MATATO deplores tourism reopening proposals for ‘devaluating Maldives brand’

A representative body of local travel agents and tour operators has slammed tourism authorities in Maldives for a “devaluation of the Maldives brand”, after draft guidelines that will impose strict restrictions on tourist facilities and visitors when the country reopens its borders were published for industry feedback.

Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO) said Wednesday that the “devaluation” of the country’s tourism brand, which had been established over the course of four decades, will have significant negative effect in the months and years ahead.

Travellers are already painting the Maldives as unwelcoming and inhospitable, it added.

“It is important that we prepare ourselves to open our borders and have a practical approach to re-entering the global tourism market, rather than creating an approach that actively hinders an already ailing tourism industry,” a statement read.

“We believe that we should not depart from our 40 year history of welcoming travellers to the Maldives and we believe that a balance needs to be found to ensure that the largest revenue generating sector of the Maldives, the tourism industry, is not further hindered during our recovery process.”

MATATO also denied comments made by officials and media reports that the draft guidelines were prepared with the feedback and input of industry stakeholders.

Despite being a major tourism representative body, MATATO was not discussed during the drafting stage and only received the draft two days ago — when the tourism ministry published the guidelines for feedback, it said.

“Given the severity of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is imperative that all stakeholders are consulted and allowed the opportunity to give diligent feedback, in order to effectively recover from this global crisis,” the statement read.

“We appreciate the initiative now taken by the government to engage in meaningful dialogue with all stakeholders of the tourism industry in order to review the drafted SOP guideline, to facilitate the border’s reopening and the national recovery process.”

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih announced Wednesday that the Maldives will reopen its borders and restart its worst-hit tourism industry in July.

The president’s announcement came 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 (at a cost of $100 per test) 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 impractical, only resorts and liveaboard vessels that have a so-called “safe tourism licence” will be permitted to open at first.

Tourist establishments will have to pay a $50,000 fee and meet certain conditions to get the licence.

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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