Maldives, India explore ‘air bridge’ to kick-start tourism: report
Officials from the Maldives and India are exploring a possible ‘air bridge’ or ‘travel corridor’ between the two South Asian neighbours soon after the island nation reopens its borders Wednesday, India media has reported.
The New Indian Express quoted unnamed Indian government officials as saying that the Maldives government has made a formal request to establish an air bridge between the two countries.
Establishing the travel corridor will send out a strong signal of solidarity with the pro-Indian government in Maldives, the officials in New Delhi told the newspaper.
According to the newspaper, the arrangement will enable a limited number of flights to operate from select Indian airports to the Maldives even before Indian airports open to regular international flights.
The corridor will also facilitate the return of some 6,000 Indians employed in the Maldives who were evacuated by the Indian Navy in May, the newspaper said.
Cause for concern
Also called travel corridors or ‘travel bubbles’, air bridges will allow tourists to travel between two countries without the need to quarantine.
Air bridge agreements between countries, particularly those with low cases of coronavirus, will allow two-way travel without restrictions.
India was the fastest growing source market for Maldives tourism in 2019, as arrivals recorded year-over-year growth of 83.5 per cent to reach 166,015 from 90,474 in 2018.
But air bridge arrangements with India will be a cause for concern, as the number of infections has been rising dramatically in India.
India, which has the most confirmed virus cases after the United States and Brazil, on Monday reported a record daily surge of 28,701 new cases. Authorities in several cities are reinstating strict lockdowns after attempting to loosen things up to revive an ailing economy.
Key to restarting tourism
The Maldives will reopen its borders on Wednesday.
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.
Ahead of the reopening, the Maldives has worked out air bridge arrangements with China, the island nation’s biggest tourist source market.
The fast lane arrangement will enable Chinese travellers to fly back home from the Maldives without having to serve quarantine periods of up to 14 days after their return.
Instead, they must take a Covid-19 swab test 48 hours before departure from the Maldives and after they land in China.
Maldives could also be included on the UK’s ‘air bridge’ countries list, allowing the tropical destination hugely popular with British holidaymakers to welcome UK tourists without the need to self-isolate on return.
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 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 2,762.
Thirteen deaths have been reported and 2,290 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.