‘Business as usual not possible’: Maldives pres lays out plan to ease lockdown, reopen borders

Maldives will begin easing lockdown measures on May 28 and reopen its borders to visitors in July, the island nation’s president announced Wednesday.

In a live address, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih said the lockdown on capital Male and its suburbs will not be extended beyond its May 28th expiry if the current downward trend in infection numbers continue.

“However hard it has been, the lockdown has had the desired effect,” he said.

‘Business as usual not possible’

The lockdown and stay-at-home orders in the capital region were initially ordered on April 15 for two weeks. It has been extended thrice, the latest being on May 14 for another fortnight.

The lockdown bans all public activity and travel in one of the world’s most densely populated cities and its suburbs of Hulhumale and Villimale. Any movement in and out Male and its suburbs, as well as the neighbouring industrial islands of Thilafushi and Gulhifalhu are also banned.

Meanwhile, separate lockdown measures specifically for outside the greater Male region are in effect indefinitely.

The measures include a ban on inter-island transport across the archipelago of 1,192 coral islands.

Public gatherings, including ceremonies and parties of all kinds, sporting events, and picnics in the islands, are also covered under the ban.

In his address Wednesday evening, president Solih warned that the easing of restrictive measures “does not mean we can go back to business as usual”.

“Easing of restrictions does not mean we have been able to completely eradicate Covid-19. It’s important that we recognise the risk of a potential rise in infections once the lockdown measures are eased,” he said.

Solih said the restrictions will only be eased in phases, with stay-at-home orders in capital Male and its suburbs being rescinded at first.

General businesses and schools will also be allowed to open once the lockdown expires on May 28, but public gatherings as well as businesses such as cafes and restaurants that attract crowds will have to remain shut until the second phase of reopening, he added.

“This gradual loosening of restrictions will be implemented in the context of a ‘new normal’ phase, in which individuals must continue to observe social distancing measures and strictly adhere to the advice of health authorities,” the president said.

Borders, resorts will reopen in July

Solih also announced plans to reopen the country’s borders and restart its worst-hit tourism industry in July.

“Guidelines on reopening the country are being formulated with input from industry stakeholders,” he said.

The president’s announcement comes a day after his tourism officials invited comments from industry stakeholders on draft guidelines, which — if finalised — will see the introduction of a $100 visa fee and mandatory on-arrival testing for coronavirus for all tourists when the island nation reopens its borders to visitors.

According to the draft guidelines, which have attracted public criticism for being too harsh and unpractical, only resorts and liveaboard vessels that have a so-called “safe tourism licence” will be permitted to open at first.

Guests can come to these tourist establishments either by private jet or superyacht from June 1, followed by charter and commercial flights a month later.

Charter flights and private jets will be charged a landing fee of $50,000. Superyachts will also have pay an entry fee fo $10,000.

Meanwhile, guesthouses and hotels will only be allowed to open from August.

There are no plans yet to allow cruise ships.

The tourism ministry expects the restrictions to be in effect until September “unless extended by the government”.

The ministry says the guidelines will only be finalised based on industry feedback.

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 1,186.

Four deaths have been reported and 91 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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