Maldives must use coronavirus slump to return to high-end luxury tourism, Minor Hotels chief says

Maldives must use the downturn in tourism caused by the coronavirus pandemic to reassess its tourism policies and return to its roots as a high-end luxury destination, Minor Hotels chief Dillip Rajakarier has said.

In a podcast with branding agency QUO, Rajakarier said recent years have seen the Maldives navigate towards a lower-cost market, which had not been good for the country. The current crisis may force change upon the Maldives that desperately need recalibrating, he added.

“Government must focus on what the Maldives used to be in the past, which was very high-end tourism and offering the high-end tourists and people who have private jets and all these people who can take these islands on an exclusive basis,” Rajakarier said.

The Minor Hotels chief, whose company runs several hotels across Asia, said the global tourism industry must prepare for a rocky year, with a slow recovery in 2021 and positive developments in 2022.

Regional travel will return first, but international arrivals will take much longer to come back, he said.

Minor Hotels operates five properties in the Maldives, including three resorts under the Anantara brand: Anantara Dhigu Maldives Resort, Anantara Veli Maldives Resort, and Anantara Kihavah Maldives Villas.

Naladhu Private Island Maldives and Niyama Private Islands Maldives are also run by the Thailand-based hotel group.

Minor had in 2019 sold the leasehold rights of two Anantara-branded resorts and Naladhu in Male atoll to US venture capital firm Blackstone for $43 million.

However, the company retained the management of the resorts.

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.

A six-case cluster of locals, detected in capital Male on Wednesday, confirmed community transmission of the coronavirus. Several more clusters have since been identified, bringing the total number of confirmed case in the Maldives to 82.

No deaths have been reported and 16 have made full recoveries.

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 stay-at-home orders in capital Male and its suburbs, a ban on inter-island transport and public gatherings across the country, and a nationwide closing of government offices, 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.

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.

All international airlines have 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.

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.

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