UN body suggests tax breaks, operational changes to soften blow on virus-hit Maldives tourism workers
Authorities in Maldives should provide tax incentives to tourism businesses and restructure the existing model of resort operations to minimise the impact on people employed in the island nation’s main economic sector, a UN body has said.
In an assessment of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the tourism industry, UNDP recommended the government to review tourism taxes, charges and fines.
The government should also defer payments, so that resorts can manage cash flow and retain employees until operations are back to normal, it said.
“The financial relief package should have specific mitigation packages to stimulate demand, to retain jobs, incentivise and protect the most vulnerable people and sustain the self-employed,” the report read.
“Tax incentives should prioritise those resorts that are achieving full retention of employees, those that will invest in skill development of Maldivians in the resort work force and those that invest in diversifying the workforce to include women’s participation.”
The government had already deferred lease rent payable by resorts for the rest of the year.
Reduce on-site living
Meanwhile, UNDP recommended the government to take steps to restructure the existing resort operation model in the ‘new normal’ and identify emerging employment opportunities within this alternative model.
The government was asked to reduce onsite employee living by establishing living and commuter facilities between resorts and neighbouring inhabited islands.
“Businesses and the government can jointly invest in developing selected islands in a given atoll with housing/accommodation, schooling, day care health and training facilities for resort employees and their families. This can unlock employment opportunities for those with barriers to on-site resort living such as women,” the report said.
“Investments in employee families can help to increase motivation, productivity and minimise employee turnover for resorts. This new model will be conducive to managing health and safety standards, social distancing and exclusivity of resorts for visitors.”
UNDP also suggested that the government look into ways to take operational aspects of resorts such as human resource management, procurement and purchasing, finance, administration and reservations online.
“By taking these departments online, resorts can minimise on-site employees, increase productivity and engage more diverse groups in employment including women and persons with disabilities that have barriers to living onsite,” the report said.
What has been done so far?
An MVR 2.5 billion stimulus plan, announced in March, includes MVR 1.55 billion ($100 million) in emergency loans for businesses to meet short-term working capital needs.
Under the government’s stimulus plan, emergency loans for businesses with an annual turnover of less than MVR 10 million ($649,000) and self-employed individuals are arranged through the SME Development Finance Corporation (SDFC), a state-owned financial institution exclusive for small and medium enterprises.
Emergency loans for resorts as well as local businesses with a turnover of over MVR 10 million are arranged through Bank of Maldives (BML).
Both SDFC and BML are accepting applications for the emergency finance.
The unsecured loans by BML and SDFC come with a six-month grace period and a repayment period of three years. Interest is charged at six per cent per annum, but no interest is charged during the grace period.
The government initially mandated all businesses that avail the emergency finance to retain their local workforce and pay salaries.
However, the government has since relaxed the eligibility criteria to give “a second chance” to businesses that failed to secure the finance in the first round of applications.
Under the relaxed rules, businesses that agree to rehire axed local employees and give a monthly salary of at least MVR 5,000 ($322) will qualify for the emergency loan scheme. Those that pledge to ensure employee pay will not fall below MVR 5,000 can also apply. =
In addition to the emergency finance, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is preparing to reopen its borders to visitors in July.
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 1,901.
Eight deaths have been reported and 763 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: Mihaaru News