Maldives tourism body slams govt over ‘no substantial action’ to save businesses, jobs

Despite many requests, the government has not taken substantial actions to protect businesses and jobs from the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, a representative body of the Maldives tourism industry said Wednesday.

In a rare criticism of the government, the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) said the stakeholders of all segments of the industry tried from the onset of the pandemic to convey the severity of its impact on tourism.

The government was told of the need to take urgent, decisive action to protect businesses from bankruptcy, and to allow them to retain employees, manage cashflows and plan for the return of travel demand, MATI said.

But the government failed to take definitive actions in a timely manner, it added.

MATI also slammed the government over what the association described as unrealistic forecasts for reopening the country’s borders to visitors and about the impact on the industry.

“We will be ready to open as a country, only when we have the confidence of our medical professionals that there is no further risk to the population and even when that day comes, we are dependent on airlines, source markets and their governments’ travel advisories,” a statement read.

Maldivian officials have been bullish on their ability to contain the coronavirus outbreak and reopen the country in the third quarter of the year.

The government has 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.

Meanwhile, the representative body of the tourism industry, the mainstay of the country’s economy, also said it was not consulted in formulating the government’s stimulus package.

“We also note that due to delays in announcing the measures and the conditions imposed for qualification of relief, most of the industry’s businesses are no longer eligible for relief,” the statement read.

“We call on the government to resume meaningful dialogue with all segments and stakeholders of the travel and tourism industry in order to prevent bankruptcies, retain staff, facilitate cash flows so that we can ensure appropriate steps are taken to facilitate a recovery.”

MATI’s criticism of the government’s handling of the economic crisis stemming from the coronavirus pandemic is a departure from its earlier support of the restrictive measures taken by the government to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

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.

The Maldives has announced an MVR 2.5 billion stimulus plan, which includes MVR 1.55 billion ($100 million) in emergency loans for businesses to meet short-term working capital needs.

In addition to the emergency financing, 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.

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 573.

Two deaths have been reported and 20 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.

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