In line with many destinations around the world, the Maldives has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Quick action by the government limited the death toll to just eight, but was unable to prevent the complete shutdown of the hospitality sector while the country worked to contain the outbreak.
But, with new Covid-19 cases having fallen to a manageable level, the country is preparing to reopen its borders to international travellers on July 15th.
As Thoyyib Mohamed, managing director of the Maldives Marketing & PR Corporation, explains, this will be a gradual process as the tourism sector comes to terms with the post-Covid-19 world.
“We have remained vigilant in our efforts to combat the pandemic from the beginning,” he tells Breaking Travel News editor Chris O’Toole.
“The Maldives declared a state of public emergency in March, implementing strict border controls.
“We introduced screening on arrival, and quarantine measures, while we suspended the visa on arrival process for some markets.
“We began asking for 14-day travel histories from visitors from certain countries.
“These measures helped in delaying the community spread of Covid-19 in the Maldives, then lockdown was imposed in the capital, Malé, on April 15th after the first confirmed social transmission case.
“We have since seen a decline in the number of daily cases being recorded, reaching a manageable rate, with the government easing lockdown measures on June 15th.
“As we prepare to open, we will implement the measures advised by the World Health Organisation and our local agencies, to prevent the further spread of the pandemic.”
While authorities having worked to minimise the impact on visitors, a range of new protocols will be in place to protect them, and Maldivian citizens, from any renewed upsurge in cases.
Mohamed explains: “The main difference guests can expect to see is the precautions we have taken to limit the further spread of the disease.
“This will begin at the airport, where we are asking visitors to wear masks, while we will be carrying out thermal screening and random testing.
“All arrivals will be screened, and anybody exhibiting symptoms will be asked to undergo a test - if that person is travelling in a group, all members of that group will also be tested.
“Anybody testing positive will be isolated at a resort, or a government facility, decided in partnership with the hotel.
“Tourism properties will also be expected to follow the World Health Organisation guidelines in order to provide a secure environment for visitors.
“We have published the official guidelines to travellers – which say all arrivals must have a confirmed accommodation in order to be eligible for a free on-arrival visa.”
The process will be slow, however, with only resorts on isolated islands, and liveaboards, allowed on reopen in mid-July.
Hotels on shared islands, and properties yet to meet new hygiene protocols, will not be allowed to open until August at the earliest.
“We are lucky, we are naturally socially distanced here in the Maldives – we have thousands of islands scattered across the Indian Ocean,” jokes Mohamed.
“When there is something happening in Malé, the resorts are totally insulated - our guidelines also prohibit movement between islands, currently.”
He continues: “Another layer of security is provided by new brand standards being rolled out by our hotel partners.
“People will want to know if a hotel will be crowded, will it be hygienic, and the larger hotel companies have been quick to get this information out to their guests.
“Others have delayed their reopening as they prepare, with some to open in August, some in September and later in the year.
“We hope to have 27 resorts open in July.”
On the demand side, Maldivian authorities have been working behind the scenes to ensure guests are able to travel and that they are safe if they decide to do so.
“No matter how much people want to visit, the means of transport plays a role,” continues Mohamed.
“At the moment, the tourism ministry is expecting 11 airlines to return when we reopen our borders in July – including Emirates, Qatar Airways and SriLankan Airlines.
“It is happening, but we were a little late with giving a date to allow airlines to plan.”
He adds: “But, you have to ask, who is willing to travel to the Maldives, and then spend 14-days isolated at home when they get back.
“For example, a Chinese guest will spend four to five nights in the Maldives on average, but will then be expected to isolate for two weeks when they return to their home – that does not work very well.
“These kind of things, which are beyond our control, come into play – bilateral relations be important here.
“Britain is one of the most important markets, and if the German authorities can give the go-ahead for travel, I am sure the European Union and others will follow.
“In the coming few weeks, I expect the UK to allow people to travel.”
As the process begins, Mohamed warns of a long road ahead, but argues the destination has overcome similar challenges in the past.
“This remains a difficult period, but travellers have been dreaming in lockdown – and many want to come to the Maldives.
“With the reopening, we are looking to welcome 850,000 guests this year, while we are hoping for an increase in demand toward the end of the year.
“The numbers may change, depending on travel restrictions from our source markets.
“Germany, for example, China and the United Arab Emirates have been very positive with reopening their markets, but work remains to be done.”
With the Maldives having welcomed 1.7 million guests last year, the lower figure – if achieved – still represents quite a sharp decline in 2020.
It may take years to get back to arrival levels seen in 2019.
Mohamed concludes: “Getting ‘back to normal’ will take some time – this is not a Maldives crisis, it is a global crisis, and everybody is in deep trouble – we can say that now.
“This will play a big role, making it less easy to come back.
“But in the last three crises – 9/11, the great recession and the 2004 tsunami – the records show we bounced back within two years.
“Based on this, we are very hopeful – the industry is looking forward to a situation when we can open up, welcome tourists back and get the financial situation back on track.
“We, the government, are the facilitators – but together with our partners we will come through this difficult time.
“People are dreaming, and we will be here when they are ready.”