Maldives travel agents seek waiver on airport charges, pension contributions

A representative body has asked authorities to waive several fees charged from local travel agents and tour operators amid the economic downturn caused by the global coronavirus pandemic.

Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO) said Sunday that it had asked the Pension Administration Office to waive off pension contributions payable by tourism service providers for six months.

“As for small businesses to retain employment is critical currently and having to pay pension becomes a huge burden to both employee and employer, as everyone is on tight cashflows and liquidity,” a statement read.

“Unfortunately, these funds will are untouchable or inaccessible for employees even in a time like this, thus having liquidity is vital for them.”

MATATO separately asked the Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL) to waive all charges and fees on counters and services provided by the main Velana International Airport for six months.

The association said the measures would “support the long-term sustenance of the industry” and ensure a future revenue stream for the state as well as the state-owned airport operator.

“As the travel market is led by the tourists and such an unprecedented level of drop in arrivals and cancellation of future bookings is creating unimaginable losses to the Maldives economy and many of our members are on the verge of bankruptcy without the appropriate support from various authorities,” the statement read.

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 2,013.

Eight deaths have been reported and 1,217 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 second phase kicking in from Monday and lasting at least until June end.

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