REPORT FROM THE MALDIVESThe paradise in the Indian Ocean, naturally protected against Covid-19

ADELINA TOADER (TRANSLATED BY COSMIN GHIDOVEANU)
English Section / 25 martie

The paradise in the Indian Ocean, naturally protected against Covid-19

The Maldives, spread across the Indian Ocean, are naturally protected from the coronavirus through their isolation from the rest of the world, surrounded by water. Maldives manages to bring back your sense of silence and normality, and the sapphire-blue color of the ocean, merging with the blue skies makes you forget about any virus.

Mohamed Naeem, Deputy General Manager at Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru, told us: "The Maldives is the best destination for tourists who want to travel during this pandemic period. The risk of infection at destination is very small. You are isolated and safe, due to the natural protection that each island enjoys".

A holiday in Maldives truly disconnects you from the rest of the world and its problems. Walking barefoot on the fine sand across the whole island, even at the beach restaurant clears your mind of thoughts and reminds you to enjoy the little things. You can forget about masks, save at the buffet table, where you are advised to wear it. All the staff, however, is constantly protected by masks, and the cleaning staff even wears full suits.

Beaches with white sand shine in the sunlight, and the ocean in multiple shades of blue which surrounds the islands c

The islands are tiny. Some you can go across in less than 20 minutes. White sand beaches glitter under the sun's rays, and the ocean in multiple shades of blue surrounding the islands can be heard constantly and almost everywhere. You can see the coral reefs at the bottom through the clear water and watch fish swim around you.

Although tourists are omnipresent on the islands, the resorts are designed in such a way that it feels like you are the only one there. Only inside the restaurant do you realize that there are still other tourists who are enjoying the beauty of the island together with you. The atmosphere is intimate, and you don't get disturbed by anyone, not even time which seems to have a different flow - more calm and friendly.

From the beach you can see the manta rays come every day at a certain hour to shore, where they are fed by hotel staff and they represent a real show for tourists. Shark pups are also present around the islands, and they are a major attraction for curious tourists.

No wonder the 2020 tourist season had a strong start for the Maldives, with a large number of visitors and a high degree of occupancy. The news of the appearance of the new coronavirus slowed that momentum down, as Mohammed Naeem said. Subsequently, the borders of many countries were closed, including those of the Maldives, preventing tourists from traveling, and the tourism business fell from a high level of activity to near zero.

Mohamed Naeem told us: "This situation was also applicable to the three properties in our chain - Angsana Ihuru, Angsana Velavaru and Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru. In July, as soon as the borders reopened, we resumed operation at the resorts and slowly, tourists began to come in. For example, Banyan Tree, where we have 48 individual villas, was almost fully booked in November, and since then the situation has continued to improve and occupancy has remained at a high level.".

Among the factors behind the rapid return of tourism in the Indian Ocean islands after travel restrictions have been lifted and borders have begun to reopen gradually, are the geographical position of the Maldives islands and the individual resorts.

"The arguments in favor of the claim that tourism in the Maldives has seen a quick recovery are obvious to me and, I believe, to anybody who does even a cursory appraisal of the situation. Covid-19 can easily spread from people to things and back. Isolation and separation are very important to reduce the spread of the virus. The Maldives are a destination that is isolated from the rest of the world and where there is little contact with other people. Our guests are accommodated in separate, isolated villas, which do not involve coming into contact with other people".

The holidays have almost begun to return to normal in the Maldives islands, and tourists can enjoy numerous activities, most of them thanks to nature. The crystalline water of the Indian Ocean, with a clarity that allows you to see to great depths, as well as the coral reef create a wonderful snorkeling experience. Colorful fish are everywhere in the turquoise waters, and near the coral reef divers can see sharks just below, which, according to the staff on the boats that take you offshore, are not dangerous.

At sunset, you can take another boat to carry you across the ocean waves on a cruise with canapes and sparkling wine following in the traces of dolphins. The latter swim close to the tourist boats and play in the waves to everyone's delight, including the boats' crews, who even though they may see that every day, will still take out their phones and take a few snapshots of the sun that is sinking into the sea flooding the blue skies and ocean with red.

The Maldives are more of a relaxation destination, than one for adventure, but you can go out on the Indian Ocean in a canoe, and in order to enjoy to the maximum the ocean's beauty, and for more enjoyment, you can choose a glass bottom canoe.

Windsurfing, nocturnal fishing or sailing with catamarans are other activities through which tourists can enjoy the Indian Ocean which surrounds the Maldives.

Of course, for those who crave pampering the spa is the best choice, especially since the services in centers combined with the holiday atmosphere enhance relaxation.

Mohamed Naeem assured us that the activities made available to tourists do not include the mixing of tourists from other islands and tourists are not taken to locations where the locals live, precisely to keep the contact between tourists under control and reduce the risk of infection.

Things are optimistic for the Maldives tourism sector, compared to other destinations that have failed to recover from this point of view. Mohamed Naeem told us that Maldives still has some recovery to do as tourists continue to come from a limited number of countries.

"Many borders continue to be closed, we do not have Asian guests for example - China, Japan, South Korea, which prior to the pandemic were our main customers," Mohammed Naeem said.

Currently, most tourists who come to Maldives arrive from Russia, but the number of tourists from India has also increased, especially the Bollywood stars choose to spend their vacations in Maldives, given the proximity. After Russia and India, which on some islands hold the top two spots in terms of number of tourists, come the Europeans. Their number continues to vary and you can tell that Europe has not found its stability in the pandemic it is going through: "In the beginning of the season came many tourists from the UK, but then their number declined with the appearance of the new SARS-COV-2 strain and the evolution of the pandemic in the UK. We also had many tourists from France, then their number gradually decreased, due to the restrictions imposed by the French authorities. The number of German tourists has not yet reached the potential we were used to".

With the launch of direct flights to the Maldives the number of Romanian tourists also began increase in the Indian Ocean islands.

"I hope their number will continue to grow. It is the safest destination in the current context which offers, as I was saying, natural protection", the representative of the Banyan Tree resort said.

Encouraged by lower prices, and by the direct flights, with no intermediate stops, many Romanians arrived in the Maldives in 2020 and early 2021.

Sorin Stoica, CEO of the Eturia travel agency, which specializes in exotic locations, told us at the launch of the first charter to Maldives: "Exotic holiday prices during this period were as much as 40% lower, compared to last year. For instance, a holiday in the Maldives now costs around 1700 euros, compared to last year when it was about 2800 euros".

The Maldives are recognized as honeymoon destination, and so many newlyweds used to come to enjoy their new status in the Indian Ocean paradise. Last year, however, things changed, and now there is more variety among tourists.

"In addition to the tourists who come back and those who come to the Maldives for their honeymoon, 2020, as well as the beginning of 2021 also brought to the tourists who just wanted to travel somewhere, and chose this destination just because it was one of the few that received tourists while also providing safety from Covid-19", the hotel chain representative said.

Although tourists came in large numbers to the Maldives, the islands were unable to reach the level they were accustomed to, such as the one of 2019, when the occupancy rate was 100%. However, Mohamed Naeem is optimistic and hopes that the occupancy rate, which is currently at 80%, will increase to maximum capacity towards the end of the year.

"We hope that the other borders will open as well and thus the number of tourist arrivals will increase. But one can never know what can happen in the current context. New strains of the virus appear and things can get complicated. I think that the current global vaccination campaign is going to help global tourism. I hope that once a large proportion of the population has been vaccinated with the second dose as well, things will look better for everyone and at all levels", the hotel chain representative further said.

"Moreover, tourists have the obligation to wear protective masks in crowded places, and disinfectant is used everywhere. We are careful to comply with all the these measures that are needed and mandatory for everyone", said Mohamed Naeem.

Mohamed Naeem also said that until then the Maldives follow the decisions of the World Health Organization and comply with all safety measures to reduce the spread of the virus.

"Fortunately, we are helped by the fact that we are in the middle of the ocean and we can enjoy this natural isolation. We are very protected and safe as a destination. We follow the rules imposed by the WHO and the government. Hygiene standards have improve, of course, and we carefully comply with all the required measures. Access to the resort is done based on presenting a negative PCR test and a temperature check of the guests at the entrance. In addition, tourists have the obligation to wear the protective mask in crowded places, and the disinfectant is indispensable. We are careful to complying with all these measures which are necessary and mandatory for everyone", Mohamed Naeem completed.

He told us that in the event of a coronavirus case being identified, there is a standard procedure and a complete system that will be followed. The infected tourist will be isolated in a villa dedicated to that purpose, and each resort is required to allocate 10% of its capacity of the isolation facilities.

Banyan Tree has also opened a clinic which employs a qualified doctor ready for the unfortunate case where a case of Covid-19 is found among tourists. The clinic can also perform PCR tests for tourists who need to present such a test upon entering the countries which they are departing for.

"I want to point out that our location is secure. So is the transfer from the airport to our island. Contact is limited and tourists feel safe once they've arrived in the Maldives, "Mohammed Naeem said.

In addition, he told us that the Maldives does not have a worrisome level of cases of Covid-19 infections, as it currently has at most 150 cases of daily infection. However, tourists that come to the islands do not come in contact with locals, apart from hotel employees, so that the risk of contamination is minimal.

The resorts in the Maldives have also tried to attract tourists through special offers and discounted packages ranging between 700 euros and 200 euros, according to the deputy general manager.

Mohamed Naeem told us that Maldives knows how to take care of guests who come to its islands, giving them unprecedented experiences in a heavenly setting. For instance, breakfast afloat, dinner on the beach or on a boat are just some of the services which tourists can be pampered with by the staff of the resort.

From October to early April, Maldives enjoys a beautiful and sunny weather. June and July are generally rainy, but the lowest temperatures that are recorded are about 26 degrees Celsius.

"Tourists come at any time of the year. Generally between October and April we have Europeans, who are fewer, but instead we have the Asian tourists who do not like the sun so they choose to come in during that period. We await for tourism to go back to normal and for Asian countries to reopen, "Mohamed Naeem said.

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