Maldives main airport becomes ghost town as coronavirus guts air travel

Travel restrictions imposed by countries around the world to contain the coronavirus outbreak have cut the number of international flights to the Maldives to two a day, operator of the island nation’s main airport has said.

Moosa Solih, Acting Managing Director of the state-owned Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL), told the attendees of a ceremony held at the Velana International Airport (VIA) on Saturday to celebrate its 52nd anniversary that the number of scheduled daily international flights had been reduced to two from 40.

Only five domestic flights operate per day, compared to 50 before the pandemic, he said.

“2019 was a successful year, as air traffic movements had a 16 per cent increase and passenger traffic saw a 13 per cent increase. The west apron’s first phase and east apron also opened for operations in 2019. However, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, VIA has been hit hard with fewer flights,” Solih said.

A night time airport closure is in effect at VIA due to the drop in demand.

All the domestic airlines in Maldives except the flagship carrier have suspended passenger operations and gone on stand-by.

All international airlines have also suspended scheduled operations to the Maldives, as the island nation enforced a blanket suspension of on-arrival visa in late March 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.

Eighteen more cases — all foreigners working or staying resorts and liveaboard vessels except five Maldivians who had returned from abroad — were later identified.

However, 14 out of the 20 have made full recoveries. Four Maldivian patients are being treated at designated quarantine facilities, whilst 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.

Cover photo: Mihaaru News

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