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Maldives ready to reignite tourism, Minister assures

Rae Munavvar
25 June 2020, MVT 20:26
An aerial view of a winding stretch of beach, pearly white-sand pathway leading into the gradient of blues - and image that is deeply associated with Maldives. PHOTO: VISIT MALDIVES
Rae Munavvar
25 June 2020, MVT 20:26

Minister of Tourism Ali Waheed, on Wednesday, confirmed that safety measures for restarting tourism, currently in-stasis due to the global pandemic, would carry on with the same vigour seen across Maldives’ COVID-19 response.

Speaking at the regularly-held press briefing hosted by National Emergency Operations Centre, Minister Waheed said that if Maldives doubles its collective effort to ensure health safety, the probability that borders would have to be closed again was “much lower”.

The Solih-administration, he assured, would remain vigilant in detecting and containing the virus.

The minister stressed on the government’s “confidence” that citizens would abide by the measures set in place by the Health Protection Agency, adding that the response would continue until a cure or vaccine for the novel coronavirus was discovered and made readily available.

He also noted that the government would not hesitate to enforce travel restrictions, should Maldives face a ‘second wave’ of infections.

Setting a new course for Maldives’ billion-dollar industry

Resorts across the archipelago are presently scheduled to reopen their luxurious doors on July 15, while guesthouses will begin welcoming guests in August. On the day itself, three commercial flights are confirmed to arrive at Velana International Airport (VIA).

Waheed affirmed that while 11 airlines have already approached VIA to resume operations, over 41 resorts are reportedly ready to pamper holidaymakers as well. As a further 30 resorts have also made similar remarks, the minister estimated by mid-July, half of Maldives’ thriving, 145-property-strong resort industry, would be back up and running.

Similarly, Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL) formerly revealed that 10 airlines had already filed to land flights at VIA. 

“It is possible now that we have announced dates, that resorts previously planning to remain closed, may reconsider and move up their opening dates”, suggested Waheed.

Minister of Tourism Ali Waheed speaks at the media briefing held at the National Emergency Operations Center on June 24. PHOTO: NEOC

Waheed attributed Maldives having reached this point to numerous efforts made by various government entities, which he said, provided the necessary “breathing room” to proceed with economic repairs.

Making a reference to the “floating hospital” that the tourism minister had previously said the government would acquire, Waheed said that by establishing a medical facility in Hulhumale', the incumbent had demonstrated a vision for more long term solutions.

“If the government rents a floating facility, we would have to return it. Therefore the truth I would say is, instead of making rash decisions, we have settled on a more enduring outlook.”

“The ability to re-open our borders comes from having that [vision]”.

A time for 'Healing Paradise'

When the virus was first discovered to be spreading world-wide to tragic consequences, like many other countries, on March 27 Maldives too closed its air and sea borders to tourist arrivals, having already restricted inter-island and inter-atoll movement.

Just a few months earlier, government projections for tourism were overwhelmingly positive, hoping to reach the two million mark in 2020 and topple 2019’s record of 1.7 million tourist arrivals.

The travel restrictions, implemented as part of Maldives' response to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, have left the country vulnerable to severe economic impacts.

Mid-April, World Bank projected that Maldives would be the worst-hit economy in the South Asian region due to the pandemic.

In recent months, protests over employer decisions made during the economic regression caused after tourism subsided, have increased. Many have filed for compensation and financial support at the relevant authorities, and continue to raise voices.

A resort worker blowing a conch shell. PHOTO: HAWWA AMAANY ABDULLA/ THE EDITION

Heavily reliant on tourism for revenue, with the industry temporarily grounded to a halt, Maldives calculates a shortfall of approximately USD 450 million (MVR 6.9 billion) in foreign currency, while this year's projected state deficit is estimated at MVR 13 billion.

Nevertheless, a number of travel operators have come forward with more optimistic forecasts, asserting that they have already received a significant amount of bookings for the upcoming travel season.

Minister Waheed also claimed that, due to an overwhelming influx of visitors, the Tourism Ministry’s website crashed twice, after President Ibrahim Mohamed first announced border opening dates this Tuesday.

Wanderlust in the 'new normal'

Other island states, with tourism-centric economic portfolios, have elected to re-ignite their travel industry as well. Fiji has proposed a "travel bubble" to welcome visitors from virus-free countries, however, the country has also become one of the few nations to eliminate the virus, after recording 18 confirmed cases and no deaths.

On June 22, another tourist hotspot Dubai announced it would allow tourists back in the Gulf city-state from July 7 after a closure of more than three months to contain the coronavirus, but the leniency comes with mandatory COVID-19 test results and travellers agree to assume the risk of being quarantined if tested and found positive.

Meanwhile, in China's capital Beijing, a drastic turn of events was observed on June 17, with a new coronavirus outbreak leading to a return on certain restrictions. Prior to the news, the majority of China's recent COVID-19 cases were nationals returning from abroad, and the government had all but declared victory against the disease.

China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday that the virus-type found in the Beijing outbreak was a "major epidemic strain" in Europe.

Fiji has expressed interest in joining a quarantine-free travel 'bubble' with Australia and New Zealand, which provide for many of the tropical island's tourists. PHOTO: AFP

Furthermore, in a move that many historians allege is a first in history, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, on June 22, announced its decision to restrict the Islamic pilgrimage 'Hajj' to those residing within the country, over the "lack of available vaccinations" as well as "a cure for those infected by COVID-19 around the world".

Mandatory for able-bodied and financially capable followers of Islam at least once in their lifetime, in 2019, Saudi Arabia reported roughly 2.5 million pilgrims taking part in the annual rites - a sharp contrast to what will be seen this year.

It has now been nearly four months since the World Health Organization. (WHO) classified the spread of COVID-19 as a global pandemic. To date, the new strain of novel coronavirus has infected over 9.4 million people and claimed over 481,622 lives around the world. However, out of those infected, more than 5 million people have recovered.

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