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COLOMBO: Sri Lanka has approved the extension of the free visa-on-arrival scheme until April 30 for the citizens of 48 countries, including India, a senior minister said, as the country’s tourism sector, which was picking up pace after the Easter terror attacks, took another hit due to the deadly coronavirus outbreak in China.

In April, Sri Lanka suspended its plans to grant visa-on-arrival to citizens of 39 countries after the devastating Easter Sunday bombings that killed 258 people. In July, the island nation added more countries, including India and China after it re-launched the free visa on arrival scheme, which was implemented from August 1. 

“With the introduction of the free visa scheme, we saw an increase of 10 to 12 per cent in tourist arrivals after the Easter attacks but with the coronavirus onset, the sector is getting adversely affected once more and hence it is important to extend the facility for three more months,” Co-Cabinet Spokesman Minister Ramesh Pathirana was quoted as saying by the Daily Financial Times on Friday.

The visa free programme will be effective for three more months till April 30, the minister said. However, Sri Lanka in January suspended its policy of granting visa on arrival for Chinese travellers, after the health authorities detected the country’s first coronavirus infection that has killed 1,488 people in China while the confirmed cases of infection jumped to nearly 65,000.

China is Sri Lanka’s second biggest source of inbound tourists after India.

The proposal to extend the free visa facility was presented by Minister for Tourism and Civil Aviation Prasanna Ranatunga in January. In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, the USD 20 visa fee for South Asian travellers and USD 35 fee applicable to visitors from the rest of the world were waived off.

Tourism which contributes 5 per cent to the island’s GDP was dealt a severe blow after the ISIS linked local extremist group National Thawheed Jammath (NTJ) carried out suicide bombings which killed over 260 people at three luxury hotels and three churches on April 21. According to the monthly tourist arrivals reports compiled by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) using information on tourist arrivals and hotel occupancy, there were 228,434 tourist arrivals in January, a 6 per cent drop compared to the 244,239 tourists who arrived in January 2019, the daily reported.

It is still an increase from tourist arrivals between April and November last year which ranged from as low as 37,802 in May last year, the month after the Easter attacks, to 176,984 by November, the report said. However, the number of tourist arrivals in December 2019 rose to 241,663 with the annual arrival figures rounding up at 1,913,702, it said. PTI