Maldives relaxes entry rules, cuts fees for tourist yachts

Customs authorities in Maldives have relaxed entry rules and cut clearance fees for yachts in a bid to boost tourism in the northernmost region of the country.

Under a series of amendments made to the customs regulations last week, both inward and outward clearance fee for tourist vessels measuring less than 15 metres have been reduced to MVR 250 ($16.19) from MVR 1,000 ($64.75).

Such small tourist vessels that fail to submit their estimated time of arrival to the Maldivian authorities 12 hours before entering the archipelago’s territorial waters will now be given the chance to explain their case and apply for clearance once in the country.

Tourist vessels will also have 72 hours from the time of inward clearance approval to appoint a local agent.

Failure to do so will come with a fine of MVR 5,000 ($323) on the owner or vessel master. Outward clearance will only be given after the fine is paid.

But those that transit in Maldives to get supplies such as food and water need not find a local agent if their stay does not exceed seven days.

The amendments follow consultations between the customs and Maldives Integrated Tourism Development Corporation (MITDC), a state-owned company responsible for local tourism development, over a decline in the number of tourist vessels that anchor in the northernmost region.

Uligan in the northernmost Haa Alif atoll was a major hub for sailing yachts, but the island had seen fewer vessels since 2010 when authorities revised the inward and outward clearance fees.

The revisions also come amid preparations by authorities to ease travel restrictions stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

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 the worst case, borders may only open by January 2021.

In a televised address Wednesday evening, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih announced plans to reopen the country’s borders and restart its worst-hit tourism industry in July.

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 1,371.

Four deaths have been reported and 144 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.

Photo: Yachts docked at Uligan in Haa Alif atoll.

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