until they had finished their tours. The Army took measures to place these drivers in quarantine. The drivers were clueless and they were to be taken to an Army camp. As they opposed the moves by the military they were quarantined in Lake View Hotel in front of Tissa Lake. Two drivers are kept in one room with the daily room charge being Rs. 2000, according to Sampath Galappatti. He also said these drivers do not have money to pay the room charge.
“Tourists have no right to get off in Tissamaharama and we will look into it,”
- Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranathunga
“The Government deceived us. We came as we trusted the Government. While we who spent 3 hours with the tourists are quarantined they are taken around the island,” safari drivers voiced together. We received 5000 Rupees from this tour. After paying for petrol and the owner, we are left with only 700 Rupees. We are quarantined for 14 days with 700 Rupees in our hands. Family members suffer a lot. The Government has dispatched 10,000 Rupee worth dry rations to our families. Had we known this earlier, we would not have come to be quarantined for just 700 Rupees. We could have done small jobs at home,” they added. The Army supplies food and other needs of these drivers. They said that the Government was involved in a tourism mafia by brining Ukrainian tourists without a plan. They charge that those who wield power had a good opportunity to earn a fortune.
According to these drivers, ‘Yala lot number two’ is currently at risk as Ukrainian tourists have got off vehicles to roam around the place by violating health guidelines. There is information that these tourists had broken journey in Tissa while travelling to Yala, they added. According to them, they have been taken to quarantine centres based on the suspicion of the military personnel that some tourists who toured before their PCR results were released may have tested positive. They said that wildlife officers also informed them of something similar and these officers have maintained a distance with the Ukrainian tourists. We did not consider any of these things and the Government has cheated on us. If we were asked to wear protective equipment we could have done so. We landed in trouble as we did not know of anything, they added.
Sandaruwan, who organised this tour, said that he had spoken with Ministers and prepared the Lake View Hotel as a quarantine centre for these drivers before they were sent to far away areas. He also said that he took measures to provide Government dry rations to their families and to borrow food items from a caterer in Tissamaharama to feed the drivers. However, the safari drivers said that the Army was providing them with food. Sandaruwan maintained that the Army was distributing the food which he provided. “A donor in the area paid for the food I borrowed. Moreover, I do not have money to pay the hotel bill and the Tourism Board will settle the bill. If the Board does not pay, I will talk to the Ministers to find a solution. I may have got the Ukrainian tour as I am an active member of the Safari Jeep Association. I am actively engaged in planning safari activities and tours in Tisssamaharama Pradesheeya Sabha. Minister Chamal Rajapaksa sent a letter requesting me to look into the tourism affairs. I did not get this opportunity for my part in politics,” he added.
These incidents have become a complete turnabout now. At first health authorities said that there were 6 COVID-19 positive Ukrainian tourists, but now they say there are only two. According to them, there has been a repeat when providing data.
I may have got the Ukrainian tour as I am an active member of the Safari Jeep Association. I am actively engaged in planning safari activities and tours in Tisssamaharama Pradesheeya Sabha. Minister Chamal Rajapaksa sent a letter requesting me to look into the tourism affairs. I did not get this opportunity for my part in politics,”
- Gayan Sandaruwan
The Government also says that safari drivers are not quarantined and according to this pilot project, all tours will be conducted by these 28 drivers and therefore they are kept in a safe location. Once the Yala tours begin they will be reemployed. But the Army has told these drivers that those jeeps have been disinfected and other drivers wearing protective equipment will be employed during the other tours.
It is true that the said project was to be followed according to the Government pilot project. However, the tour organising companies and their representatives have violated health guidelines by brining Ukrainian tourists in a hurry and thereby exposing the country to risk.
A spokesperson of the Ministry of Tourism said that legal action will be taken against those companies which failed to carry out
Quoting Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga the Ministerial Media Division said that these 28 drivers were not quarantined and would be employed for the other tours. They are placed in a bio bubble. We will employ these 28 drivers for the upcoming tours as well, the media
The Government deceived us. We came as we trusted the Government. While we who spent 3 hours with the tourists are quarantined they are taken around the island,”
- safari drivers
According to the Ministry of Tourism these drivers housed in safe places are willing to participate in future tours. They have not been provided with protective equipment before and they have not followed health guidelines during the Yala tour and therefore this problem has arisen. These 28 drivers placed in the bio bubble will not change for any political reason. PS Member Sandaruwan informed the Ministry that these 28 drivers were selected based on the number of safari jeeps in Tissa, the Media Division of the Tourism Ministry added.
This programme was initiated as a pilot project through three companies engaged in the tourism industry. The Ministry of Tourism and the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) informed those companies that only COVID-19 negative persons could be taken to tourist zones. These three companies however have not informed the SLTDA about the Yala and Mirissa tours. Therefore, the Minister of Tourism Prasanna Ranatunga convened the companies and division officers and informed them to implement those pilot projects according to health guidelines of the health authorities in the area. The Ministry of Health also indicated that according to the health authorities only two Ukrainians had tested positive. “Tourists have no right to get off in Tissamaharama and we will look into it,” the Ministry added.
The bio bubble pilot project ends on January 19. The airport will be opened to tourists from 23 January. The Health Ministry has given health guidelines to the Ministry of Tourism. The Tourism Ministry’s expectation is to follow the instructions of health authorities.
According to sources, the authorities have planned to bring tourists as per the pilot project since June and a request had been made to Ministry of Health to obtain health guidelines. However, in the face of a COVID-19 situation in the country the health authorities prepared guidelines on December 26. The Health Ministry handed over the guidelines to the Tourism Ministry on December 27. Ukrainian tourists arrived in Sri Lanka on December 28 and began their tours from 3 January. The Tourism Ministry does not have enough time to organise tours and implement the given guidelines through the pilot project within that short period and it is doubtful whether the three participating companies organised the Yala and Mirissa tours taking advantage of that delay. A proper investigation should be launched with regards to this and people should be protect from COVID-19.