New cargo services open up Maldives’ main supply route

New cargo services have opened up one of the main supply routes for the Maldives as the import-dependent island nation faces unprecedented challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sri Lanka’s flagship carrier SriLankan Airlines and privately-run FitsAir are operating cargo flights between Colombo and Male.

On March 31, A SriLankan freighter carried 23 tons of vegetables, fruits and other essential food items that originated from Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

SriLankan, which suspended all of its passenger operations last week, is expected to operate two more cargo services into the Maldives; one with perishable cargo and the other with essential medical supplies from China.

“The Maldives depends on neighbouring countries for its day to day essentials and commodities. Supporting our second home base Maldives is our primary commitment,” an announcement by SriLankan read.

“We will continue to ensure that the people of Maldives will have a continuous flow of essentials leading to the holy period of Ramadan fasting.”

Meanwhile, FitsAir, Sri Lanka’s main domestic operator, is also operating a daily cargo service to the Maldives.

“This operation will go on during these tough times supporting Sri Lankan exports,” an airline official was quoted as saying, by local media.

These cargo services come after Maldivian launched a weekly cargo freighter to Sri Lanka, the first such service under the Maldives flagship carrier’s efforts to shore up its finances against the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Air freight rates are also skyrocketing after the grounding of many passenger flights in Asia has left shippers scrambling to book limited spots on cargo planes, as Chinese industrial production restarts.

About half of the air cargo carried worldwide normally flies in the belly of passenger jets rather than in dedicated freighters. But deep flight cuts in response to the coronavirus outbreak have made the market more dependent on freight haulers.

By using jets outfitted to carry people to carry cargo instead, airlines are following the lead of Korean Air and Singapore’s budget carrier Scoot.

Almost all international airlines has suspended their operations to the Maldives, as the island nation enforced a blanket suspension of on-arrival visa last week 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.

The coronavirus 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 March. Officials say the number of tourist arrivals to the Maldives could drop by half in 2020.

With arrival numbers falling and the visa suspension in effect, 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 5.7 per cent economic contraction this year — an estimated $778 million hit.

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.

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

However, 13 out of the 17 have made full recoveries. The four Maldivian patients 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 partial curfew in capital Male and its suburbs, and a nationwide closing of schools, colleges and universities. Non-essential services and public places in the capital such as gyms, cinemas and parks have also been shut.

Restaurants and cafes in the capital have been asked to stop dine-in service and switch to takeaway and delivery.

A nationwide shutdown of all guesthouses, city hotels and spa facilities located on inhabited islands is also in effect.

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