POST-WAR revival of tourism is under threat with the Government decision to cancel visa on arrival facility to 83 countries, with the exception of Singapore and Maldives.The Immigration and Emigration Department has noted that the step is being taken because travellers abuse the facility by entering Sri Lanka and gaining employment in large numbers.
Reports indicate that there were 225 recognised refugees and 250 asylum seekers in Sri Lanka, particularly from places like India and Pakistan. These people violate the assurance given by UNHCR by obtaining jobs as they have no alternative to obtain accommodation or livelihood. This leaves the Government in a strained situation where it has to provide regulation to stem these inflows without harming the travel trade.
In typical style, the Government is adopting a ‘cut the nose to spite the face’ attitude where tougher regulations will have a strong deterrent effect on the influx of tourists who are also availing themselves to the visa on arrival facility. In the backdrop of declaring 2011 as the ‘Visit Sri Lanka Year’ and a target of 2.5 million tourists by 2016, the Government has an added responsibility in adjusting policy so that its negative effects are minimised.
Discouraging tourists with tougher regulation will surely undermine the post-war rebound and tourism is one of the biggest and easiest draws of foreign exchange that Sri Lanka can depend on to fuel its development needs. In addition, tourism has the dual benefit of being able to tap into grass root level income dissemination and give direct assistance to upgrade the living standards of poor in rural areas. This would relieve the burden of economic growth on the Government to a certain extent but it must be implemented through proper policy.
Other countries have balanced out this challenge by introducing pragmatic policy. For example, the visa issuing officer can be more discerning over who he dishes out the document to by checking whether he or she has a confirmed return air ticket or at least a hotel booking and a cursory perusal of their passport will show if they are reputed tourists. There are a multitude of ways to ascertain whether or not the traveller is a genuine tourist or otherwise and few of these methods are time consuming or inconvenient to the person in question.
It is unfortunate that the Government is not looking to any of these alternatives before clamping down on the visa on arrival facility. However, it is considering an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) scheme to make it easy for any tourist wanting to visit Sri Lanka to obtain an online visa. The modalities of this scheme are being worked out by officials of the Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Defence.
This can be a viable alternative but the visa on arrival scheme could be kept till the end of next year and then gradually phased out once the ‘Visit Sri Lanka Year’ has been wrapped up. It would take a while for the tourists to become aware of this new venture and obtain their visas online. Seamlessly connecting the two facilities will ensure that tourists have options and would therefore find it more convenient to travel to Sri Lanka.