Travelers itching for a change of scenery amid months of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders brought on by the coronavirus pandemic now have a new option. The Maldives reopened to international visitors this week, after being closed to visitors since March 27.
While much of the world has shut its borders or enacted strict measures on incoming travelers, the Maldives will not require new arrivals to quarantine or undergo testing, other than a simple temperature check at the airport. There is one other rule: Visitors must book their entire stay at the same resort whilst visiting the South Asian country.
Minister for Tourism Ali Waheed has described the impact of the pandemicas, "more devastating than the 2004 tsunami and the 2008 global financial crisis."
With a population of half a million, the Maldives has recorded more than 2,700 cases of Covid-19.
Its government originally announced it would require visitors to pay a new $100 visa fee and $100 for a Covid-19 test at the airport, plus stay a minimum of 14 nights. It has since dropped those requirements.
Airlines, includingEmirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways, are resuming services to the island nation.
Despite the nation being open for business, hotels are only gradually reopening, with Conrad Maldives Rangali Island planning to reopen at the end of September, and St. Regis and all other Marriott International hotels in the Maldives not planning to reopen until October.
One resort, however, reopened immediately with new measures designed to stay clear of the virus. Guests of Soneva Fushi will be given a mask upon arrival and be tested for Covid-19. Guests are then required to stay in their room or villa until their test results come back, which could take between six and 24 hours.
If they receive negative test results, guests can roam freely, but must still conduct daily temperature checks. On the fourth day of their trip, an additional test will be carried out.
"You might consider that this is excessive and that we're being overcautious," said Sonu Shivdasani, CEO of Soneva, in a corporate video explaining the process. Yet his aim is "to make all our private islands Covid-free environments so the guests can truly relax and engage with our hosts (and) fellow guests."
A socially-distanced guest experience simply didn't appeal to Shivdasani.
"Life is about relationships, you know, the secret of life is about the friendships you make," Shivdasani told CNBC. "This idea of our guests distancing from each other, we felt would be a real challenge and we didn't want them to feel uncomfortable engaging with others."
"For the urban rich, luxury is about sitting outside in the open air."
In fact, 55% of its revenue is generated by repeat guests, whom he said often mingle with one another.
One factor that could lure tourists to the Maldives is its desolate nature, especially compared to say, a beach club in Mykonos. Also, many health experts have said being outdoors poses a lower risk for contracting Covid-19 than being indoors.
"The urban rich have all the famous designer restaurants in their cities, the famous branded chefs in air-conditioned environments," Shivdasani said. "For the urban rich, luxury is about sitting outside in the open air."
Soneva thinks its tight health measures could pay off. The hotel said reservations for August are higher than last year. Yet, not everyone was willing to undergo its new policies.
"We've had one or two who feel it's unnecessary and didn't want to put their children through this difficulty," he said, "but most have said that's actually reassured them, and I've received lots of emails say, 'Fantastic, bravo. I was thinking about where to go, but I'm now coming to stay with you.'"
Hilton, meanwhile, whichhas three resorts operating under its brandsin the Maldives, will be gradually opening with new measures in place, including staff temperature checks and increased cleaning procedures.
Nils-Arne Schroeder, vice president of luxury and lifestyle for Hilton's Asia Pacific hotels, outlined the company's new measures to CNBC: "You didn't want to see the people cleaning your public areas in the lobby; it was always cleaned in the night. Nowadays, you want to see them actually during the day so you know the hotel is looking after the cleaning."
Last month, Hilton rolled out new guidelines for its properties worldwide. Called Hilton CleanStay, one measure includes putting a seal on the doors after cleaning a room to visibly show customers that nobody has since entered.
A socially-distanced sand bank dinner at Soneva Fushi.
Courtesy of Soneva Fushi
Guests staying at Hilton properties will have their temperatures checked, but will not be required to take Covid-19 tests.
"You can make decisions if you want to be distanced from everyone else because you can be in your villa, you can have in-villa dining all day, you can jump into your ocean ... but if you want to be part of the island community, of course, we are ready for you, to make sure that the self-distancing is available," Schroeder said.
Marriott International plans to reopen its Maldives resorts in October and is implementing new policies, such as requiring guests to sit at the same table each day for breakfast.
But, whether travelers feel safe enough to travel or leave their hometown and be subjected to restrictions, is yet to be determined. For instance, Hong Kong residents who leave the city must take a Covid-19 test upon their return and they are required to quarantine for 14-days while wearing a location-tracking wristband.
Some resorts in the Maldives are requiring guests undergo Covid-19 tests, while others are not.
"It's beautiful that Maldives is open," VincentPauchon, general manager ofThe St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort, a Marriott property, told CNBC. "We don't see the demand because of so many restrictions internationally ... So, you can imagine, someone coming for six nights to enjoy Maldives and then goes back for 14 days quarantine, it doesn't make sense."
Although, he said the resort could be ready to open within one week if it sees shifting demand.
Chinese travelers have traditionally been the largest source of visitors to the Maldives. New measures will allow Chinese nationals to return from the Maldives without having to quarantine as long as they conduct a Covid-19 test shortly before their flight and again when they return.
Pauchon said he's seeing an increase in demand with bookings ranging between 40% to 60% for the last quarter of this year, and inquiries and bookings for 2021 are already coming in.
The St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort is now rethinking much of its group activities in anticipation of its reopening, like its yoga classes, gym and boat tours. Amid physical distancing plans, Pauchon is also examining new ways to lure guests.
"Unfortunately, for the next one year, there'll be less travelers coming to Maldives, so less travelers but same number of hotels, so it's going to be a very, very competitive market," he said.
"We have to innovate with new activities and experiences for our guests to enjoy something special. We cannot just sell the beach and our villas; it will not work anymore," he said.
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