Maldives travel agents call for flexible cancellation, date change policies to avoid collapse

A representative body of local travel agents and tour operators in Maldives on Sunday urged tourist establishments across the archipelago to allow flexibility in cancellation terms and date changes, as travellers face increasing restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In an appeal to all resorts, hotels, guesthouses and liveaboards operating in the Maldives, the Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO) said flexible cancellation and date change policies must be extended to both local and foreign travel agents and tour operators.

Such policies are vital to the continuity of business that are on “the brink of collapsing and to help the destination bounce back once the borders open and airlines are able to fly.”

“Given the global crisis by the pandemic coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and public health emergency of international concern declared by World Health Organisation (WHO), we have been working closely with all the government ministries and authorities in the last several weeks, evaluating the impact of the situation and preparing for post pandemic recovery,” a statement issued by MATATO read.

MATATO said it had reached out to the tourism ministry over these concerns.

The association said it was also trying to provide legal assistance to its members that had been facing challenges due to “unethical cancellations and date changes, imposed by few resorts.”

“This isn’t a time for discrimination and bias between local agents and foreign tour operators which we unfortunately have seen in the past, a discouraging practice by some resorts,” the statement read.

“We also take this opportunity to acknowledge majority of all resorts, guesthouses, liveboards and hotels that are being extremely supportive of local businesses and local travel agents.”

This appeal comes a week after the non-profit launched a survey to identify ways to provide relief to local travel agents and tour operators amidst the economic downturn caused by the global coronavirus pandemic.

The Maldives on Friday enforced a blanket suspension of on-arrival visa in a bid to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Even before the visa suspension, the Maldives had closed its borders to arrivals from some of the worst-hit countries, including mainland China, Italy, Bangladesh, Iran, Spain, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Visitors from three regions of Germany (Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg), two regions of France (Île-de-France and Grand Est) and two regions of South Korea were also banned from entering the country.

All direct flights to and from China, Italy, South Korea and Iran were also cancelled.

Cruise ships and foreign yachts were also banned from docking at any of the country’s ports.

On March 8, Maldives reported its first cases of the novel coronavirus, as two hotel employees tested positive for Covid-19 at a luxury resort in the archipelago.

Sixteen more cases — all foreigners working or staying resorts and liveaboard vessels except two Maldivians who had returned from the United Kingdom — were later identified.

However, 11 out of the 16 have made full recoveries. Three out of the five active cases are being treated at designated quarantine facilities, whilst the other two had been repatriated to their home country of Italy.

The Maldives announced a state of public health emergency on March 12, the first such declaration under a recent public health protection law.

The public health emergency declaration has allowed the government to introduce a series of unprecedented restrictive and social distancing measures, including a ban on inter-island travel of tourists, including for excursions and between resort islands.

A nationwide shut down of all guesthouses and city hotels has also been ordered. Spa facilities located on inhabited islands have also been closed.

The Covid-19 outbreak has hit the Maldivian economy hard, as travel restrictions and other preventive measures affect the country’s lucrative tourism industry, which contributes the bulk of the island nation’s state revenue and foreign reserves.

Before the pandemic, the government had been bullish about tourism prospects, targeting two million, high-spending holidaymakers this year after last year’s record 1.7 million.

However, tourist arrivals saw a year-over-year decline of 22.8 per cent in the first 10 days of this month. With arrival numbers falling, several resorts across the Maldives had been closed.

Tourism has been the bedrock of the Maldives’ economic success. The $5 billion-dollar economy grew by 6.7 per cent in 2018 with tourism generating 60 per cent of foreign income.

However, the government is at present projecting a possible 5.6 per cent economic contraction this year — an estimated $446 million hit.

The government has launched an emergency MVR 2.5 billion ($161.84 million) facility and a package of financial measures to shore up the local economy against the coronavirus pandemic.

The MVR 2.5 billion stimulus plan includes MVR 1.55 billion ($100 million) in emergency loans for businesses to meet short-term working capital needs.

The emergency facility is complemented by a package of financial measures, including a six-month moratorium on principal and interest repayments for personal and business loans sanctioned by commercial banks.

Meanwhile, Bank of Maldives (BML) has announced a $2 million short-term financing facility for the tourism industry.

The facility by the country’s largest bank allows operational resorts and guesthouses finance up to $2 million to manage their working capital requirements, with a repayment period of three years.

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