Maldives travel agents seek relief amidst coronavirus economic blow

A representative body has said it was working with the authorities to secure relief to local travel agents and tour operators in Maldives amidst the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Association of Travel Agents (ATA) said negotiations are underway with relevant government agencies to ensure continuity of business for local travel agents and tour operators.

“Local agents play an integral role in the Maldives’ tourism industry. Our focus is to save them at this difficult time,” an official from ATA was quoted as saying, by local media outlets.

ATA’s announcement comes days after another representative body urged tourist establishments across the archipelago to allow flexibility in cancellation terms and date changes.

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 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.”

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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