Sri Lanka welcomes tourists after 8-month-long COVID-19 travel restrictions

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Colombo: A group of Ukrainian tourists on Monday became the first batch of holidayers to visit Sri Lanka in more than eight months after the island nation put curbs on international travel due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Ukrainian group arrived as scheduled at the Mattala International Airport in Hambantota as part of a pilot project to welcome back tourists in the country, Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga told reporters.

"We will run this pilot project till January 19. They (tourists) will be allowed to visit identified tourist spots while being in a bio-bubble," Ranatunga said.

Sri Lanka's two international airports were closed in mid-March, as the country went into a lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The lockdown was gradually lifted by mid-May. Initial plans were to open international flight by the end of August but the COVID-19 cases abroad rose and the plans were stalled.

Sri Lanka was hit by a coronavirus second wave in October. Earlier this month, Sri Lankan authorities said they would resume international flight operations from December 26.

However, the latest date for re-opening international travel was also deferred. Chair of Airports Authority GA Chandrasiri on Monday said the delay was caused by the new strain of coronavirus, which has forced parts of Europe into tougher virus restrictions.

The Sri Lankan government has incentivised air travel in the months following the COVID-19-induced air travel break, offering zero parking fee and landing costs for international operators.

So far, the coronavirus has claimed 191 lives along with 41,420 infections in the island nation, according to the Johns Hopkins University. 

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