Maldives suggests Commonwealth ‘travel bubble’ as way to restart tourism

Tourism officials from the Maldives on Wednesday suggested opening up tourism within the Commonwealth group of nations as a first step in post-pandemic travel.

The island nation’s tourism minister told the participants of a virtual seminar organised by the Commonwealth that countries in the 54-member voluntary organisation of former British colonies should open up their borders to each other.

“We urge Commonwealth countries to open up borders without compromising safety. It’s time to build travellers confidence, towards an intra-Commonwealth travel and tourism,” Ali Waheed said.

“To beat Covid-19 we need to be innovative and pragmatic. We need to be more united. We should focus on common grounds to achieve the common targets to defeat the common invisible enemy.”

The idea of intra-Commonwealth travel is in line with actions taken by several European countries — measures that have become known as “travel corridors” or “travel bubbles.”

What is the so-called travel bubble?

With lockdowns around Europe slowly getting lifted, some countries are toying with the idea of establishing special “travel corridors” or “travel bubbles.” The idea is to allow people from countries with low levels of infection to travel freely, with no requirement to endure a 14-day quarantine at their destination.

The European nations of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia have already created what they are calling a “Baltic travel bubble,” allowing one another’s citizens to travel among the three states without having to self-isolate on arrival.

Experts agree that travel bubbles and corridors are a possible solution to saving this year’s tourism season, but say that there are issues to consider, such as maintaining the consistency of restrictions and regulations within a bubble.

Maldives readies for July reopening

During Wednesday’s virtual seminar with Commonwealth officials, minister Waheed said the Maldives cannot keep its borders closed for too long.

“For the first time in 47 years of tourism in the Maldives, we have experienced zero tourist arrivals since March this year, which is more devastating than the 2004 tsunami and the 2008 global financial crisis,” he said.

“… For a nation heavily dependant on tourism, we need your support in our road to recovery.”

Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has announced plans to reopen the country’s borders and restart its worst-hit tourism industry in July.

The country’s tourism ministry has drafted and invited comments from industry stakeholders on its own guidelines on reopening the borders.

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 1,457.

Five deaths have been reported and 242 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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