Top tourism stakeholder says tax breaks not stimulus for resorts, calls for SME exclusivity in coronavirus loans

Emergency finance under the government’s stimulus plan to shore up the local economy against the coronavirus pandemic should exclusively be allocated for small and medium enterprises, with resorts given tax breaks instead, a top tourism industry stakeholder said Thursday.

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

Resorts are eligible to receive up to MVR 7.71 million ($500,733) in emergency funding.

Mohamed Khlaeel, CEO of leading local travel agency Reollo Travel and domestic airline Manta Air, told local media on Thursday that the government should revisit its decision to include in the stimulus package emergency finance for resorts.

“Unlike developed countries, we don’t have much funds. So, it’s important that we make the best use of the available funds,” Khaleel, who also serves as a board member of Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO) said, in an interview with Raajje TV.

“Resorts can be given tax breaks, but they should be removed from the stimulus package. The stimulus plan should be used to help small and medium enterprises across all sectors.”

Under the stimulus plan, emergency loans for businesses with an annual turnover of less than MVR 10 million ($649,000) and self-employed individuals are arranged through the SME Development Finance Corporation (SDFC), a state-owned financial institution exclusive for small and medium enterprises.

Meanwhile, emergency loans for resorts as well as local businesses with a turnover of over MVR 10 million are arranged through Bank of Maldives (BML).

Both SDFC and BML are accepting applications for the emergency finance.

The unsecured loans by BML and SDFC come with a six-month grace period and a repayment period of three years. Interest is charged at six per cent per annum, but no interest is charged during the grace period.

The government has mandated all businesses that avail the emergency finance to retain their local workforce and pay salaries.

In addition to the emergency finance, the government’s stimulus plan is complemented by a package of financial measures, including a six-month moratorium on principal and interest repayments for personal, business and housing loans sanctioned by commercial banks.

The government is also subsidising utility bills in March and April.

Those that lose jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic will also be paid unemployment benefit for a period of three months.

Meanwhile, the central bank has announced a $150 million facility for banks to ensure healthy foreign currency reserves.

The facility is arranged through a $400 million stand-by currency swap signed by the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA) and Reserve Bank of India (RBI) last year, he said.

If required, minimum reserve requirement of banks will also be slashed from 10 to five per cent to allow banks to increase lending.

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

With arrival numbers falling and a blanket 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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