Travel Destinations

In the Maldives, tourism recovers as the wealthy take a break from the pandemic

The typical welcome at a luxury resort in the Maldives used to involve a battalion of beaming staff, fresh-from-the-palm-tree coconut water and a traditional boduberu drum performance. My recent arrival at Soneva Fushi was different: conveyed immediately from the jetty to my villa, I was met by an anonymous attendant dressed head to ankle in full PPE (this being the Maldives’ original “no news, no shoes” hideaway, he remained barefoot). He administered a PCR test, then left me to remain in place until my results were provided the following morning.

Should guests test positive, they are obliged to quarantine in their villas (though, to soften the blow slightly, the resort will refund the price of the stay in the form of a voucher). If negative results are confirmed, the doors are opened to a much-missed “old normal”. During my stay, I was free to fumble with ladles at the breakfast buffet; hugs and handshakes were permitted; in the gym, visitors panted unabashedly on the treadmills.

Guests can roam the private island as they wish. While I occasionally spotted hand sanitiser pumps, another current global ubiquity was conspicuous through its absence and had led a few staff and guests to modify Soneva’s longstanding mantra to “no news, no shoes — and no mask”.

Soneva’s in-room testing procedure is an extra layer of security — at the airport, all tourists arriving in the Maldives must show proof of a negative PCR test taken within the 96 hours before they boarded their flight. Those controls, the inherently isolated nature of the country’s island resorts, and the promise of an uncomplicated tropical escape, seem to be driving a dramatic recovery that is in stark contrast to most of the global travel industry.

Covid in-room testing at Soneva Fushi © John O’Ceallaigh

In 2020, Soneva Fushi and its sister resort, Soneva Jani, enjoyed their most successful November ever — with room occupancy up 16 per cent on November 2019 and revenue up 45 per cent. In December, occupancy was up 14 per cent compared to the previous year and revenue was up 50 per cent, presumably the result of guests booking more expensive room types and spending more on food and drinks during their stay. Room rates for this month start at $2,270 per night at Soneva Fushi; $3,690 at Soneva Jani. Speaking to me in late January, Soneva co-founder Sonu Shivdasani said that month’s performance had been “stellar”. “In some ways,” he said, “we’ve become a beneficiary of Covid.”

The country’s largest industry, tourism directly and indirectly accounts for two-thirds of the Maldives’ GDP, according to the World Bank, so the decision to shut down borders on March 27 was seismic. It was a key factor in GDP declining by 51.6 per cent in the second quarter of 2020, compared to the same period the previous year.


220%


Increase in visitors from Kazakhstan in December

However, ahead of many rival destinations, those borders were reopened on July 15. All arrivals must have the negative Covid test, a confirmed accommodation reservation and a health declaration form filed online in advance. But while aspiring visitors are of course subject to the travel restrictions imposed by their home nations (those in the UK, for example, are not currently allowed to go on holiday), the Maldives makes no distinctions based on their origin — even those from countries with the worst infection rates are allowed to enter.

And, whereas many nations have banned tourism and restricted travel to those on essential business, the Maldives has taken the opposite approach. As of January 29, all international arrivals must quarantine for 10 days — except for tourists, who remain exempt.

Bar chart of Arriving tourists in December ('000) showing Numbers of Maldives tourists from some countries saw big rises

The policy contrasts markedly with the more cautious strategies of other tourism hotspots. Mauritius, for example, is open to tourists but they must book their holidays through the Mauritian Tourism Promotion Agency website, must stay inside their rooms for the first 14 days and take Covid tests on days one, seven and 14 of their trip. Visitors coming from the UK, South Africa, Japan and Brazil are currently banned.

In the Maldives, some tourists are falling ill but the protocols seem to have avoided mass outbreaks like those experienced on cruise ships. At the end of January, across all the islands, there were 54 foreigners isolating. Since the start of the pandemic, the Maldives has had 16,909 cases of coronavirus and a total of 55 deaths.

The lush tropical grounds of Soneva Fushi

With about 25 of the Maldives’ 166 resorts still closed, overall national visitor numbers are still down on pre-pandemic levels but they rose steeply in the second half of the year. In August, there were 7,636 arrivals, down 94.5 per cent from the previous year; in December there were 96,412 visitors, down 43.7 per cent.

Chart showing Maldives tourism: before and after lockdown. Chart one shows tourist arrivals (% change vs same month in previous year), Jan 2019 to Sep 2020. Chart two shows resort/marina bed occupancy rate* (%), June to December 2020

Drill into those arrivals and there are some surprising details. The number of visitors from the UK was actually up 20 per cent in December, compared to the previous year. Visitors from Russia were up 73 per cent in December, and became the second most important market for the whole of 2020, up from sixth in 2019. Even that doesn’t match the surge in visitors from Kazakhstan and Ukraine — up 220 per cent and 99 per cent in December respectively.

Shubham Moondhara, head of corporate strategy and business development for Trans Maldivian Airways, the world’s largest seaplane operator, has seen the recovery firsthand. The company’s 56 aircraft serve more than 80 Maldives resorts; in December they operated about 200 flights per day and transferred an average of 2,500 passengers, down from about 2,800 per day before the pandemic.

A view of the pool from one of the villas at Soneva Fushi © Richard Waite Photography

Their journey is slightly different now, with fewer touch points at check-in and every customer provided with a “travel hygiene kit” prior to boarding, but the atoll views are as impressive as ever and Moondhara expects the recovery to accelerate. “As the vaccines are rolled out, we are hopeful that the second half of 2021 will be great,” he says.

Many of the country’s most prestigious resorts have been relieved to see customer numbers bounce back too. After leaving Soneva Fushi I travelled on to COMO Cocoa Island, a 40-minute speedboat ride from the international airport. A third of the island is occupied by COMO Shambala Retreat, a spread of spa and wellness facilities, and overwater villa prices start at $1,854 per night. In December, the average occupancy rate was 87 per cent. At the St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort, where rates start at $2,500 per night, average occupancy levels in December were 77 per cent (up 2 per cent on 2019), while food and beverage revenue was up 21 per cent year on year.

Beach dining island-style at Soneva Fushi

Back at Soneva Fushi, British guest Karl French has been relishing the chance to enjoy a tropical retreat away from the pandemic. After being diagnosed as diabetic and spending a week in intensive care last year, he booked a holiday to the Maldives so he could “relax without concern” and enjoy the “healthy living and safety” of the resort. The holiday began on October 24 and was due to last three weeks but French has yet to leave. “The plan is to stay until the end of April,” he says. “Why wouldn’t we?”

He isn’t alone in extending his stay. When the Maldives’ borders first closed to incoming tourists in March, about 70 guests at Soneva Fushi decided to extend their stays rather than return to a world in chaos, and the resort remained busy until the end of May. And with so few travel destinations fully accessible, some clients have been making repeat visits since then. Of the $15m in revenue generated by Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani in December, about $3.5m came from people on their second visit since July.

In March, 70 guests chose to extend their stay at Soneva Fushi

Projections for the coming months are healthy, says Shivdasani. While other countries struggle to devise safe means of reintroducing tourism, Maldives resorts’ remoteness, privacy and open borders have drawn travellers who may never have considered visiting the destination before.

“We’re literally 1,200 isolation centres,” says Shivdasani. “The spread of Covid isn’t there and everyone is being tested on arrival. I think that was a stroke of genius as it’s given many global governments a sense of security and comfort so we’re on safe travel lists. There are so many competing destinations that people can’t go to because those countries have locked their borders . . . It’s like a funnel and we’re very lucky that we’re at the end of that funnel.”

Details

John O’Ceallaigh was a guest of Soneva Fushi, COMO Cocoa Island and the St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort. For the latest updates on visiting the country see visitmaldives.com; daily updates on coronavirus in the Maldives are at covid19.health.gov.mv

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