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

At least for countries that are thinking about dealing with international travelers.

That changed last month, however, when Sri Lanka reopened its borders with a requirement unlike any country previously opened – one that neither allows travelers the freedom of the island nor places them in a hotel room for two weeks wraps up.

Sri Lankan Tourism Chairman Kimarli Fernando described it as a “new concept” developed by the Tourism Authority. It allows tourists to tour the country in “bio-bubbles” or in semi-isolated groups, allowing travelers to see sites without mixing with the local people.

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

Rules of the ‘bio-bubble’

When Sri Lanka reopened its borders on January 21, it became one of the few Asian countries – including the Maldives – where international travelers could enter without strict quarantine.

But tourists are not exactly free to go where they want. Sri Lanka’s “bio-bubbles” allow vacationers to get around the island provided they:

· Stay in approved hotels
· Visit approved websites at specific times
· Travel by independent means of transport
Perform frequent Covid-19 tests and
· Do not mix with the local people

These rules must be followed for the first two weeks after entering Sri Lanka. After that, guests are free to “interact with the local community” and “move into the accommodation of their choice,” according to a safety brochure produced by the country’s Ministry of Tourism.

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

Where travelers can stay

As of February 17, there are 98 certified “Level 1” hotels that travelers can stay at for the first two weeks of a trip. The list includes hotels and villas in tourist hotspots like Bentota, Galle, Kandy and Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo.

Hotels cover a range of budgets, from guest houses in the surfing paradise of Hikkaduwa to tented lodges near Yala National Park to the luxurious Ani villas in Dickwella.

Sri Lanka is famous for its pristine and often empty beaches.

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The country’s two Aman hotels – Amangalla and Amanwella – as well as some of the restored British bungalows that make up the Ceylon Tea Trails in the beautiful tea region are on the list.

Unlike strict quarantines, travelers are not limited to their hotel rooms for the first two weeks of a trip. Guests are “allowed to use all of the hotel’s facilities including the beach,” Fernando told CNBC Global Traveler.

The hotels are said to be 75% busy and leave the remaining rooms open to isolate any guests who have tested positive for Covid-19. This option is only available to people without symptoms. infected travelers who have symptoms of Covid-19 must be isolated in a private hospital.

An Asian elephant walks along a dirt road in Yala National Park.

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“All certified hotels have a doctor,” said Fernando. These doctors are supposed to monitor hotel staff and guests for Covid-19 symptoms and send daily reports to government agencies, according to Sri Lanka’s safety brochure.

Hotel employees who are in direct contact with guests are not allowed to leave the hotel during the guests’ stay and for 14 days thereafter. And if they are not equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE), Sri Lankans who come into contact with tourists – such as tour guides and drivers – must be quarantined for 14 days after the end of a tour.

Where travelers can and cannot go

During the first two weeks of a trip, travelers are allowed to switch between hotels and visit approved tourist attractions, provided they visit during certain periods of time that have been assigned to tourists. When out and about, they are not allowed to interact with local residents or other travelers.

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

The list of places travelers are allowed to travel includes some of the most famous landmarks in Sri Lanka including the Sigiriya Fortress and the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Yala National Park and the whale watching tours near Mirissa town are also on the list.

An ancient palace once stood on top of the 660-foot Sigiriya Rock, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is on the list of recognized tourist attractions.

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

Pre-planning is required for all outside travel, including stops for meals and toilet breaks.

Frequent Covid Tests

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

Covid tests are initially required within 96 hours of departure and again after landing in Sri Lanka. Those who stay longer than five days must take a third test, and those who stay longer than two weeks must do a fourth test.

The Nine Arches Bridge is located in the elevated central highlands of Sri Lanka.

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Children under the age of 12 are exempt from testing unless they become symptomatic or are in close contact with an infected traveler.

Travelers must also apply for a visa prior to departure. Prior to this, tourists must make hotel bookings, purchase Covid-19 insurance (USD 12), and prepay for Covid-19 tests (USD 40 each).

Visas are not currently issued to anyone who has been to the UK two weeks prior to entering Sri Lanka.

Do ‘organic bubbles’ attract tourists?

On February 15, Fernando of Sri Lanka Tourism told CNBC that 3,820 people had arrived since the country reopened on January 21.

“Compared to the first two to three weeks of arriving in the Maldives in July 2020, our arrivals are slightly higher,” she said.

Women pick tea near the town of Nuwara Eliya in central Sri Lanka.

Tuul & Bruno Morandi | The image database | Getty Images

Fernando said the travelers were from Germany, Russia, Ukraine and expatriates living in “GCC countries”, referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council member countries in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates .

She added that Sri Lanka is waiting for a “bubble agreement” to start flights with India as well.

Covid-19 rates in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka had low rates of Covid-19 infection until October last year. Cases have risen steadily since then, and the number of infections peaked earlier this month.

The country of 21.5 million people has confirmed more than 77,000 cases so far, according to Johns Hopkins University. Almost 11,500 cases have occurred in the past two weeks.

Sri Lanka started a vaccination campaign in late January. Fernando told CNBC that health officials will vaccinate all tourism workers “over the next few weeks.”