Bid to tap Russian tourism market | Sunday Observer

Bid to tap Russian tourism market

Udayanga Weeratunga
Udayanga Weeratunga

Tourism industry leaders, especially in the Russian market, welcomed a new proposal forwarded to the Cabinet in a bid to revive the industry by attracting visitors from the Slavic nation to the Southern beaches.

“Russian tourists are ready to travel abroad, and tour operators are waiting for approval from the Government to start travelling to destinations, such as ours,” former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia Udayanga Weeratunga, who pioneered the proposal, told the Sunday Observer.

Last year, about 45 million Russians travelled across the globe. Weeratunga said that 44,000 of these travellers would visit Sri Lanka if the country took steps to accommodate them.

If his proposal gets the green light, he added, Russia will send 144 charter flights from six airlines on a weekly basis from next month. “This will generate an income of around USD 26 million to Sri Lanka,” he said.

Russians have started travelling to their chosen destinations, including the Dominican Republic and Turkey. However, during the winter season that starts next month, they prefer to travel to warmer countries, such as Thailand, the Maldives, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

“The winter season will continue till around next April. There is a tremendous opportunity to field Sri Lanka to this emerging slot,” Weeratunga said, adding that initiatives should be made to woo this market.

Weeratunga’s proposal, which will be taken up by the Cabinet of Ministers tomorrow, also needs approval by the health authorities.

Reserved areas

He has taken into consideration the possibility of Sri Lankans contracting coronavirus from tourists, and has outlined a plan, which he says, is flexible for alterations. The general plan is to select beachfront hotels in the Southern Province, block off the beach area from locals, and also not allow hotel staff to leave the hotel till the tourism season is over.

“This is to protect Sri Lankans from contracting Covid-19 from these tourists.

Our main objective is to protect the locals, while accommodating tourists,” Weeratunga said.

He said that tourists will be brought to the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA), and many airlines other than Russia’s flag carrier Aeroflot have agreed to fly to Mattala.

Tourists will have to produce a Covid-19 negative Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) report 72 hours prior to arriving in the country. On their arrival, they will be taken to their hotels where another PCR test will be conducted.

Weeratunga said the test, that will take at least three hours for the results, can be done at the airport too, but taking tourists to their hotels will make the process hassle free. The hotel staff will also undergo a special training initiated by the health authorities to meet and greet the tourists.

“We will have to live with coronavisus. Other destinations have already started to welcome tourists,” the former Russian Ambassador said, adding that this is the best opportunity Sri Lanka has to bring down tourists who are eager to travel but has no options.

In 2018, Sri Lanka earned USD 4.38 billion from tourism, and this dropped to USD 3.61 billion in 2019 as a result of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. Since March this year, there has been no tourist arrivals to the country as the Government closed all airports and seaports for international tourists to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

Sri Lanka reported 13 deaths and nearly 3,300 Covid-19 cases. Russia reported around 20,000 deaths and 1.14 million cases.

But with the winter season approaching, Russians are looking forward to travelling to destinations, especially by the sea, to spend their holidays. The age group of this segment is between 30-40 years.

Emerging market

Tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka from Russia, aided by Aeroflot’s expansion of services to Colombo, reached around 86,549 last year. The previous highest arrivals were recorded in 2014- 69,718. This year started well for the industry. The Russian market showed an 86 percent growth from the year before, until coronavirus put global tourism into a standstill.

To move forward, Weeratunga proposes to establish more all-inclusive hotels and to engage more Russian speaking staff as most Russians converse only in their mother tongue.

He said small and medium enterprises, such as gem shops, souvenir sellers, can be set up in the selected hotels, adding that he expects to create a dialog around making this proposal a reality.

“Over two million are employed in the tourism sector in Sri Lanka.

I feel that this initiative can give ‘breathing space’ for them,” he said.

The proposal has been hailed by tourism operators. General Manager Tangerine Tourism, a key destination management company specialising in the Russian market, Charith de Alwis said, “The Russian market is promising. Even after the Easter Sunday attacks last year, this segment increased. Even with the Covid-19 pandemic, Russian tourists have shown an eagerness to travel, but they have limited options.

“The countries that have opened borders and are welcoming Russian tourists, have shown a growth in tourism arrivals.

If the Government and health authorities approve these protocols, the ideal market for us to approach now is Russia, Weeratunga said.

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