How Maldives and Sri Lanka have handled pandemic tourism
A close comparison between the Maldives and Sri Lanka
Tourism plays a central role in terms of employment opportunities and foreign exchange for the Maldives and Sri Lanka, both tropical countries situated in the Indian Ocean. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit globally, the tourism industry felt the impact immediately.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO)’s World Tourism Barometer reading for May 2020, travel and tourism was among the sectors most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. “For the first time in history, 100% of worldwide destinations have introduced travel restriction s in response to the pandemic, while 156 destinations have completely closed its borders for international tourism,” it stated.
Regardless of all these disruptions, a recent article published by CNN on 17 February stated: “The Maldives, an Indian Ocean island archipelago practically synonymous with romance, normally sees north of 1.7 million visitors per year. In 2020, it had around 500,000. And despite the significant decrease, it marks one of the most successful tourism stories amid the pandemic.”
Let us discuss how the Maldives performed well despite the Covid-19 pandemic, and what, why, when, and where it went wrong for Sri Lanka.
How did the Maldives succeed?
The Covid-19 health rules and guidelines imposed by the Government of the Maldives were less complicated than those in Sri Lanka. This could be due to the difference in the population.
The Maldives has a very small population of around 530,953 people (2019 World Bank, UN data) dispersed across 185 islands and has a gross domestic product (GDP) of $ 5.642 billion (2019). According to the World Bank, “the Covid-19 outbreak has had a debilitating effect on tourism, which directly and indirectly accounts for two-thirds of GDP. Revenues fell by an estimated 23.4% in the first quarter of 2020 (year-on-year [YoY]) as tourist-related revenues shrank, whereas spending grew by 10.2%. Real GDP contracted by 5.9% YoY in Q1 2020”.
Another reason for the Maldives’ success would be the extraordinary facilities provided by them by taking advantage of the perfect situation. For instance, the implementation of the “digital-only for work and school facility”, where each resort devised a special package for guests staying a full month – a 28-day offering including meals, high-speed internet, wellness activities, and use of a kids’ club; it is priced from $ 42,600 for a family of four.
Additionally, facilities such as “all-you-can-stay packages for unlimited bookings” and other similar facilities helped the tourism industry in the Maldives to succeed.
Speaking to CNN, the tourism authority, Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation Managing Director, stated: “Our biggest advantage is the unique geographical features of Maldives,” adding that the implementation of strict hygiene protocols combined with the ease of spreading people on different islands made a compelling combination for travellers who wanted to get away from it all.
“We promoted the destination as a safe haven to the tourists.”
The first travel restriction the Maldives introduced entailed preventing the entry of any passenger with a travel history to China, and the restriction was implemented from 5 February 2020. However, the borders were officially closed to all tourists on 27 March 2020, according to the Ministry of Tourism of the Maldives.
“Air travel was widely disrupted. Hence, March 2020 was a bleak month for tourism in the Maldives. The impact of Covid-19 hit March arrivals by a staggering -63.4%, reducing arrivals to 59,627, compared to 162,843 in 2019,” the Research and Statistics Section of the Maldivian Tourism Ministry said.
After more than three months of airport closure, the Ministry of Tourism issued a circular on 23 June 2020 with regards to the resumption of the tourism sector. “The Government of Maldives has decided to restart issuance of on-arrival visas to tourists who have booked stays in resorts, hotels on uninhabited islands, and tourist vessels, from 15 July 2020 onwards.”
The mandatory key policies released by the Tourism Ministry to resorts prior to tourist arrivals include the following:
- A “Covid Safe” plan in accordance with this guideline of the Health Protection Agency (HPA) must be in place
- Every resort must have a Covid taskforce. The task force could include representatives from key areas (functions) of the resort including medical personnel. The taskforce will make key policies, implement public health measures, co-ordinate with the HPA, respond to a suspected case of Covid, initiate contact tracing, etc.
- The resort must have a medical clinic that meets the standards set forth by the Ministry of Health including a medical officer and a nurse who are oriented on the protocols of Covid-19 management and the Covid Safe plan of the resort
Due to these key measures and several other precautionary measures taken by the ministries, tourists were not required to produce a certificate or test results indicating negative status, i.e. non-infection, for Covid-19 prior to entering the Maldives.
Nevertheless, persons who were restricted entry to the country were those who had a history of contact with a suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19 within the past 14 days and/or persons who had a fever or respiratory symptoms such as cough, sore throat, or shortness of breath within the past 14 days.
The aforementioned CNN article stated that “the country’s geography also lends itself well to coronavirus protocols. Many hotels and resorts are on their own private islands – there are more than a thousand to choose from, even before manmade islands come into the equation – which makes isolating and social distancing exceptionally easy”.
On 15 July 2020, the borders were reopened for tourism. “Since the reopening, there has been a gradual increase in tourist arrivals with the establishment of travel bubbles between the Maldives and other countries, as well as greater connectivity in terms of flight operations,” read the joint press statement released on 12 December 2020 by the Ministry of Tourism, Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC), and Maldives Immigration and Maldives Airports Company Ltd. (MACL).
As a result of the polices taken by the Maldives, a total of 100,000 tourists have arrived since the reopening of the airport. Commemorating this success, the country’s Minister of Tourism Dr. Abdulla Mausoom stated: “Surpassing the milestone of 100,000 tourists in advance of the projections is really encouraging. This achievement is the outcome of a unified #Maldive approach to a global challenge.”
Covid-19 in both countries
Despite reopening its airports for tourism, the total number of Covid-19 cases in the Maldives, as of 22 February 2021, was 18,930 patients and 60 deaths, with a recovery of 16,351 persons, which is drastically less in comparison to Sri Lanka. According to the Health Promotion Bureau (HPB) of Sri Lanka, as of 23 February, a total of 80,517 cases were reported with a total of 450 deaths. However, a positive thing to note is that 75,110 people recovered and were discharged.
Ideally, it should have been the opposite, since Sri Lanka curtailed all passenger flight and ship arrivals into the country from 18 March 2020 and reopened after nine months, in 28 December 2020.
Commenting on the reopening, the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) said: “Tourism is a key contributor to the country’s economy. The tourism industry serves multiple purposes. In addition to being the third-largest foreign exchange earner for the country, a large number of direct and indirect employment opportunities are created by tourism, while also facilitating the inflow of foreign direct investments to the country.”
The closure of tourism impacted the Balance of Payments of Sri Lanka drastically, but the impact was set off by other factors. “The current account deficit is expected to remain low (at 2.2% of GDP in 2020) thanks to low oil prices and strict import restrictions, which should largely offset the reduction in receipts from garment exports, tourism, and remittances. However, refinancing requirements will be high, with annual foreign exchange debt service requirements estimated at 7-8% of GDP over 2020-2022,” the World Bank said in a statement.
It is important to take note that one of the major issues was that a significant number of people had lost their livelihoods during the nine-month period. Reportedly, banks experienced a negative impact while coping with the situation due to the continuous tourism moratorium and also due to the impacts on Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves due to the closure of the tourism industry.
Reopening of SL
Subsequently, countless discussions were held between tourism officials, health authorities, and government officials in regards to opening the airport for international travellers. In this light, the SLTDA issued a press release on 8 December 2020 communicating the new strict health protocols for international travellers. It stated: “As Covid-19 is a health pandemic affecting most nations and Sri Lanka, there need to be strict health protocols to ensure the safety of not only our citizens but also international travellers.”
According to the release, more than 92 establishments, accommodation providers, and tour operators had been awarded the “Safe and Secure” certification to service and provide accommodation to international tourists within the first 14 days of arrival.
The mandatory policies released by SLTDA include the following:
- All tourists entering Sri Lanka need to obtain online tourist visas before arrival (on-arrival suspended)
- (It is) mandatory for all tourists to commit to a minimum stay of five nights in Sri Lanka and book all accommodation only at SLTDA-registered and “Safe and Secure”-certified establishments
- A negative PCR report issued by an accredited laboratory within 72 hours prior to landing (is needed) and also undergoing a PCR test at the arriving airport. Next, another repeat PCR test is to be conducted five to seven days after arrival or if the guest develops respiratory symptoms, whichever comes first. Another PCR test needs to be done between the 10th and 12th day after arrival, for tourists staying longer than 10 days
Finally, after a nine-month-long travel ban was imposed, the doors for tourism opened, and the industry resumed its operations on 28 December 2020.
According to the official statistics published by the SLTDA, a total of 393 tourists from Ukraine arrived in the island in a series of charter flights under a pilot project starting from 28 December. “As at 31 December 2020, 507,704 tourists had visited Sri Lanka this year (2020). It is a decline of 73.5% over last year (2019), when 1,913,702 tourists visited the country during the same period,” the SLTDA stated.
Sri Lanka has had a total of 1,682 tourist arrivals by the end of January 2021. “Ukraine, Belarus, China, the Russian Federation, and Germany were Sri Lanka’s top five international tourist-generating markets in the month of January this year,” the SLTDA said. Meanwhile, according to the Ministry of Tourism, a total of 87,883 persons arrived in the Maldives as of 30 January 2021.
In order to recover from Covid-19, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) issued a tourism moratorium valid until March 2021 due to the airport closure and zero tourism earnings. However, as per Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga, discussions are currently underway on extending the moratorium by another six months or a year.
Another measure taken towards the revival of tourism is the SLTDA’s “Safe and Secure” certification, which, as discussed above, focuses on a set of guidelines that enhances cleanliness and hygiene practices at all tourism-related venues and services.
However, looking at how the Maldives succeeded in tourism despite the prevailing pandemic, one could say that Sri Lanka could have adopted similar measures to ensure the continuity of international tourism amidst the prevailing pandemic.