"I felt that the proposals forwarded by the tourism authority were not practical because right now getting the tourists to visit Sri Lanka does not involve issuing a 6-month visa"
Former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia Udayanga Weeratunga is back in the scene in a controversial way once again. He is blamed for tarnishing the government’s pilot project by bringing in tourists from Ukraine and then making his own decisions without consulting the authorities. A feud has also erupted between Weeratunga and Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Chairperson Kimarli Fernando, with the latter blaming him for taking tourists to Yala and Mirissa without STDA’s knowledge. However, Weeratunga has flatly denied her allegations, saying she knew it all.
Below are excerpts of an interview the Daily Mirror did with Weeratunga.
Q You are under heavy criticism at present because the Government’s pilot project has backfired solely because of you. You hold no position in this Government, so why did you get involved?
It is not correct to blame me for damaging this pilot project. I do not accept that allegation. This country needed tourism to pick up after the COVID-19 pandemic as the entire industry is crippled. And that is why there were different proposals presented by the Ministry of Tourism and Aviation and the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority on how we can restart this sector again. And one of the proposals forwarded by SLTDA Chairman Kimarli Fernando is that we put up tourists in hotels which had less than 30 rooms and pool them into level 1, 2 or 3 and make these tourists undergo a quarantine period of a week or two and then subject them to a PCR test. It is only afterwards that the tourists would be allowed to leave the hotels; that too to travel to only certain areas. This was the concept proposed. I do not believe that foreign tourists would accept these conditions. Then there was a proposal to issue a six-month visa to the tourists upon arrival. All these utterances are very interesting, but they remain words. Words were drafted beautifully, but it was not practical. But it was not my job to reject this proposal. I wanted the countries I am familiar with. We attract tourists from these countries in a practical way. I was only referring to countries such as Ukraine and Russia. I felt that the proposals forwarded by the tourism authority were not practical because right now getting the tourists to visit Sri Lanka does not involve issuing a 6-month visa. Why will any genuine tourist coming here require a 6-month visa? Whoever comes in this manner is suspicious then. The tourist I know of will stay here maximum for two weeks. So is it practical to keep these tourists confided to a room for two weeks and then allow them to travel just for a week? And regarding that too Kimarli proposed to keep them in hotels which had less than 30 rooms; given that these are very small hotels. Who would want to come here like that? These proposals can be spoken of with interest, but they are not practical. I feel that Kimarli introduced this concept just to sell the services offered by her hotels. Since I know the Russian Federation very well, I can tell you that I am the God Father of Russian tourists. The reason I am saying this is when I became the Ambassador to Russia only 456 tourists had arrived in Sri Lanka in 2005. I increased this figure to 86,000 tourists per annum from the Russian Federation. I worked very hard to achieve this. How many promotions did we do to promote Sri Lanka? We conducted seminars. So that is why I got involved.
"Kimarli knew everything. She was one of the biggest hurdles in the pilot project"
Q Who did you inform in this Government that you were willing to bring down tourists from Russia and Ukraine?
Since I had such vast experience in this field I informed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa that I could apply this knowledge in attracting tourists from these countries at this time. The Prime Minister had full confidence in me. I informed him in September and he told me that I should discuss this with the tourism authority. I informed him that they would not support me as no one would like me interfering in their line of work. But I told him to have confidence in me and let me prove that I can do this project. This was not a business for me. Then a Cabinet Paper was presented by the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Tourism and on September 28 the cabinet approved this. Then in October the President appointed a new committee headed by Basil Rajapaksa and it also included Kimarli Fernando, Minister Prasanna Ranatunga and even General Shavendra Silva. The purpose of this committee was to see how we could restart tourism here. I proposed that we bring tourists from Russia and Ukraine and we identified some beach fronts which they could visit. Questions were raised to which I answered. I was always aware that January was a good period to attract tourists here as it is a holiday period for them. I suggested we bring down the tourists keep with strict health guidelines and make them undergo a PCR test upon arrival at the hotel. We then decided to bring down around 5000 tourists during January and although it was my concept, we would implement it on behalf of the Government. There were over 30 flights which confirmed their arrival, but what Kimarli did was, she translated guidelines using the Russian language; stating that all tourists would have to undergo a two-week quarantine period once they arrive here and sent it to all those travel agents there.
"Yes because here we were only promoting our tourism. I just wanted to offer a promotion rate. That is the least the Government should do to attract tourists right now"
Then who would come here? Bringing them under a bio bubble is fine, but she sent an official letter to all these agents. No one wanted to come here and remain in a hotel room for two weeks. So many backed out and many flights were cancelled. And many of these tourists were from Kazakhastan. If the tourism authority can get the flights cancelled, that is a blow to the tourism industry; not me. They became jealous because I did what they were supposed to do. There were many letters sent to the Tourism Minister to stop this. Till the first flight arrived on December 28 no one believed in me.
"The Prime Minister had full confidence in me. I informed him in September and he told me that I should discuss this with the tourism authority"
Now there are 12 flights which are going to arrive this month. My target was 5000 tourists, but now it has been slashed to nearly 3000 because of what the Chairman did. I only wanted this started, but other than objections, I received no support. I personally visited the hotels and told them that this was a promotion project. I went and checked the selected hotels whether they were suitable. I did everything alone. We then decided to select five destinations- Beruwala, Kalutara, Bentota, Kosgoda and Ahungala-for these tourists under the bubble concept.
Q Why did you decide to bring down Ukrainians when you are aware that Ukraine is facing a disaster with regarding to COVID-19? Ukraine’s Health Minister said in November that the Coronavirus situation in Ukraine is catastrophic. Why did you ignore all this and decide to put Sri Lankans in danger by bringing down tourists from Ukraine?
They had a lot of confidence in me. And I do know that there was much fear here locally regarding the bringing down of these tourists. But bringing these tourists here was safe because even while they underwent the PCR tests there they were also subject to PCR tests upon check in at the hotels.
"I only wanted this started, but other than objections, I received no support. I personally visited the hotels and told them that this was a promotion project"
Q You say you received a lot of opposition, but you do not hold any designation in this Government. Obviously, no one will accept you since we have a tourism minister, a Tourism Development Authority etc, so why should they accept your proposals?
I gave my opinions as the former Ambassador to Russia. And I have a lot of experience regarding this. So I presented my proposals. And it is Kimarli who wrote letters to me after hearing of my proposals. I never wrote to her. I know about the citizens of that country which not many in the tourism authority have experience in. I even know how the tour operators there operate. It is not the work of the Government alone to kickstart tourism.
We had to get the private sector also involved. That is why I even had to hold discussions with the operators here and the airlines there. Who would have done all this? The Government can only promote tourism, but it is up to an experienced person to get it going. I knew about those destinations so I went ahead with my plans.
"My target was 5000 tourists, but now it has been slashed to 3000"
Q What is your relationship with the Rajapaksas? How are you connected to them? And if you care for the country so much where were you during 2015 to 2020? Are you not back in the game because the Rajapaksa’s are back?
My connection with the Rajapaksas is not a secret to anyone. I am their cousin. When I started schooling it was Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who supported me. He told me to become popular in school by being a good and studious student. All these years he has been like a father figure to me. I came up in life because of him. When I was appointed as the Ambassador to Russia there was a lot of opposition. Mangala Samaraweera was one of the first to object. But as the Ambassador I was very successful. I did not let the Prime Minister down. I was able to take Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Russian Federation. I was able to achieve a lot. It is the same confidence he had in me with regard to this pilot project as well. And you cannot say I did nothing during these past 5 years. I was working from behind the scenes. Every time, Mahinda Rajapaksa visited those countries as the Opposition Leader I accompanied him. Like I serve my country I also serve him. He was the only person who believed in me.
" If the tourism authority can get the flights cancelled, that is a blow to the tourism industry; not me"
Q The SLTDA Chairperson Kimarli Fernando has written to Minister Prasanna Ranatunga saying that she was not aware of the details of the Ukrainian tourists being taken to Mirissa and Yala. She has said that the SLTDA came to know about this only through the media. This was publicized all over the media and now you are being blamed for taking your own decisions. Were you not in contact with her regarding this?
Kimarli Fernando was 100 percent aware of this project involving tourists. She knew about this since December. Yala and whale watching in Mirissa were in the plan and everything was finalised. Not only Kimarli, but the entire team was aware of the plans. The itineraries were sent to them.
The work was also allocated. Then on December 23 Basil Rajapaksa selected 12 destinations and said that we need to visit these areas and see how we can kickstart tourism in these areas. I informed that when the Russian tourists arrive they would also visit Mirissa and Yala. All the programmes were sent to her and she has responded to those emails with a ‘thank you’. I do not want to fight her, because this is a challenge I accepted and met. You just think whether I alone can decide anything on my own at this time? The officials in that area were prepared before they went in. And Yala and Mirissa were chosen as tourist destinations which needed to be promoted. Udayanga Weeratunga alone did not select these destinations. Kimarli knew everything. There were groups which were sent to check the destinations and no one should believe what she says.
Q Do you think Kimarli purposely leaked that letter to the opposition to discredit you?
She never believed that this project would take off. But when the decisions she took went wrong she resorted to this move.
"Why will any genuine tourist coming here require a 6-month visa? Whoever comes in this manner is suspicious then"
Q There are allegations that you got hotels to slash the rates as well for these tourists to stay in. Did you force them to do that?
Yes because here we were only promoting our tourism. I just wanted to offer a promotion rate. That is the least the Government should do to attract tourists right now. Then more tourists will be attracted to visit here. This is what the tourism authority should do.
"When I became the Ambassador to Russia only 456 tourists had arrived in Sri Lanka in 2005. I increased this figure to 86,000 tourists per annum"
Q Why are you stating your address as Temple Trees?
I never said that to anyone. It is Kimarli who sent a letter mentioning my address as Temple Trees. If I was living in Temple Trees why has no one else sent me any letters to Temple Trees? I have not told anyone that my address is Temple Trees.
She only writes a letter giving my address as Temple Trees and gives this to Harsha De Silva. What am I to do regarding that? It is sad that within this Government we have people supporting those involved in the past Yahapalana regime. Harsha is a person who labelled me as a murderer during the previous government.