Maldives, India create South Asia’s first air bubble to boost tourism
Maldives and India have agreed to create a “travel bubble” to facilitate movement of people between the two countries.
The agreement was announced during a video conference between the Maldivian foreign minister Abdulla Shahid and his Indian counterpart Dr Jaishankar Thursday afternoon.
The two ministers hailed the travel bubble as the “first in South Asia”, with the Maldivian foreign minister thanking the Indian government for “including the Maldives among the first countries with which India has established an air bubble”.
Shahid also emphasised the “importance of easing travel, especially for Maldivians seeking to visit India for urgently required medical treatment, as well as Indian tourists wishing to visit the Maldives.”
Cause for concern
Also called travel corridors or air bridges, travel bubbles allow tourists to travel between two countries without the need to quarantine.
Air bridge agreements between countries, particularly those with low cases of coronavirus, 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.
India currently has allowed travel to the US, the UK, Germany, France and Kuwait, and is in talks with Canada for a similar travel arrangement.
But the air bridge arrangements with India will be a cause for concern, as the number of infections has been rising dramatically in India.
India is the world’s third-most hit nation by the novel coronavirus, with nearly 2.4 million cases and more than 47,000 deaths to date.
Key to restarting tourism
The Maldives reopened its borders on July 15.
With the border reopening, 30-day free on-arrival visa is issued to all tourists who has 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 is no mandatory quarantine or testing on arrival. Tourists have to complete a health declaration form only.
But visitors with symptoms of the Covid-19 respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus or those travelling with someone who has similar symptoms are tested at their own expense.
The Maldives is also in talks with China, the island nation’s biggest tourist source market, for similar air bridge arrangements.
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 soon, 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.
Meanwhile, the government’s best case scenario now puts total tourist arrivals for 2020 just above 800,000.
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 5,494.
Twenty-two deaths have been reported, while 2,920 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.