Ukraine passengers arrive at Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, in Mattala on December 28, 2020. (AFP/STR)
Sri Lanka welcomed its first foreign tourists in nine months Monday even as a new deadlier strain of the coronavirus gripped the island.
A charter flight carrying 185 passengers from Ukraine landed at a little-used airport south of the capital, which has been stricken by a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths.
In less than three months, the official number of coronavirus fatalities has risen from 13 to 191, while the number of infections has gone from 3,300 to more than 41,000.
Still, authorities hope the Ukrainian arrivals will be the first of thousands of foreigners to visit -- easing pressure on the tourism-reliant economy that was shut down in March.
The visitors, who had to produce coronavirus-free certificates before departure, were tested again on arrival at Rajapaksa International airport.
They will be confined to their hotels for the duration of their holiday.
"This is a pilot project to test our systems," government spokesman Ramesh Pathirana said, adding that there would be a review after one month.
Sri Lanka's international borders remain closed, with the exception of repatriation flights and charters approved by local health authorities.
But Sri Lanka is also scheduled to host a two-Test cricket tour by England next month.
The moves come despite authorities announcing a deadlier coronavirus strain.
Minister for COVID Disease Control, Sudharshini Fernandopulle, said the strain was more infectious than one which spread in Sri Lanka between January and October.
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