Udayanga Weerathunga’s Ukrainian Tourists bend the rules, Star-class hotels arm twisted to slash rates.
*As published in the Sunday Times Newspaper (03rd January 2021)
By Namini Wijedasa
Organisers of the Ukrainian tour groups promoted by Udayanga Weeratunga, former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia, ignored safety protocols agreed upon with the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) when taking the visitors to pre-approved attractions yesterday.
The first group of Ukrainian tourists who arrived aboard a charter flight at the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) on December 28 started their excursions after negative PCR tests and less than five days in quarantine. Ukraine is considered a high-risk country for COVID-19.
The tours are largely being handled by Mr Weeratunga with whom tourism authorities have been in touch, though he does not hold any formal designation or role. His official address is given as Temple Trees, Colombo 3. The three Ukrainian tour operators are Kompas, Join Up, and Travel Professional Group (TPG).
The first group was divided into smaller parties and loaded into buses to take them to designated tourist sites. At least one set did whale-watching in Mirissa while another went to Yala National Park. SLTDA was not notified officially of the arrangements.
It had been agreed that the organisers would coordinate visits to tourist sites through the SLTDA which drew up a list of designated drivers, tour guides and assistants who were expected to stay strictly inside a ‘bio-secure bubble’ during the group’s visit.
But at the Yala National Park, instead of liaising with the Department of Wildlife Conservation and SLTDA to hire safari jeeps, the handlers commissioned 28 vehicles separately from Tissamaharama with non-designated drivers. Similiary, at Mirissa, they hired private boats which “had not been in the plan”.
A safari driver who had turned down the offer to ferry the Ukrainians inside the Yala National Park because of health concerns said others he knew took the hire as they were “paid more for it”. He also said they were informed they would have to complete 14-day quarantine at a hotel after completing the excursion.
Six members of the first 180-member group initially tested positive for the virus. But only five are being treated at the University Hospital KDU as the report of one patient returned negative after a second PCR.
Meanwhile, it is learned that hotels in which these tourists are accommodated for their minimum seven-day stay had been arm-twisted to significantly slash their rates. One hotel that normally charges around US$ 250 (206 euros) a night for a full-board (standard room) sold the roomto the Ukrainians at around US$ 100 (around 83 euros) a night. Another four-star hotel offered a package of 799 euros (around US$ 970) for nine days, working out to 88.77 Euros (US$ 107) a day. Yet another gave a room for 110 euros a day (US$ 133).
From the start, rules were bent or adjusted to accommodate the Ukrainian tourist project which is being termed a “pilot” project. The Ministry of Health reduced the mandatory quarantine period from 14 to 7 and then agreed that the tourists could visit identified places if their first PCR tests returned a negative result in a bio-secure bubble.
But while in quarantine, before their test outcomes were received, they were permitted to use the beach (access-controlled through security arrangements) and common areas, provided they maintained social distance and did not come into contact with the staff.