Maldives says third quarter tourism reopening talks ‘in a few weeks’

Proposals on safely reopening the Maldives to visitors are being readied for cabinet deliberations in a few weeks, the island nation’s tourism minister said Thursday.

Ali Waheed told CNN’s Richard Quest that his ministry was making plans to reopen the country’s borders and begin welcoming tourists again in a safe manner in the third quarter of the year.

Guidelines issued by local and international health authorities, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), will be followed in reopening the country to visitors, he said.

“We are in the midst of the storm. We will reopen our borders once we are through. We are doing everything we can to overcome this situation and reopen our country to visitors as soon as possible. Our hope is that we will be able to do this in the July-September quarter,” Waheed said.

“We will ensure all safety protocols are followed at all airports and tourist establishments across the country.”

The tourism minister’s comments come a week after one of his colleagues told reporters that the Maldives could reopen its borders by July and recommence tourism by October.

Finance minister Ibrahim Ameer said last week that the government had formulated five scenarios with possible timelines for reopening borders and the tourism sector.

The best case scenario sees the country reopen borders by May, but the most likely scenario projects a July date for reopening the borders and restarting tourism in October. In the worst case, borders may only open by January 2021.

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 13 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.

A six-case cluster of locals, detected in capital Male on April 15, confirmed community transmission of the coronavirus. Several more clusters have since been identified, bringing the total number of confirmed case in the Maldives to 471.

Only one death has been reported and 17 have made full recoveries. Five remain in intensive care.

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.

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