Launching a reopening campaign is exciting and positive, but the ability to visit is still the great question that the paradise must sort out — with only weeks to go.
The Maldives’ “See You in July” social media marketing campaign may be a little premature. Just two weeks to go before reopening international borders, tour operators are still in the dark about key matters such as flight schedules and reciprocal travel corridors, while government regulations on safety protocols have not yet been finalized.
On the other hand, the reopening rah-rah has built up great excitement and interest from tourists to visit the Maldives, which has flaunted a dream welcome back: no mandatory quarantine, no Covid-19 immunity certificate needed, no Covid tests before or on arrival, no new visa rules, and no additional fees imposed.
A previous draft was for a special visa costing $100 for tourists staying a minimum of 14 nights, a compulsory Covid-19 test upon arrival costing $100 per test, and an immunity health certificate.
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Industry players contacted by Skift said recovery is driven not just by a destination’s travel policies but those imposed by tourists’ governments. So even if the Maldives does not quarantine tourists, their own countries will upon their returns.
“The key for the destination to boom again for us will be reliant on the airlines ensuring flight routes are announced across all major hubs and that source market return quarantine regulations are eased,” said Cameron Holland, CEO of Luxury Escapes, an Australian-based online company that curates travel deals for 3.2 million well-heeled members.
As well, many source markets including the UK, Maldives’ fourth largest, still allow only essential travel, said David Kevan, director, Chic Locations, a UK-based luxury tour operator that specializes in Asia. Bilateral corridors or bubbles may be a solution but again, there are no details of who Maldives is discussing them with, if at all.
All 10 of Maldives top source markets in 2019, namely China, India, Germany, UK, Italy, Russia, France, US, Japan and Australia in that order, currently have a 14-day quarantine for all travelers, according to a chart shown by Ghaly Murthala, founder and managing director Morteza Capital, during a webinar organized by Delivering Asia.
At press time, the tourism ministry did not reply to queries from Skift regarding airlinks, airports or air bridges with source countries. Resort owners like Hussain Hilmy, director of Coco Collection Resorts, Hotels, Retreats and Sunland Hotels, said the government is expected to announce dates and final guidelines this week. “I believe it may be possible that we will open by mid to late July,” said Hilmy.
A check with Skyscanner shows only a handful of flight options from London to Male on July 1 from a few airlines including Air France, Qatar, Etihad and British Airways. Capacity looks better from Singapore to Male on July 1, with 230 options from the likes of AirAsia and Indigo, but flight times are from 16 to over 20 hours with multiple self transfers.
To be sure, the Maldives is anxious to get it right and by all accounts the government and the private sector have been in a series of dialogues to reopen international tourism safely, which is commendable. The stakes are especially high for Maldives as no other country in the world relies more on tourism, which is 40 percent of its GDP.
But the Maldives could perhaps take a leaf from Sri Lanka, which is reopening on August 1 and has all the FAQs checked by now.
The tourism ministry sent an urgent circular to all resorts on May 31 informing them the international border, closed since March 27, is to be opened in July. Resorts, most of which have closed, were asked to inform the ministry of the dates they are planning to reopen.
But hotels can’t pinpoint opening dates unless they are certain if clients have the ability to visit.
Nevertheless, resorts like Coco Collection are doing preparations so that “we are ready to welcome guests as and when the government opens our borders,” said Hilmy. This includes introducing measures such as physical distancing, providing masks to guests and employees, increased frequency of cleaning and disinfecting, and training employees to comply with new operational procedures and protocols, he said.
S Hotels & Resorts, which owns Crossroads, an integrated offering of affordable luxury accommodation, dining, retail and wellness on multi islands, is preparing for “a staggered opening” in July, said CEO Dirk De Cuyper, beginning with its two resorts, SAii Lagoon Maldives and Hard Rock Hotel Maldives, the Marine Discovery Center, Yacht Marina and selected dining outlets.
A string of 1,196 idyllic islands scattered across the ocean, Maldives checks all the boxes for an ideal post-pandemic getaway with hard-to-beat exclusivity, privacy, space and the outdoors.
The country has the pandemic crisis under control, with 2,200 plus cases and a low mortality rate of 0.39 percent.
“The Maldivian government has done a splendid job in handling the crisis, especially in bringing the situation in Male [the capital] under control. This was the country’s biggest worry and the success has allowed the destination to make plans to open in July,” noted Stephan Roemer, founder of Swiss tour operator, TourAsia.
Prices are also expected to be lower or to pack in more free perks.
“If the reopening is handled well, combined with never-before deals as a result of the climate, we’re expecting a swift recovery in major source markets with already promising signs of search queries in the luxury segment in the dreaming phase,” said Trent Ellen, Luxury Escapes Maldives partnerships manager.
But Ellen is in two minds about the wisdom of the Maldives reopening without any restrictions or testing. “There may be some reluctance for travelers to head there until there’s some indication of how well the country is handling the virus once travelers return. However, the types of accommodation and activities offered in the Maldives compared with more densely-populated island destinations like Indonesia will allay some of these fears, particularly for those who can stay in their own villa or private island,” said Ellen.
Chic Locations UK already has in place “numerous extra value offers” for several resorts in the Maldives, running from September, said Kevan. There is so much pent-up desire to travel in the UK market but also a lot of uncertainties, he warned. For example, even if hurdles such as quarantines and travel restrictions are lifted, clients still have lots of questions such as, will all or most of resort facilities be operational or will they need to wear a mask in the resort.
Given the lack of clarity and official information as of now, clients are also unwilling risk booking, with probable financing implications such as no guarantee airlines will refund if they cancel. “This is particularly relevant to those looking to travel in the next six months rather than 2021,” said Kevan.
The sun will shine again, says Maldives’ reopening video, See You in July. For that to happen, much now depends on the government’s swift action to finalize arrangements and communicate the details clearly, in order for resorts to fish for what little summer and autumn business there may be.
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Photo credit: Naturally distanced Maldives, as shown by this three-bedroom suite at Soneva Fushi. Julia Neeson / Photo Credit: Soneva