Reckless tourism could shatter fragile industry recovery

Published on : Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The pandemic hit global tourism more than any other industry. When lockdowns and restrictions started last March, tourist numbers plunged.

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, SonevaFushi 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.

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, SonevaFushi 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.

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