Soneva-funded lab at Maldives airport to offer coronavirus tests for tourists

A laboratory to test tourists for the novel coronavirus is being established at an international airport in an ultra-luxury tourism zone in the northern part of Maldives.

Mohamed Rizvi, Managing Director of Island Aviation Services Limited (IAS), told a parliamentary committee Wednesday that Soneva, which owns luxury resorts in the Maldives, is building a lab at the airport located on the island of Maafaru in Noonu atoll.

The Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) lab will be completed by June 25 and be ready for testing as soon it is certified by the health ministry and Health Protection Agency (HPA), he said.

“Soneva is funding and overseeing the entire process of establishing the lab. This will be an added selling point for tourists,” Rizwi said.

Soneva currently runs two resorts in the Maldives: Soneva Fushi in Baa atoll and Soneva Jani in Noonu atoll. The world-leading luxury resort operator also operates luxury yacht Soneva in Aqua in Maldives, and Soneva Kiri resort in Thailand.

Despite a lab being established at the Maafaru airport, tests will be voluntary.

Authorities in Maldives have rolled back harsh restrictions, including mandatory on-arrival coronavirus testing and 14-day quarantine for all visitors, as well as fees proposed for reopening the country’s borders.

Meanwhile, the airport operator is readying the Maafaru airport for international arrivals in July.

The Abdu Dhabi-funded international airport was specifically developed to cater to high net worth individuals who want to arrive there directly and travel to one of the ultra-luxury resorts in the atoll for their holiday.

But the airport lacked the required equipment, as well as customs and immigration capabilities to handle international arrivals.

Aviation authorities in Maldives are exploring the possibility of allowing private jets to directly land at airports other than the main airport, as the island nation anticipates luxury travellers to be the first to visit when it reopens its borders in July.

Velana International Airport is the main port of entry for private jets at the moment, but once cleared they can fly to other airports that can cater to private jets.

The government has not singled out the other airports being considered for private jet landing, but it is likely that the Maafaru airport will be permitted to cater to jets.

The Maldives is preparing to reopen its borders to visitors 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.

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.

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 2,120.

Eight deaths have been reported and 1,677 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 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 were also shut.

Restaurants and cafes in the capital were 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 was also ordered.

These measures allowed authorities to contain the outbreak.

More than half of the people who contracted the virus have recovered and daily recoveries have over taken the number of new infections detected per day.

The restrictions are now being eased in phases, with the second phase lasting at least until June end.

Photo: An Airbus A321 aircraft operated by flag carrier Maldivian, which is owned by Island Aviation Services Limited (IAS), is seen parked at Maafaru airport on June 16, 2020. PHOTO/ IAS

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