‘Quarantine’; a word that makes the hair stand on one’s body, a word that was amiss to our vocabulary before the year 2020, is now used conventionally among all societies in the world.
PCR tests, Level 1 ‘Safe and Secure’ Hotels, mandatory COVID-19 Insurance Cover, bio bubble, mandatory 14-day quarantine; these are words introduced out of the necessity caused by the pandemic. Every country around the world has approached COVID-19 in a different manner; however, my experience is in Sri Lanka, a place I now call home.
My flight from Sri Lanka to Pakistan, was the easy part. My return on the other hand, was significantly more challenging.
Step 1 was the online application of my visa to enable my entry via the tourism route back to Sri Lanka. The application was the same as it has always been, except for the “Emergency Alert” which appears on the page, detailing new instructions that are to be complied with before travelling to Sri Lanka.
"Those who are eligible for the tourism route and are returning to their homes in Sri Lanka are subject to this mandatory stay at the Level 1 hotels, at their own expense, before interacting with the local community and going back to their homes"
The alert appears as a pop-up notice as opposed to a detailed list on a separate tab and is easy to miss by travellers unaware of the new instructions, procedures and protocols in place for travel to Sri Lanka.
This appeared to be the case for a few passengers on our flight albeit only a handful, who were unaware of the tourism route that can be accessed by dual citizens, spouses of foreign nationals and paid commercial passengers with foreign passports, who were to be transferred to designated quarantine hotels by the Sri Lankan Army, at their own expense, upon arrival to Sri Lanka.
My sister, who I was travelling with, and I were lucky to be advised by the Sri Lankan Consul General in Pakistan to obtain the following: Confirmed hotel bookings in Sri Lanka from the list of “Safe and Secure Level 1” hotels published by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (“STDA”), a negative PCR test within 96 hours before boarding the flight and mandatory COVID-19 Insurance Cover.
Those who are eligible for the tourism route and are returning to their homes in Sri Lanka are subject to this mandatory stay at the Level 1 hotels, at their own expense, before interacting with the local community and going back to their homes.
On arrival to a gloomy and bare Bandaranaike International Airport, we were escorted through the empty terminal and onto airport buses followed by queuing up at immigration where the officers were in full protective gear.
We joined a physically-distanced queue for processing and form filling, and went on to collect our luggage where the porters, also dressed in PPE, assisted us. We were out of the airport within 45 minutes, from where we departed to our hotel which was pre-booked. The hotel staff escorted us to the vehicle, after checking our temperature, passports, visa and booking forms. They had organized snacks for us in the vehicle and ample bottles of water, which we were thrilled about.
We found ourselves more at ease, after the adrenaline of the last few hours of travel that had kept our energy levels up. We were driven straight to our hotel in Hatton, while only stopping once to use a “VIP Ceylinco” bathroom near Kitulgala, which had been reserved solely for our use.
My sister and I had seen many headlines comparing hotel quarantine to prisons and private hospital rooms, but this was not our experience. On arrival to our hotel, we were treated with the utmost care and kindness by the staff who checked our temperature, and escorted us to the garden at the property where the hospital staff from Nawaloka Hospitals were to conduct our first PCR test prior to check in.
"The alert appears as a pop-up notice as opposed to a detailed list on a separate tab and is easy to miss by travellers unaware of the new instructions, procedures and protocols in place for travel to Sri Lanka"
This was technically our second PCR test in the last 24 hours, including the one we had to take prior to our travel, so we assumed that we knew what to expect.
While the nurse was gentle and advised us to keep breathing, the PCR test in Sri Lanka, is more uncomfortable as the swab was inserted in both nostrils and the mouth. We anxiously waited for the test results; the fear of one of us being tested positive was next to nerve-wrecking for that would mean we would be split up and isolated from one another.
It was a huge relief when we received our negative test results the next morning, after which we felt more comfortable interacting with the staff and other hotel guests that had also tested negative, of course while keeping our masks on the whole time and having maintained social distancing.
The rooms at our hotel spoke in a thick British accent, right down to the bed linen and the fragrance of the tea plantations all around. We had a beautiful garden to walk around in, a jacuzzi and swimming pool, excellent food and great weather to enjoy.
This “forced holiday” was exactly what two sisters, who had been separated for one year, due to the circumstances of COVID-19, greatly needed.
It was only during this rare occasion that we both realized how much we needed this quarantine, to be together yet away from the rest of the world to make some new memories, which the pandemic had so harshly put a halt to.
After one week at the hotel in Hatton and having undergone our second PCR test at the hotel, which was also negative, we departed for our hotel in Weligama for week two of the mandatory quarantine.
The breathtaking views on this 5-hour journey from Hatton exhilarated us and we were looking forward to our next holiday. We wondered how our driver was coping with so many layers of PPE on that scorching day.
Check in at the second Level 1 “Safe and Secure Hotel” was brisk and friendly, however it was odd to see the staff at a beach resort in full PPE.
We spent the rest of the week enjoying the view and the food, participating in workouts via Zoom with a personal trainer, playing board games and watching Netflix. We did however, feel the cruel irony of looking out at the beauty of Weligama Bay and not being allowed to jump into it.
Even with all the luxuries available to us, being prepared for quarantine and trying to keep our spirits high, by the tenth day of the hotel quarantine, we were both ready to go home and see our families.
We were dreading the final and forth PCR test solely due to the discomfort, but were confident that after three negative PCR tests, our fourth would surely test negative. The tourism route has been extremely luxurious and I would highly recommend it to those looking for a holiday or a reason to relax and detox in Sri Lanka.
However, my heart goes out to those with pre-existing mental health conditions or who are coping with familial, financial, health, work or other issues who have to go through this quarantine, at their own expense, before returning to their homes or families.
The protocols and procedures adopted by the STDA as discussed in this article, have not yet been included in a gazette nor in the Tourism Act, 2014 (No. 3 of 2014) and therefore the SOP’s for safe operation of the Tourism Sector in the context of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka is still subject to further recommendations and/or adaptations by the government.
Those adopting changes must therefore be mindful that the need for clarity in the law is essential so that one process can be followed by all; and so that tourists as well the tourism industry are aligned in relation to these laws.
Upon saying au revior to the pink skies of Weligama, we are thankful to have been so well taken care of throughout this journey, and are left with unique and unforgettable memories for years to come.