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From France with love, but some fume

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

  • 750 French navy personnel to visit tourism sites via strict bio-secure bubble

  • In Sri Lanka from today till 11 June via two French naval ships as part of bilateral military cooperation

  • Multiple stakeholders, including Defence, Foreign, Tourism and Health Ministries, facilitating the visits

  • Groups in batches to experience Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, Minneriya Eco-Park, Yala and Udawalawe

  • French Embassy estimates Rs. 125 m income alone from tourism activities

  • Wildlife and environmental activist raises concern over the visit during partial lockdown; alleges double standards when locals are not allowed to visit public parks

  • Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority sets record straight; insists diplomatically arranged visit is under strict guidelines and will be handled responsibly

  • Inbound Tour Operators welcome move as much-needed boost to hard-hit tourism industry, say Frenchmen will take up 3,000 room-nights for 3 days

A group of 750 French naval personnel and officers will this week tour Sri Lanka under strict bio-secure travel bubble conditions though some have raised concerns over the move amidst the pandemic. They are part of the FNS Tonnerre and FNS Surcouf naval vessels of the French Government. The visit is a diplomatic engagement under Sri Lanka-France bilateral military cooperation. The two vessels have been in high seas for the last three months with the last post being Djibouti and reached Sri Lanka today via Japan and Singapore, where technical stops were made. The tour is being carefully facilitated by multiple stakeholders, including the Foreign Ministry, Defence Ministry, Health Ministry, the French Embassy and Sri Lanka Tourism, with the Government’s approval. Adhering to health guidelines given the COVID-19 pandemic, this procedure has been followed previously, too, when accommodating groups of tourists. The French naval team will travel to Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, Minneriya Eco-Park, Yala, and Udawalawe as part of their sightseeing experience. According to the French Embassy, the estimated tourism revenue from the group for three days (today till 9 June) from hotels and excursions would be Rs. 125 million, and from the port of call, it would be a further Rs. 125 million. In a related development, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) yesterday denied social media posts with reference to tourists brought in by certain individuals. SLTDA said the ability to visit a ‘tourist site’ requires the approval of the respective line agency; in this case, the Wildlife Department. Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority can only grant approval to visit a site after the line agency grants approval. “In this regard, we have not received any such request seeking approval to visit Yala National Park.” SLTDA, however, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the French Embassy in Sri Lanka have agreed on a diplomatic level to facilitate crew members of two French vessels visiting Sri Lanka. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote to the Secretaries of Health and Tourism on 24 May, informing about the delegation of French crew members arriving in two vessels from 7 (today) to 11 June to visit Sri Lanka in a ‘bio-safety bubble’. They had requested to visit the National Parks of Yala, Minneriya-Kaudulla and Udawalawe, and the Eco-Park in Habarana. Upon receiving the request, the State Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation approved 422 French crew members (per batch) to visit these National Parks under strict bio-bubble conditions. The Sri Lanka Navy will ensure adherence to health guidelines throughout the visit. As this is a diplomatic delegation, the role of tourism is limited to coordinating the visit with the assistance of the Sri Lanka Navy. SLTDA said it continues to work to ensure tourism is supported in a responsible manner and urged the general public to abstain from circulating false statements. However, Environmental Foundation Director Rukshan Jayawardene, in a FB post, questioned why the French personnel were granted privileged access. “Why the double standards? Why the COVID risk again during a time when the country is in a lockdown? [sic] (and we saw how bubble’s [sic] worked in practice the last few times). How is a National Park opened for tourism, while keeping it closed for citizens who are its rightful owners? Yala is not a private park; it is a National Park and belongs to the people of Sri Lanka, and only held in trust in (perpetuity) [sic] by the incumbent Government of Sri Lanka for them,” added Jayawardene. Nevertheless, the Sri Lanka Inbound Tour Operators Association (SLAITO) welcomed the elaborate efforts by all responsible authorities to ensure the careful facilitation of local visits by the French naval personnel to further bilateral ties. «The revenue generated will provide the already ailing tourism industry and its stakeholders with a much-needed boost of foreign exchange,» SLAITO said, adding the French sailors’ visits will generate 3,000 room-nights within three days in the cultural triangle and beach resorts. «The entry fee income alone will generate $ 25,000 in our economy,» it added. «We’d like to reiterate that this operation will be handled by the French Embassy-appointed, SLTDA-approved Safe and Secure DMCs who have taken it upon themselves to adhere to all health and safety protocols outlined by the Health Ministry,» the SLAITO statement added. FNS Tonnerre is an aircraft carrier built in 2006. The impressive-looking dock landing ship has a length of 200 m and displaces 20,000 tons. She is capable of carrying 450 troops and up to 20 helicopters in addition to two hovercraft. Surcouf (F711) is a La Fayette-class frigate of the French Navy and can carry aircraft and helicopters. The ship was commissioned in May 1996 and is scheduled to be retired from service in 2027. Reports said the ships are conducting their annual Jeanne d’Arc military mission that started in February.

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