Opinion Editorial by Sonu Shivdasani, CEO and Co-Founder of Soneva luxury resort chain, on the effects of the pandemic on the Maldivian tourism industry
The pandemic hit global tourism more than any other industry. When lockdowns and restrictions started last March, tourist numbers fell off a cliff. They have barely improved since. Most people, along with most commercial aircraft, remain grounded. But in Maldives, it has been a different story.
Tourism here, particularly at the top end of the market, has taken off. Some luxury resorts, including our own, Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani, have achieved higher revenues each month since October, than we did during the same period in 2019. The one island, one resort concept, the fact travellers must arrive with a negative PCR test, and the Government's successful handling of the virus, has created a perception of safety, making Maldives an attractive destination during uncertain times. Meanwhile, competitor destinations such as Mauritius, Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka remain shuttered.
But the story isn’t a happy one all round. The mid and lower-priced resorts, and guesthouse tourism, have been severely affected. Since the start of the pandemic, many insurance companies won’t insure foreign travel, and large tour operators that normally fill mid-range resorts have stopped selling holidays. Although Emirates and Qatar flights arrive full at Velana airport, and there has never been better air connectivity with places such as Delhi and Mumbai, the arrival of charter flights with package holidaymakers have not recovered to pre-pandemic levels
To ensure a recovery that benefits everyone, the Maldives needs to demonstrate it is a low-risk destination so it is placed on the safe travel lists of more countries. To do this, we need to have fewer than 50 new cases per 100,000 people per week, for a sustained period to time.
Whilst the Government has performed well in bringing down the number of cases in Male', we now have a large number of cases in resorts, including community spread. To have fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 people per week, we cannot have more than 270 new virus cases in the country each week. During the last days in January, we saw over 100 new cases per day, well above the threshold that allowed the Maldives, a few months ago, to convince countries such as the U.K., India, and Dubai that we are a low-risk destination. If cases continue to increase rather than decrease, the number of countries whose safe list we are on will drop rather than rise.
On January 29, there were 931 active cases still in Male’, 130 in the atolls, but 430 cases in the resorts. On January 28, fifteen resorts were under monitoring. In six of these, all movements were frozen. Departures to home countries can only take place with a negative PCR test.
One of the resorts now under HPA monitoring has been using the laboratory at Maafaru, which was operated until recently by ADK. The resort in question requested 700 COVID tests since the laboratory opened in July, whereas, over the same period, Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani together requested 7,673 tests. The resort in question also had a lot more tourist arrivals than Soneva. In short, the resort didn’t do nearly enough testing, and is now suffering the consequence: a coronavirus outbreak.
In order to maintain COVID-free resorts, it is crucial to test everyone that arrives on the island more than once. At Soneva, we test all our hosts (employees) twice, before they are allowed to circulate with other hosts and guests, even if they come from a COVID-free Maldivian island. Foreign hosts are tested three times. Our guests are tested on arrival and requested to isolate in their villas until we receive a negative result. They are tested again on day 6 of their stay.
Since the borders reopened, at each of our resorts, 10 to 15 of our hosts and guests have tested positive on arrival. As a result of our thorough testing regime, we caught the positive cases early, and prevented community spread. If we assume that in other resorts a similar proportion of guests came onto island COVID positive; then in many ways it is a miracle that we have not had more community spread in resorts.
It shouldn’t be too difficult to contain COVID in the Maldives. We are fortunate the country is made up of separate islands, which makes containing the virus easier. But we need to test, test, test. It is not sufficient to rely on tourists’ negative PCR result upon landing at the airport. People may still have the virus, even if a single PCR test gives a negative result.
The recent arrival of 100,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is good news and should substantially reduce new cases in Male’. This will then put an even greater spotlight on cases in the resorts.
I recently conversed with some world experts in virology, and asked them whether we would need to continue testing people who have received the vaccine; the reply was unanimous: we must.
The efficacy rate of the different vaccines ranges from 50 percent to 95 percent. Also, Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Sinovac, and Sputnik did not test “asymptomatic carriage”. In other words, they only tested whether those vaccinated would be protected from becoming infected. They did not test whether a vaccinated individual could still be an asymptomatic carrier of the virus and infect others.
The only company producing a vaccine that did test this was Oxford-AstraZeneca. Their results showed that there was a 60 percent reduction in “asymptomatic carriage”. Whilst transmission was reduced, those taking the AstraZeneca vaccine could still infect other people after they have been vaccinated. While the vaccine roll out in the Maldives will protect the local population from falling ill from COVID 19, we will need to continue to test tourists and resort staff alike until the pandemic is finally over.
I appreciate that some resorts may not want to test all their staff and guests because its expense, and they may worry it makes a holiday at the resort less attractive. Our experience at Soneva is that whilst testing is costly, it has not resulted in a loss of business; rather the opposite. We believe we have generated more business because our aggressive testing policy reassures clients that our resorts are safe.
I remain passionate about testing as a way to control the virus — which is why the Soneva Foundation, a UK registered charity, helped pay for the Maafaru lab. I am also thrilled that, since we opened the laboratory six months ago, our ability to find cost efficiencies has led to the cost of a test falling from USD 100, to USD 55 today. The laboratory is offering the cheapest commercial tests in the country.
The Government may need to nudge resorts into testing more - at least to test all of their employees and guests before they can move freely about the island. The Government could, for example, provide a star rating to each resort for COVID safety — those that test a lot, and take other precautions, would receive a higher star rating. This approach could be a strong incentive for resorts to test more, which would gradually eliminate community spread in resorts.
The last few months have been hopeful. For many, tourism has recovered, and some hotels like Soneva have achieved record-breaking service charges for their hosts (USD 2,600 per Soneva Host in December alone). Unfortunately, there are signs the recovery is stalling.
Whilst new demand and new inquiries remain strong, there are also cancellations as countries, such as the UK, go back into lockdown. Moreover, if the current rate of new cases continues in the Maldives, we may be removed from the safe travel lists of major markets. Ironically, as more Maldivians become vaccinated, it won’t be in Male’ or the local islands where the COVID cases remain, but in the resorts. Unless resorts are more cautious, and embrace the importance of testing, the Maldivian tourism recovery could be short-lived.