Sri Lanka is now open to travelers — no quarantine, but no mingling with locals too

To quarantine or not to quarantine — that is the question.

Or at least it has been for countries deliberating how to handle incoming international travelers.

But that changed last month when Sri Lanka reopened its borders with a requirement unlike any country that had opened before it —  one that neither grants travelers free rein of the island nor boxes them into a hotel room for two weeks. 

Sri Lanka Tourism Chairperson Kimarli Fernando referred to it as a "new concept" developed by the tourism authority — which allows tourists to travel the country in "bio bubbles," or roving semi-isolated groups that let travelers sightsee without mixing with the local population.

The rules apply for the first two weeks of their stay.

Rules of the 'bio bubble'

When Sri Lanka reopened its borders on Jan. 21, it became one of very few Asian countries — including the Maldives — to allow international travelers to enter without being subject to strict quarantines.

But tourists aren't exactly free to go where they choose. Sri Lanka's "bio bubbles" allow holidaymakers to move around the island provided they:

·         Stay in approved hotels
·         Visit approved sites at specific times
·         Travel via independent transportation
·         Undergo frequent Covid-19 testing, and
·         Refrain from intermingling with the local population

These rules must be followed for the first two weeks upon entering Sri Lanka. Thereafter, guests are free to "interact with the local community" and move "to an accommodation of their choice," according to a safety booklet produced by the country's Ministry of Tourism.

The plan was first tested in a pilot project with Ukrainian tourists in late December of 2020.

Where travelers can stay

As of Feb. 17, there are 98 certified "Level 1" hotels where travelers can stay during the first two weeks of a trip. The list includes hotels and villas in tourist hotspots such as Bentota, Galle, Kandy and Sri Lanka's capital city of Colombo.

The hotels cover a range of budgets, from guest houses in the surfing paradise of Hikkaduwa, to tented lodges near Yala National Park and the ultra-luxurious Ani Villas in Dickwella.  

The country's two Aman hotels — Amangalla and Amanwella — are on the list, as are several of the restored British bungalows that comprise the Ceylon Tea Trails in the beautiful tea estate region.

Unlike strict quarantines, travelers are not confined to their hotel rooms during the first two weeks of a trip. Guests are "permitted to use all facilities in the hotel including the beach," Fernando told CNBC Global Traveler.

Hotels are to operate at 75% of capacity, leaving the remaining rooms open to isolate any guests who test positive for Covid-19. This option is only available to those without symptoms; infected travelers who display Covid-19 symptoms must isolate in a private hospital.

"All certified hotels have a medical doctor," said Fernando. These doctors are to monitor hotel staff and guests for Covid-19 symptoms and send daily reports to government authorities, according to Sri Lanka's safety booklet.

Hotel staff who are in direct contact with guests are not allowed to leave the hotel during a guests' stay and for 14 days thereafter. And, unless they are outfitted in full personal protective equipment (PPE), Sri Lankans who come into contact with tourists — such as tour guides and drivers — must quarantine for 14 days after a tour ends.

Where travelers can — and can't — go

During the first two weeks of a trip, travelers are permitted to move between hotels and visit approved tourist sites, provided they visit during specific timeslots that have been allocated to tourists. When out, they are to refrain from interacting with local residents as well as other travelers.

Tourists must arrange transportation through their hotels or via a certified tour guide.

The list of sites where travelers are permitted to go include some of the most famous attractions in Sri Lanka, including Sigiriya Fortress and the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Yala National Park and the whale watching tours near the town of Mirissa are also on the list.

Dambulla Cave Temple and the 16th century Galle Fort, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, are not currently open to tourists, however.

Advance planning is required for all outside trips, including stops for meals and bathroom breaks.

Frequent Covid testing

Travelers into Sri Lanka must undergo at least two Covid tests, and possibly more, depending on the length of their stay.

Covid tests are first required within 96 hours of departure, and again upon landing in Sri Lanka. Those staying longer than five days must take a third test, and anyone staying more than two weeks must take a fourth test.

Children under 12 years old are exempt from testing, unless they become symptomatic or are a close contact of an infected traveler.

Travelers must also apply for a visa prior to departure. Before doing so, tourists must make hotel bookings, purchase a Covid-19 insurance policy ($12) and prepay for Covid-19 tests ($40 each).

Currently, visas are not being issued to people who have been in the United Kingdom two weeks before entering Sri Lanka.

Are 'bio bubbles' attracting tourists?

On Feb.15, Fernando from Sri Lanka Tourism told CNBC that 3,820 people had arrived since the country reopened on Jan. 21.

"In comparison to the first two to three weeks of arrivals to Maldives in July 2020, our arrivals are slightly higher," she said.

Fernando said the travelers have come from Germany, Russia, Ukraine and expatriates living in "GCC countries," referencing the Gulf Cooperation Council member countries of Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.   

She added that Sri Lanka is awaiting a "bubble agreement" to start flights with India, too.

Covid-19 rates in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka had low Covid-19 infection rates until October last year. Since then, cases have steadily risen, with the number of infections peaking earlier this month.

The country of 21.5 million people has confirmed more than 77,000 cases to date, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Nearly 11,500 cases occurred in the past two weeks.

Sri Lanka started a vaccination campaign in late January. Fernando told CNBC that health officials will start vaccinating all employees in the tourism industry "within the next few weeks."

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