Maldives resumes domestic air travel

Domestic air travel in Maldives resumed Wednesday, as the island nation reopens its economy, which had been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Flag carrier Maldivian said it had begun operating flights on all domestic routes, including a daily service to a brand new airport on the island of Maavarulu in Gaaf Dhaal atoll.

Travellers are asked to follow health safety guidance issued by the national Health Protection Agency (HPA) and island councils.

Passengers travelling to the islands from capital Male will also have to isolate themselves at home for at least 14 days.

Maldivian currently operates a fleet of two Dash 8-200 series aircraft, eight Dash 8-300 series aircraft, an Airbus 320, an Airbus 321 aircraft, and 11 DHC-6 Twin Otter seaplanes. The Dash 8 series aircraft are primarily used for domestic operations, whilst the two Airbus aircraft serve the airline’s international routes.

The state-owned airline operates flights to all the 14 domestic airports across the Maldives, and runs international operations to South Asian neighbours like India and Bangladesh, and far Eastern countries such as Thailand and China.

However, travel restrictions imposed by the Maldives and other countries to contain the Covid-19 pandemic forced all local airlines, including Maldivian, Manta Air and Villa Air Flyme, to suspend all of its operations and ground its fleet in late March.

The flag carrier operated cargo freighters and repatriation flights.

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 2,361.

Nine deaths have been reported and 1,944 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 third phase kicking in from Wednesday.

The Maldives is also preparing to reopen its borders on July 15.

With the borders reopening on July 15, resorts and hotels on uninhabited islands as well as liveaboard vessels can begin hosting tourists right away.

Guesthouses and hotels located on inhabited islands will be allowed to reopen on August 1. Passengers on cruise ships and yachts will be barred from disembarking at inhabited islands until then.

Thirty-day free on-arrival visa will be issued to all tourists with a confirmed booking for a stay at any registered tourist facility in the country. The entire holiday has to be booked at a single facility except for transit arrangements.

There will be no mandatory quarantine or testing on arrival. Tourists will only have to complete a health declaration form.

But visitors with symptoms of the Covid-19 respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus or those travelling with someone who has similar symptoms will be tested at their expense.

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, only 382,760 tourists visited the Maldives before the country closed its borders on March 27. It was a 40.8 per cent decline over the 646,092 that visited the Maldives from January to March last year.

With arrival numbers falling, several resorts across the Maldives suspended operations.

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.

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