Though border restrictions and quarantine measures are keeping people from visiting many of the world’s most popular travel destinations at the moment, one country famed for its natural beauty is now welcoming all guests – the Maldives.
As of July 15, this island nation in the Indian Ocean is reopen to international tourism and, perhaps remarkably, very few strings are attached.
Global travelers – US citizens included – will not have to enter into a mandatory quarantine upon arrival at Velana International Airport in the capital, Male. Nor will they need to produce proof they have tested negative for coronavirus.
There are also no new visa requirements or additional fees to pay.
In the beginning, international visitors will only be allowed on the resort islands and they need to book their entire stay in one registered establishment.
Exemptions will only be made for transit arrangements, according to the Maldives government’s guidelines.
In terms of Covid-19 prevention, tourism officials are banking on the fact each resort essentially offers its own form of quarantine already – albeit a pretty enjoyable one.
The Maldives is made up of 26 atolls filled with over 1,000 islands occupied by dozens of resorts, all spread out over 90,000 square kilometers.
Most of the islands in the Maldives developed for tourism feature just a single resort. Should guests or staff come into contact with someone who tests positive for Covid-19, in theory they will be easily traceable, while the potential for spread is kept to a minimum.
But as enticing as it sounds to hop on a plane for the Maldives right now, travelers may have to contend with their own country’s quarantine measures upon their return – and that might deter them from visiting.
“What is important to take into consideration is that it depends not only on the Maldives, but also on lifting of travel restrictions in different countries. It is not just desire but ability,” says Sonu Shivdasani, CEO and founder of Soneva, which has two Maldives resorts – Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani.
That said, guests are already demonstrating a willingness to return, he tells CNN Travel.
“We have more on the books at Soneva Fushi for August than we had at the same time last year. As the borders open, and our main markets are allowed to travel to us, it could be our best August ever.”
In spite of the global aviation downturn, it is possible to fly to the Maldives commercially right now, with several major airlines connecting through the Middle East.
These include Emirates Airlines, which offers connections through Dubai from major global cities like London, Chicago, Toronto and Sydney.
Qatar Airways resumed flights to the Maldives on July 15 out of Doha, offering connections through major hubs including London, Paris, Frankfurt, Sydney, New York and Los Angeles.
Fellow UAE carrier Etihad will resume flights from Abu Dhbai to the Maldives from July 16. Turkish Airlines is tentatively starting flights from July 17.
Bear in mind, just because the Maldives isn’t requiring visitors to submit proof they’re Covid-19-free, some airlines are, so be sure to check ahead of time.
Upon arrival, passengers are asked to fill in health declaration cards and a 30-day tourist visa will be provided. Travelers showing symptoms of Covid-19 will be subjected to a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test at their own cost and sent to a designated facility for isolation.
Of the 156 resorts on Maldives Tourism’s list of reopening dates, 43 will be open July 15. (Several on that list remained open throughout the pandemic, serving guests who choose to stay there, or those who came in later via private plane or yacht.)
Dozens more will reopen in August, with 50 or so more planning to follow suit in September and October.
French hospitality group Accor has five Maldives resorts and will be staggering openings in the coming months.
“We intend to reopen Mercure Maldives Kooddoo Resort from August 1, followed by Pullman Maldives Maamutaa Resort in September,” says John Bendtsen, Accor Area General Manager for the Maldives.
“Our remaining properties in the Maldives will reopen from October 2020 – Mövenpick Resort Kuredhivaru Maldives, Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi and Raffles Maldives Meradhoo.”
So far, the response from guests has been very positive although cautious, he says.
“We are seeing a real appetite for travel more towards the end of the year with the Christmas and New Year period particularly positive as well as the first quarter of 2021,” says Bendtsen.
“Travelers who have already visited the Maldives previously are much more confident and we are seeing a lot of returning guests make bookings for the 4th quarter of 2020.”
In terms of health and safety, the government is issuing “Safe Tourism Licenses” to accredit tourist facilities that abide by legislation and specific safety requirements like having a certified medic on call and holding an “adequate stock” of personal protection equipment.
Some resorts are implementing additional measures to protect guests and staff.
At Soneva’s two properties, for instance, guests will be asked to undergo a Covid-19 PCR test at the brand’s private airport lounge before they’re transferred to their resort by plane. Once at the resort, they will go straight to their villa and are requested to remain there until the test results are received and are negative.
If a guest’s results come back positive, they will be asked to isolate in their villa, where they will be looked after by trained nurses.
“During the first week of stay, we would also ask guests to take one more real-time PCR test,” says Shivdasani.
“Although this could be considered as being slightly excessive or over-cautious, at Soneva, all our islands are ‘One Island One Resort;’ it is our goal to make our private island homes Covid-19 free environments, so that our guests can truly relax and engage with our hosts and fellow guests and not feel any concern about being infected.”
Soneva remained open throughout the pandemic and has been following the best practices recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as the recommendations of virology and infectious diseases experts, adds Shivdasani. Enhanced cleaning and sanitation protocols are also in place.
The Maldives has recorded nearly 2,000 confirmed cases and five deaths from Covid-19 so far.
Like all countries heavily reliant on tourism, it’s been hit hard by the crisis – and at a time when their tourism fortunes were rising. According to the World Bank, tourism directly and indirectly accounts for two-thirds of the country’s GDP.
The industry flourished in 2019 as visitor arrivals grew by 14.7% (year on year), with total arrivals reaching a record 1.7 million. Officials were hoping they’d hit 2 million arrivals this year.
In a statement issued in May, Ali Waheed, the country’s minister for tourism, described the impact of the coronavirus pandemic as “more devastating than the 2004 tsunami and the 2008 global financial crisis.”
“For the first time in 47 years of tourism in the Maldives, we have experienced zero tourist arrival since this March,” he said, before adding, “we cannot keep our borders closed for long.”
Eunice Aw, Singapore director of global hospitality consulting firm Horwath HTL, tells CNN Travel via email the tourism industry in the Maldives has proven to be resilient, bouncing back quickly from previous crises, however the country faces an uphill battle as they unlock their border to all visitors.
“Given the unprecedentedness of Covid-19, moving forward, even with the reopening of borders, visitor arrivals are not expected to surge and overall arrivals in 2020 are estimated to fall by approximately 70 to 75% year on year,” she says.
“This takes into consideration the pandemic situation in many of the Maldives’ main source markets such as China (17%), India (10%), Europe (49%) and the US (3%), where countries are either still trying to contain the pandemic or battle against second or third waves of the infection.”
Adding to this, Europe – their biggest market – is a 10 to 12 hours’ flight away and long haul travel recovery is likely to lag behind short haul travel, she adds.
“Tourism recovery has to be further supported by the resumption of international flights, reciprocal travel arrangements with partner countries, relaxation of quarantine/isolation requirements in visitors’ home countries and recovery in travelers’ confidence to travel.
“Nonetheless, the reopening of its borders in July will give the Maldives a first mover advantage to capture pent up demand of holidaymakers once recovery is on the way.”