The typical welcome at a luxury resort in the Maldives once involved a battalion of beaming staff, fresh coconut water from the palm tree and a traditional boduberu battery performance. My recent arrival at Soneva Fushi was different: transported immediately from the jetty to my villa, I was greeted by an anonymous attendant dressed head to ankle in full PPE (this being the original Maldives hideaway “no news, no shoes “, he remained barefoot). He administered a PCR test, then let me sit there until my results came in the next morning.

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

Guests can roam the private island at their leisure. While I have occasionally spotted hand sanitizer pumps, another current global ubiquity was notable for its absence and had led a few staff and guests to change Soneva’s long-standing mantra to “no news,” no shoes – and no mask “.

Soneva’s in-room testing procedure is an added layer of security – at the airport, all tourists arriving in the Maldives must show proof of a negative PCR test performed within 96 hours of boarding. These controls, the inherently secluded nature of the nation’s island resorts and the promise of a simple tropical escape, appear to be leading to a dramatic recovery that stands in stark contrast to most of the global travel industry.

Indoor Covid tests 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 rates increasing by 16% compared to November 2019 and revenue rising. by 45%. In December, the occupancy rate rose 14% from the previous year and revenue rose 50%, likely due to guests booking more expensive room types and spending more on food and drink during their holiday. Room rates for this month start at $ 2,270 per night at the Soneva Fushi; $ 3,690 at Soneva Jani. Speaking to me at the end of January, Soneva co-founder Sonu Shivdasani said the performance of the month had been “stellar”. “In some ways,” he said, “we have 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 close the borders on March 27 was seismic. This is a key factor in the 51.6% drop in GDP in the second quarter of 2020, compared to the same period the previous year.

220%

Increase in the number of visitors to Kazakhstan in December

However, ahead of many competing destinations, these 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 beforehand. But while would-be visitors are of course subject to travel restrictions imposed by their home country (those from the UK, for example, are currently not allowed to go on vacation), the Maldives makes no distinction based on their origin – even those from countries with the worst infection rates are allowed entry.

And, while many countries have banned tourism and restricted travel to those doing essential business, the Maldives has taken the opposite approach. As of January 29, all international arrivals must be quarantined for 10 days – with the exception of tourists, who remain exempt.

Bar chart of tourist arrivals in December ('000) showing the number of Maldivian tourists from some countries has seen sharp increases

The policy contrasts sharply with more cautious strategies in other tourism hot spots. Mauritius, for example, is open to tourists but they must book their vacations through the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Agency website, must stay in their room for the first 14 days, and take Covid tests on days one. , seven and 14 of their trip. Visitors from the UK, South Africa, Japan and Brazil are currently prohibited.

In the Maldives, some tourists fall ill but protocols seem to have avoided massive epidemics like those experienced on cruise ships. At the end of January, on all the islands, 54 foreigners were isolated. Since the start of the pandemic, the Maldives has recorded 16,909 cases of coronavirus and a total of 55 deaths.

The lush tropical gardens of Soneva Fushi

With about 25 of the 166 resorts in the Maldives are still closed, the overall number of domestic visitors is still down from pre-pandemic levels, but it rose sharply in the second half of the year. In August, there were 7,636 arrivals, down 94.5% from the previous year; in December, there were 96,412 visitors, down 43.7%.

Graph showing tourism in the Maldives: before and after the lockdown.  Graph 1 shows tourist arrivals (% change compared to the same month of the previous year), from January 2019 to September 2020. Graph 2 shows the bed occupancy rate in resorts / marina * (%), from June to December 2020

Explore these arrivals and there are some surprising details. The number of visitors from the UK was actually up 20% in December compared to the previous year. Visitors from Russia grew 73% in December and became the second most important market for all of 2020, up from sixth in 2019. Even this does not match the increase in visitors from Kazakhstan and Ukraine – up by 220% and 99% in December respectively.

Shubham Moondhara, head of corporate strategy and business development at Trans Maldivian Airways, the world’s largest seaplane operator, saw the recovery with his own eyes. The company’s 56 planes serve more than 80 resorts in the Maldives; in December, they operated about 200 flights a day and transferred an average of 2,500 passengers, up from about 2,800 a day before the pandemic.

View of the swimming pool from one of Soneva Fushi’s villas © Richard Waite Photography

Their journey is slightly different now, with fewer touchpoints at check-in and each guest receives a ‘travel hygiene kit’ before boarding, but the views of the atolls are still stunning and Moondhara expects that the recovery accelerates. “As the vaccines are rolled out, we hope the second half of 2021 will be great,” he said.

Many of the country’s most prestigious resorts were also relieved to see customer numbers rebound. After leaving Soneva Fushi, I traveled 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 collection of spa and wellness facilities, and prices for overwater villas start at $ 1,854 per night. In December, the average occupancy rate was 87%. At the St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort, where rates start at $ 2,500 per night, average occupancy rates in December were 77% (up 2% from 2019), while income from food and beverages were up 21% year-on-year.

Island-style beach dining at Soneva Fushi

Back to Soneva Fushi, British guest Karl French relishes the chance to enjoy a tropical retreat away from the pandemic. After being diagnosed with diabetes and spending a week in intensive care last year, he booked a vacation to the Maldives so he could ‘relax worry-free’ and enjoy the resort’s ‘safe and healthy lifestyle’. The vacation began on October 24 and was expected to last three weeks, but the French is not yet gone. “The plan is to stay until the end of April,” he says. “Why wouldn’t we do it?” “

He is not the only one to extend his stay. When the Maldives’ borders were first closed to incoming tourists in March, around 70 Soneva Fushi guests decided to extend their stay rather than return to a chaotic world, and the resort remained busy until the end of May. . And with so few fully accessible travel destinations, some customers have made repeat visits since then. Of the $ 15 million in revenue generated by Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani in December, around $ 3.5 million 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, according to Shivdasani. As other countries struggle to find safe ways to reintroduce tourism, the remoteness, privacy and open borders of Maldives resorts have attracted travelers who may never have considered visiting the destination before. .

“We are literally 1,200 isolation centers,” says Shivdasani. “The spread of the Covid is not there and everyone is tested on arrival. I think it was a stroke of genius as it has given many world governments a sense of security and comfort so we are on safe travel lists. There are so many competing destinations that people cannot visit because these countries have locked their borders. . . It’s like a funnel and we are very lucky to be at the end of this 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 the country tour, check out visitmaldives.com; Maldives coronavirus daily updates are on covid19.health.gov.mv

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