By Sarsi Wijeratne/counterpoint.lk
Colombo, June 7: Two French warships, the FNS Tonnerre and Surcouf, arrived in Colombo earlier this morning for a replenishment visit from 7 to 11 June. The visit follows negotiations at a diplomatic level between the French embassy in Colombo and the government of Sri Lanka.
‘One will be a frigate and the other will be an amphibious ship’, said Navy spokesman Captain Indika Silva. ‘The ships will be provided oil, fuel, water, provisions and the crew will be provided relaxation facilities’. The Navy said it will receive the crew ceremonially after the ships arrive and escort them on to land.
The 656 crew members, which include admirals and medical officers, will visit the cultural triangle and several national wildlife parks during their stay.
The protocol for warships require that crew members are escorted all the time when they are on land. The Navy will accompany the crew wherever they go to also ensure that the bio bubble conditions under which they have been allowed to come ashore are kept. ‘There will be no quarantine because they will be maintaining the bio bubble’, said Captain Silva who explained that the role of the Navy will be to only escort and accompany the crew when they are on land.
According to Chandra Wickramasinghe, Chairman of Connaissance De Ceylan and the local tour operator appointed by the French embassy to coordinate the visit, the crew will leave for the cultural triangle later today. ‘They will travel in three buses after their PCR checks have been carried out. They have all been vaccinated’.
Wickramasinghe, whose chain of hotels incudes Aliya Resort and Spa and Malu Malu, said that one group of 235 navy officers will stay at the Jetwing Lake, Amaka Lake and Aliya Resorts and another group of 368 officers will stay at the Taj Exotica in Bentota and the MariottWeligama. ‘All these hotels are Level 1 certified hotels and there will be no local guests staying in the hotels when these naval officers are in the hotels’. The crew will visit Sigirya, Polonaruwa, Hurulu Eco Park in Habarana, the Yala national park and the Udawalawe national park tomorrow and the day after.
Cash strapped Sri Lanka is expected to rake in much needed revenue from the visit. ‘We expect around 220, 000 euros for the three days from the tourism aspect’, said Wickramasinghe.
But conservationists are outraged that the national parks, which have been closed since the start of the lockdown last month, will be opened specially for the crew to visit and have questioned how they got this privilege. There are also concerns that it will set a precedent for similar park openings for other groups.
There was no inkling of the ships arrival until a conservationist raised the alarm that Yalanational park, in the south of the country, is to be opened for a group of tourists. It triggered a chain of queries leading to information about the ships.
It is also unclear where the ships have arrived from. The Navy was unable to provide details but said they are on a mission. ‘They will not come to the harbour if not, said Captain Silva. However Wickramasinghe said they are coming from the Singapore region and that Sri Lanka is their first stop after at least four months at sea. He said they will be returning to France, a journey of another four months.
According to unconfirmed reports, no other port had allowed entry to the ships and the French embassy here had reached out to government authorities for approval for the ships to come here. The French embassy, when contacted this morning, said their press attache can call back only in the afternoon.
Because the vessels are warships the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be the line ministries with the Tourism ministry playing a supporting role.
The government has been trying to grasp any opportunity, including tourism, which will throw it a lifeline to earn an income. On the 1stof June the Bandaranaike International Airport was opened for tourist arrivals while the rest of the country remains in lockdown. It prompted the leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa, who said the government is paving the way for another Covid cluster, to also accuse it of treating Sri Lankans as second class citizens and tourists as first class citizens.
Sri Lanka, which is going through the third surge, has been witnessing daily infection ratesof close to 3000 cases in the last weeks. A poorly planned and coordinated vaccination program has left people in limbo, including some 600, 000 who don’t know when they will get their second dose of the Astra Zeneca vaccine.