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Published on: June 14, 2021, 5:44 p.m.
Maldives beckons, once again!
  • The Maldives received a record-breaking 1.7 million tourist arrivals in 2019, and the target for 2020 was two million arrivals

By Suman Tarafdar

Consider this. The Maldives, a success story of tourism in the post lockdown era, has actually revised its target upwards for tourist arrivals in 2021. The number of airlines flying between the Maldives and India has risen from the pre-pandemic period in 2020, with Indians flocking to these dazzling dots in the Indian Ocean, keeping its economy afloat and turning Instagram blue for India’s swish set.

The ‘second wave’ in India has halted Indians travelling to the island nation for the time being, though the Maldives continues to attract global tourists once again. A country almost entirely dependent on tourism, in this unprecedented time of precipitous decline in travel, has managed to be the top destination of choice, not just for India, but also for the Middle East and South and Central Europe. The island nation, which had revised its arrival targets downwards for 2021, later raised them, says Abdulla Mausoom, minister for tourism.

The Maldives received a record-breaking 1.7 million tourist arrivals in 2019, and the target for 2020 was two million arrivals. Of course, that plan, like much else around the world, went awry, as the nation halted issuing on-arrival visas on 27 March and was completely shut off for about four months, with a net drop in tourist arrivals by 67.4 per cent over what was recorded in 2019. Post reopening, the Maldives has been a success story for tourism, as arrivals has been increasing steadily. It had set a target of a million arrivals in 2021 but, encouraged by the trends and the availability of vaccines, it has revised its scale upwards to 1.5 million tourist arrivals.

What went right

From 15 July onwards, arrivals have been increasing steadily, as the Maldives reopened its doors even as most of the world was shut. “As an economy heavily dependent on international tourism, the restrictions on global travel and other protective measures against the Covid-19 pandemic have had a significant impact on the Maldives,” affirmed President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, in an interview to CNBC.

During the lockdown in 2020, the Maldives had begun to strategise on the future of travel, points out Thoyyib Mohamed, managing director, Maldives Marketing & PR Corporation.  “The country has reopened with stringent safety measures, with travellers required to present a negative PCR test, taken within 72 hours of arrival.”

Incidentally, in this era of air bubbles, the first air bubble in South Asia was established in August 2020 between the two nations, says Mohamed. Till the halt in flights, there were five airlines flying between the two nations – Air India, IndiGo, GoAir, Vistara and Maldivian – up from the four that were operating pre-lockdown. Maldivian started its flights connecting Mumbai to Maafuru four times a week – with a revision in frequency based on demand earlier this year. With 60 flights a week, India was the top market for the Maldives.

The Maldives has been an international success story for 2020, says Mausoom. “The main advantage we had was that we are scattered islands – one island, one resort. The health approach we had was to provide maximum safety and minimum inconvenience. There are 52,000 bed nights in the country, 95 per cent of which are operational,” he adds.

What’s working

The tourism sector workers were among the first to get vaccinated, says Mausoon. The island has vaccinated about 58 per cent of its population as of 4 June, though it had crossed 50 per cent on 12 April, the slowdown being a result of India stopping the promised vaccine supply.

Incidentally, India was one of the quickest markets to recover once the Maldives reopened for travel. It had seen 166,030 arrivals in 2019, which dropped to 62,860 in 2020 (though it has recovered fast during the last three months), but has already seen 44,039 arrivals in January and February, informs Mohamed. Though, it wasn’t all as simple as it sounds. When nations suddenly imposed lockdowns at short notice, some people had to stay on, and the last of which left only by September last year.

A bigger challenge for many was the cost of quarantining. “Direct contacts have to undergo mandatory quarantine,” Mohamed adds. “If they test positive, people in the resort can continue to stay. We also have facilities for reasonable prices – there is a choice. We have been open for the past six-and-a-half months, and it seems the difficult days are in the past. 155,000+ tourists have come since we opened the border, and only three required medical attention. People think it is a risk worth taking.”

The famed resorts have pitched in. “At W Maldives, we have designed and implemented a safe and secure environment for both our guests and talents,” says Idu Ribeiro, general manager of the resort. The steps taken include social distancing at all venues and common areas, such as restaurants, gym, spa, water-sports, etc; encouraging the use of face mask by guests and mandatory wearing of masks by inmates at all times; electro-static sprayers used for a more effective and extensive disinfection of guest and staff’s high risks areas, etc.

“In late January 2021, Marriott International announced the launch of Good Travel with Marriott Bonvoy, a program offering meaningful travel across Asia Pacific,” points out Emilio Fortini, general manager, Sheraton Maldives Full Moon Resort & Spa, and chairman, Marriott Business Council, Maldives. “Against the backdrop of the global pandemic, with travellers increasingly aspiring to make a positive impact on the communities they visit, whether locally or abroad, the programme aims to create opportunities for guests to forge first-hand connections with local communities and the environment during their stay, promoting both cultural understanding and positive change.”

Brendan Corcoran, general manager, The Westin Maldives Miriandhoo Resort agrees. “Safety and hygiene are ‘the top priorities’ at the resort and we have completely abided by the guidelines and safety protocols set forth by the company and the local authorities, to ensure that our guests have the relaxing vacation they dreamed of, leaving all their worries aside,” he adds.

“The one island, one resort, concept works,” says the Delhi-based journalist Smita Tripathi, who travelled to the Maldives once it reopened. “It’s like having your own safety bubble. The resorts are taking all precautions. You have to wear masks in restaurants and your temperature is checked. The resort we stayed in had a doctor and clinic complete with oxygen facilities.”

“The Maldives is aiming for universal vaccination,” Mausoom asserts. We are also working on 3V tourism – a policy of visit-vaccinate-vacation. Once our entire population is vaccinated, we will offer vaccine tourism.” However, due to the slowdown in vaccine supply, this is on hold at the moment.

Till end April, the island nation has seen 389,770 inbound visitors, of which 78,604 were from India, according to the data from the ministry. As travel from India is expected to reopen, this number is only likely to go up, as Indians too can enjoy a slice of paradise.

2022: Big year ahead

The Maldives will mark 50 years since the tourism industry’s inception in 2022, which is to be celebrated as the golden year of tourism in the island. Despite the challenges, it looks poised to mark it in style, with the logo already launched. There are massive plans to mark it as a people’s event, with nationwide engagement. The plan is to honour the heroes of the industry, the staff, says Mausoom. About 64,000 people employed are in the sector, about half of whom are Maldivian.

The government is opening 28 new islands for development, reveals Mausoom. “Changes have been made in the tourism investment policy. We have opened for FDI for lower cost hotels for up to 49 per cent stake by outsiders. We appreciate investments from Indian community.”

The Maldives is planning to have more direct flights to its other international airports besides Velana in Male from Indian cities. Plans include flights to Gan in Addu City and Hanimaadhoo in the north. There are also big plans to have cruise tourism, especially from Male and in the south of the nation, according to Mausoom.

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