Emergency flights for tens of thousands stranded by virus in South Asia

Kathmandu (AFP) –


Foreign governments on Friday stepped up operations to evacuate tens of thousands of tourists stranded by the coronavirus pandemic in remote locations across South Asia from Everest base camp to beach hotels in Sri Lanka.

A plane chartered by Berlin took 304 people out of Kathmandu in the first of a series of flights aiming to ferry more than 10,000 people from Nepal.

Almost 17,000 tourists are stuck in Sri Lanka while tens of thousands of travellers and expatriates are in India, according to authorities in the two countries.

All have cut or virtually halted international flights over the past week in a bid to halt the coronavirus spread.

The plane that left Kathmandu Friday was carrying Germans and other European nationals, Rajan Pokhrel, director general of Nepal's Civil Aviation Authority, told AFP.

"Other countries are consulting us about evacuating their citizens," he added.

A second German flight was to leave Saturday and the Australian embassy said it was trying to negotiate a special flight.

Other countries, including the United States, were trying to secure joint flights.

Nepal's government estimates about 10,000 people -- from Europe, Australia, South Korea, the United States and India -- are in far-flung places across the Himalayan nation that halted all international flights last weekend.

About 200 trekkers were waiting at Everest base camp.

The Nepal Tourism Board said 137 people were brought from high altitude trekking trails on Thursday and taken to Kathmandu.

France and other governments organised local flights to get their nationals from remote towns to the Nepalese capital. Some hotels have given free rooms and meals to the stranded tourists.

France and Germany are also negotiating charter flights to get their nationals out of India.

Sri Lankan authorities have let almost 17,000 foreign tourists use their cancelled flight tickets as curfew passes since they became stuck after incoming flights were halted and a nationwide lockdown imposed. Many are stuck in beach resorts far from Colombo airport.

Those stranded include 2,439 Indians, 2,167 Chinese, 2,061 Russians, 1,732 Germans, 1,377 Britons, 916 Canadians and 614 French, the immigration service said.

"We are encouraging other governments to arrange evacuation flights to take back their nationals," Madubhani Perera, director of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Board, told AFP.

The Maldives, whose economy is dependent on tourism, on Friday halted the arrival of all visitors and ordered the 135 resort islands to empty of visitors within two weeks.

The nation of 340,000 people has reported 13 confirmed coronavirus infections and all are foreigners.

The United States said it was organising a special flight next week to take its nationals based in Pakistan.