The  Sri Lanka College of Microbiologists(SLCM)  has given its recommendations for opening the country to tourists during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak  in an era where global thinking has shifted towards co-existence with SARS CoV-2 until an effective vaccine or another therapeutic modality is in place.

“There  is ongoing discussion on reopening the country for tourism with suitable arrangements to prevent and restrict the spread of COVID-19. We are stepping into an era where global travel and tourism must occur under new and different conditions,” the SLCM said.

Among its suggestions  are  to open the country to tourists on a step by step basis  so that the country can handle the numbers while initially encouraging  tourists  below  65 years to visit, since they are at lower risk of developing severe disease while also taking into consideration the  current disease epidemiology in different countries when relaxing the embargo on arrivals.

The SLCM said that United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimates that international tourist arrivals will drop by 50-78% in 202s and in  this context, it is important to ensure that any measures to revive tourism in Sri Lanka also pay attention to measures that aim to prevent transmission of COVID-19.

“ At present; Sri Lanka’s pandemic control is more effective than that of many other countries. Therefore, in opening the country for tourists, it is imperative that suggestions and recommendations from the Health Sector are sought and implemented. It should always be kept in mind that infected individuals may arrive as tourists, either in the incubation period or early stages of disease, or that they may remain symptom-free despite being infected,” it said.

There are the general recommendations of the SLCM:-

• Tourism should be commenced in a stepwise manner, gradually absorbing the numbers which can be handled by the country, while maintaining stringent COVID-19control measures.

• Prior to opening the country for tourism, airport ground staff and cabin crew should be well trained in COVID-19 infection prevention and control measures. All necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) should be available for airport staff, and training should be given to the staff regarding proper use of PPE.

• Hand washing facilities and hand sanitization facilities should be freely available throughout the airport premises, as well as in other public places such as waiting areas and taxi points.

• Airport cleaning staff should be trained on the cleaning and disinfection protocol and they should be supervised closely to ensure strict adhere to the protocol.

• Tour itineraries of all tourists should be recorded at a central place so that tracing of contacts can be done easily. This can be done using an APP installed into tourists’ smart phones.

• On arrival health declaration should be comprehensive and mandatory

• Relaxation of arrival embargo needs to be decided upon the current disease epidemiology in different countries. E.g., China, New Zealand, and Australia currently have few cases, and arrivals from those countries may pose a lower risk than tourists from countries with a high case load.

• In the initial phase, only tourists below the age of 65years should be encouraged since they are at lower risk of developing severe disease.

• Tourists should be made aware of the health regulations of Sri Lanka and regulations related to quarantine activities and should possess a travel insurance sufficient to cover any healthcare expenses that they may have to incur due to illness.

• It is strongly recommended that regular frequent review meetings should be held between tourist industry stakeholders and officials of the Ministry of Health, to streamline the best practices and to make sure that resumption of tourism carries no hazard of COVID-19 to the country at large.

On arrival

• All arrivals need to be checked for temperature and symptoms of respiratory illness.

• For passengers with fever, there should be a designated isolation area. Medical department of the airport should be notified promptly.

• Passengers with fever should be quarantined in a designated hotel and RT-PCR testing should be carried out as soon as possible (within 24 hours of arrival). They should remain in quarantine until they have a negative PCR result.

• All other passengers can be housed in a hotel close to the airport until a RT-PCR or a point of care test (with acceptable validity) is carried out. The test/s should be negative before they can be sent out with a travel agent. Suggest repeating testing once a week for long stay tourists if the initial test result is negative.

• The testing service may take the form of a public private partnership (with an appropriate quality assurance programme in place). Ideally, test results should be available within 24 hours of arrival. The cost of testing should be borne by the tourist concerned.

Tour arrangements

• Only guided tours with travel agencies should be considered at the initial phase. Travel agents should be registered with Ministry of Tourism and should be linked to Ministry of Health through them.

• Tours should be arranged for smaller groups (preferably less than 15 tourists in a group).

• Tour agencies should be made responsible for the tourists from the time of arrival to departure from the airport

• All the tour guiding agencies should have trained staff in infection control measures for COVID- 19

• Tour agents should keep records of all passengers taken and places visited.

• All the records of travel details of the tourists need to be in a data base in Ministry of Tourism in case if there is a need to trace in case any issue with COVID-19 arises

• It will be the responsibility of the tour agents to direct the tourists to the closest health authorities immediately if they develop fever or respiratory symptoms. It is suggested to check the temperature of the tourists in the morning before starting travel to any destination.

• Tour agencies should not interfere with quarantine activities of their clients if health authorities take such measures

• All tourists should always be required to wear a mask  when in public and maintain social distancing and hand hygiene at travel destinations/ attractions.

• The number of visitors allowed to enter travel destinations at a given time should be predetermined and tickets issued accordingly. Ideally, it should be possible to arrange for online purchase of tickets.

Hospitality industry

• Hotels should be able to provide disease preventive and control methods for the health and safety of both in-house guests and employees. Hotels should be checked by the nearest MOH office and issued a license to operate only if they are able to demonstrate that suitable arrangements have been put in place.

• All the hotels should make it mandatory for the guests to carry updated health reports during the check-in process

• Temperature should be checked on arrival at the hotel

• If any guest has fever on arrival, he/ she should be isolated in a designated place and the Medical officer/Department of the hotel should be notified immediately.

• Any tourists falling ill during the stay at a hotel should be promptly notified to Medical Department/ Officer at the hotel and notified to the local public health officers (MOH, RE) through the hotel and the tour agency

• Hotel staff and management should be trained in infection prevention and control measures

• Enhanced infection prevention and control measures (hand hygiene facilities etc.) should be available in crowded public areas including restaurants, lobby areas, swimming pools, rest rooms and lounges

• Strict disinfection and sterilization procedures should be available for cleaning and preparation of bedrooms before a new guest is allocated to the room. After the gussets are checked out, the rooms should be kept well ventilated (opening door and windows) for at least 30 minutes before they are cleaned and disinfected.

• Elevators, frequently touched surfaces, and common rest rooms should be disinfected very frequently

• Cleaning and disinfection of hotels and restaurants should be regularized and monitored by the local public health officials if needed

• Social distancing should be maintained in public areas such as in restaurants (promote a la carte’ rather than buffets) and lobbies and the bedrooms should be spaced out when booking

• Health education posters/ information should be displayed and available in hotels and restaurants

• Adequate details of all occupants and contact details of tour guides should be maintained by the hotel management and should be made available to health authorities whenever requested

Places of tourist interest

• Adequate facilities for hand hygiene should be made available in all places as appropriate (hand washing or hand sanitization facilities)

• Any other infection prevention and control measures that are implemented should not deviate the attention of the public from the essential steps of hand hygiene and maintaining adequate social distancing

• In indoor places such as museums and sales outlets, there should be facilities to check the temperature before entry.

• Numbers to be allowed into such venues should be restricted and pre-communicated to tour agencies so that unnecessary crowding and queuing can both be avoided. Online reservation of tickets with a reserved time duration for visiting the attraction can be made available for the tour agents.

• Health education information/ posters should be available in these attractions.