Canada is to allow tourists to Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, with visa-exempt travel to China, a move that will allow business travellers to bypass the country’s restrictions.
The move was hailed as a major win for Canada and the other world powers in the Pacific Rim, but it will also face a fierce backlash from Sri Lankans who have been locked in a prolonged civil war.
While Canada has not officially ruled out visa-based travel to the island, it has ruled out allowing permanent residents to travel there under certain circumstances.
It said the policy change would allow Canadians to travel to and visit Sri Lanka for the first time since 2006 and that it will not impose restrictions on business or tourism.
“This is a welcome step forward,” Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in a statement.
“Sri Lanka is a key Canadian partner and is an important part of our shared security relationship with Asia.
Canada looks forward to working closely with the Government of Sri Lanka to enhance the strategic partnership between our two countries.”
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, a long-time critic of Canada, called it a “huge mistake.”
“We are not going to allow any political or religious or any political leaders, they have to leave,” he told reporters.
“We have been able to maintain our peace with this government for a long time.
I hope that they will reconsider.”
The news came as a top UN official urged Canada to ease visa restrictions on Sri Lanken citizens.
In a letter to the Canadian government on Wednesday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other human rights experts urged Ottawa to allow Sri Lankian citizens to travel freely without visa requirements.
The visa exemption was designed to ease travel restrictions imposed on Sri Lanka by the U,S., Britain and Australia, who all restrict entry to people from the region.
Canada has said it has “a long-standing policy” to allow non-citizens entry to Canada, but has said restrictions on citizens have been tightened to protect the safety of Canadian diplomats.
The new policy could be a major step in easing the restrictions imposed by the three countries, but could also provoke an angry reaction from Sri Lanka’s former ruler.
“There are very strong grounds to say that this will not help,” said Mark Lilla, director of the Center for Policy Studies, a think tank in Sydney.
“They are not being very clear what they mean by this and what they are saying in terms of visa-exemption.
It is not clear to me what is the basis for this.”
Lilla said it was difficult to know how much of a benefit this would be to the Sri Lankhans, who face constant threats from the warring factions in their country, or how much they would actually benefit from the move.
“The U.S. has been very critical of Canada’s approach to the country.
There is a very strong concern among U.s. officials that this could lead to an escalation in the conflict,” he said.”
It’s not a great sign of confidence in Canada and an indication that there is not an appetite for a change of course.”
In August, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada would grant visas to Sri lanka’s top diplomats if it could be guaranteed visa-issuance for its citizens.
However, Sri Lankis, who have had no contact with Canada for more than a decade, have been living under the threat of arrest by the security forces and have little say in how their government runs the country, making it a risky move for Canada to make in the region at a time when it is facing rising refugee numbers.
Canada, which has hosted more than 2,000 Sri Lankese since 2009, has also been a leading proponent of visa exemptions for people from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Iraq and other nations.
Sri lankan Prime Minster Mahinda Tobar has not commented publicly on the proposed policy change, and a spokeswoman for the country said her government would not be able to comment on a matter that has not yet been made public.
Canadian Foreign Affairs officials could not be reached for comment.