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 arrival 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 like. 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. 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.
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