Sri Lanka bans flyers from India after putting air bubble plan in cold storage
With the pandemic situation in India not expected to improve anytime soon, the fate of the travel bubble with Sri Lanka seems uncertain
Sri Lanka has joined around 20 countries in banning travellers from India as the Covid-19 situation is threatening to go out of hand in India.
"In accordance with instructions received from health authorities of Sri Lanka due to the Covid-19 pandemic situation, it is hereby directed that passengers travelling from India will not be permitted to disembark in Sri Lanka with immediate effect," said the Sri Lanka civil aviation regulator, according to a Times of India report. The regulator added that this restriction would be reviewed as early as possible according to the instructions of the local health authorities.
Last month, Sri Lanka had indefinitely postponed signing an air bubble agreement with India under which airlines of the two countries were to receive equal and reciprocal rights to carry passengers between the two countries on a commercial basis. Air bubble flights have helped to keep international travel going even if in a very limited way when scheduled commercial travel remains suspended in the wake of the pandemic.
The air bubble between India and Sri Lanka, which was to become operational on April 26, was deferred as the pandemic, powered by the double mutant coronavirus strain and a massive surge, assumed ominous proportions. The shortage of oxygen and now vaccines has hampered India's Covid response.
However, an official of Sri Lanka's ministry of tourism told The Hindu that the air bubble agreement was being merely postponed and it should not be viewed as a cancellation and that Sri Lanka looked forward to launching the travel bubble once things got better in India.
However, with the pandemic situation in India not expected to improve anytime soon, the fate of the travel bubble with Sri Lanka seems uncertain. India continued to report more than four lakh new daily Covid-19 cases on May 9, and active cases touched 37,36,648. As many as 4,092 deaths were reported in the past 24 hours.
India has also been organising Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) repatriation flights from Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government's decision to keep flyers from India at arm's length is a blow to the VBM as well. India had launched the VBM a year ago to primarily repatriate stranded Indians from various parts of the world. It has been the biggest repatriation exercise during these Covid times, and India's biggest repatriation exercise ever. Till April 13, a total of 57,91,400 people have arrived through various means under the VBM.
Sri Lanka is a major tourist destination for Indians and a top pocket-friendly honeymoon location. India contributes one of the highest numbers of tourists to the island country. When the pandemic broke out around March last year, Sri Lanka closed its borders. It reopened only in December, specifying protocols for on-arrival Covid testing, quarantine and travel within the country.
Following this, tourist numbers slowly increased in the past four months and recorded 4,581 tourists from select countries in March this year. In January last year, just before the pandemic struck, Sri Lanka received 2,28,434 tourists. The highest percentage of the tourist arrivals were from India at 18%. Indeed, tourism is one of the biggest sources of revenue for Sri Lanka, and keeping that sector closed, especially to Indians would not be something that Sri Lanka would want to do for a long time.
Sri Lanka's national carrier Sri Lankan Airlines had planned to restart operations to several Indian cities to kick start the air bubble. That plan has now had to be shelved.
Sri Lanka has a total of 1,23,234 confirmed Covid-19 cases, including 786 deaths as of May 9, 2021, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) data.
The countries that have put restrictions on travel from Covid-ravaged India include the likes of US, Canada, Germany, France, UK, UAE, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait.
(Cover image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Dilushasg)