Maldives on top of Gulf travellers’ mind for post-pandemic travel

Leading outbound travel agencies in Gulf countries say demand for outbound travel from the region will likely return from the third quarter of the year, with most travellers making long-haul international travel plans choosing the Maldives for a tropical getaway.

A survey conducted by AVIAREPS of 94 leading outbound travel agencies from Gulf countries shows that demand for outbound travel from the region is expected to return from August or September, with a majority of travel agencies to begin promoting their travel offerings from July through to September.

Most promotional offerings will take the form of full travel packages that include airfare, accommodation and tour components, with intra-Middle East packages to be most popular, followed by packages for travel to South East Asia, Indian Ocean destinations like the Maldives, and Europe.

The survey, first conducted in early May, is being conducted on a monthly basis in order to monitor travel agent sentiment as outbound travel agencies and destinations prepare for a recovery and return to business while grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on international travel.

Respondents include 24 agencies form Saudi Arabia, 21 from the United Arab Emirates, 21 from Bahrain, 11 from Qatar, 10 from Kuwait and seven from Oman.

Sixty per cent of the respondents expect a return to outbound travel from August and September, but 14 per cent do not see a return until 2021.

Following this, 65 per cent of travel agents will begin their outreach to clients with promotions from July through to September. Thirteen per cent say they will commence client engagement as early as June.

A return to international travel demand in the summer is conditional on flights becoming available and destinations opening up their borders to visitors.

Strong but cautious demand is expected not only from pent up demand following Covid-19 lockdowns, but also resulting from clients wishing to venture outside while escaping the heat of a Middle Eastern summer.

The propensity for travellers from the Gulf to book international travel with relatively short led-booking times also encourages travel agents to expect international travel demand to return quickly once it is safe to do so. Travel to visit family and friends overseas is also expected to be another incentive for many to venture overseas as soon as they can.

Almost all (97 per cent) of respondents mentioned that full serviced offerings that include flights, accommodation, land arrangements (including car hire) and tours, will be part of their promotional line up. Seventy-five per cent will provide offerings that combine flights and accommodation, and only 27 per cent will promote accommodation only deals.

When asked what percentage of total outbound demand agents believe will go to which region, Intra-Middle East travel ranked the highest at 17 per cent, followed by South East Asia at 14 per cent, the Indian Ocean destinations of Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles at 12 per cent, and Europe at 11 per cent.

Looking at individual destinations that Gulf agents will actively promote or expect demand for, the top 10 destinations in order of perceived popularity are:

  1. Maldives
  2. Azerbaijan
  3. Turkey
  4. Georgia
  5. Austria
  6. The UAE.
  7. Australia
  8. Germany
  9. Malaysia
  10. Sri Lanka.

Another interesting finding of the survey was that the level of pre-booked cancellations was relatively low for the remaining months of the year, suggesting that many in the Gulf who had pre-booked international travel prior to May were taking a ‘wait and see’ approach prior to cancelling.

“The world with regards to the possibilities of international travel is changing daily. Nevertheless, it is necessary to follow market sentiment during this period so that destinations, airlines, hotels, tour operators and equally importantly our outbound travel agent partners throughout the region can plan and strategise for the speediest of recoveries,” Glenn Johnston, Vice President Middle East and Global Public Affairs at AVIAREPS, was quoted in a statement, as saying.

“Encouragingly, despite the current difficulties and disruptions to life and business as we knew it, the survey results do reflect the Middle East’s penchant for an overall view of optimism and action, which I think all of us can take solace in and strength from as we all plan for recovery in the months ahead.”

The Maldives is preparing to reopen its borders to visitors 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.

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.

Cruise ships and foreign yachts were also banned from docking at any of the country’s ports.

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.

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 1,962.

Eight deaths have been reported and 1,125 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.

The restrictions in the capital region are now being eased in phases, with the first phase lasting at least until mid June. Most restrictions remain in place for the time.

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