The good, the bad and ugly - all you need to know before taking off for a holiday to the Maldives

The good, the bad and ugly - all you need to know before taking off for a holiday to the Maldives

Imagine sun-drenched white sandy beaches perfectly intermingling with idyllic crescent-shaped islands. The beauty of Maldives also lies in its isolation. If a secret getaway with your loved ones interests you, Maldives is the ultimate location for you. Thanks to the set-up of this little archipelago paradise, you would be hard-pressed to find other people getting in the way of your serene holiday. But what happens when you are forced to stay put whether or not you like it? Being stranded in paradise still means that you are stranded.

Many Indians have learnt this lesson the hard way amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Known as the perfect vacation destination for couples, the Maldives has remained a popular holiday spot for global travellers even during the pandemic. In many ways, the Maldives' infrastructure makes it an ideal location to travel to at this time. With luxury hotels safely ensconced in their private islands, this archipelago comprises 192 islands that could be your haven—a safe way to enjoy "the sunny side of life."

For Dimpy Vaishnav*, honeymooning in this sunny paradise has turned into the stuff nightmares are made of. Tweeting the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Vaishnav told the story of how her asymptomatic husband, who tested positive for COVID-19, was being quarantined in another room. Not only are the honeymooners restricted to different hotel rooms for the duration, but they are also paying the high cost of resort quarantining from their pocket.

Rahul Joshi* made his way to his luxury resort in the Maldives hoping for a few days of sun, sand, and serenity. Being seated in close proximity of a COVID-19 patient on the flight resulted in a 14-day enforced quarantine at his cost. Considering the high hotel charges, this is no joke. These extended stays have inflated many people’s holiday budget exorbitantly.

Since neither Joshi nor anyone in his travelling part was showing any symptom of COVID-19, the enforced 14-day quarantine seemed like an unnecessary overkill to him. Also, no amount of negative RT-PCR tests would help Joshi and others stranded on the island to make their way to India. Like Joshi several other stranded tourists have blamed their woes on the Maldivian government, going so far as to call this expensive mandatory self-quarantine a money-making scheme.

Joshi recalling his ordeal to Mumbai Live also mentioned reaching out to the embassy and the welfare officer was to no avail. He mentioned that they offered no help to those stranded and haemorrhaging money. What is worrisome for working-class people such as Joshi is that not only are they to put with extra costs of extended stay and rescheduling of flight but also miss out on 14 more workdays. Thankfully, Joshi had an anti-body report, and he was able to get back in time after showing this. 

The Deputy High Commissioner at MEA, Rohit Rathish sheds some light on such predicaments, "The pandemic forced a shutdown for several months until the Maldives opened its borders for international tourists on July 15, 2020, with health and safety restrictions in place. Those tourists who have tested positive and their primary contacts are mandated to self-quarantine in the resort/guesthouse for a stipulated number of days to prevent further spread of the disease."

What most people do not know is that "the tourists also have the option of shifting to a Government-operated quarantine facility, if they cannot meet the quarantine costs at the resort," says Rathish.

Priced at USD 30 per day, the government-operated quarantine facility is not exactly economical when you consider additional expenses, COVID-19 test fees (which by the way is USD 90 per person), and other overheads. We also reached out to a few resorts to check if they had informed the travellers in regards to these rules and if they were offering any relief measures to people that get stuck.

In response, a representative from Amilla Maldives Resort and Residences, Maldives said that "We have PCR testing on the arrival of all our guests, we are able to manage the community spread or positive cases. Mainly as guests spend their first 24 hours in the villa (or until we get the test results)". They however did not mention anything in regards to when people are faced with such unforeseeable circumstances. 

So in short if quarantine is mandated, there seems to be little financial recourse available. What irked a few passengers stuck in this situation was that there was no official communication from the government in this regards. Talking about his ordeal, Mamta Hegde* said, "We were just shown a letter saying that someone in our flight has tested positive and it pretty much looked like a prank at that time. There was no official signatory or any indication that it was a government order. Also, there was no communication from the airlines in regards to this." She even goes on to add that from the time of booking to getting this order, no one had told her that something like this could happen and expected more from the booking agent, hotel/resort or the airline in this matter. However, this communication has been shared on the Maldivian Ministry of Tourism website

Stay Informed

In 2019, India became the second-largest source market for the Maldivian tourist economy with over 167,000 travellers. In the pandemic-stricken year of 2020, India rose to the top position with over 63,000 tourists. Based on statistics for 2021 (till date), India retains its leading position as the largest source market of foreign tourists for the Maldives, with 64,000 tourists within the first quarter of the year.

Experts from India’s travel industry compare the number of tourist enquiries post-air travel bubble and opening of the Maldives to tourists with enquiries after the voices of stranded tourists have come to light. Talking to us Varun Sarda, Co-founder of WTFares says, "The Maldives was one of the top-selling destinations for us but the bookings have dropped 70 per cent drop in March".

At present, all visitors from India can freely travel to the Maldives as long as they carry a negative COVID-19 test conducted 96 hours before the scheduled departure time en route to the Maldives. They are also required to turn in an online Health Declaration form within 24 hours from departure time. Upon arrival, all tourists are granted a 30-day free visa, and quarantine is not required without any visible signs of the illness or if no one in the close group tests positive.

However, industry experts share that anyone taking a flight to the Maldives has a 5 per cent chance of getting stranded. This calculation is based on the simple Maths that if 200 people are on a flight from India to the Maldives and if one of them tests positive, then 14 people (or two rows in front of the person testing positive and two at the back) who are the closest connects will be asked to follow this quarantine procedure. 

Safety Measures for All

On September 15, 2020, Maldives received the "Safe Travels Stamp" by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) to recognize the safety measures that the country has enforced to curb the spread of COVID-19 and ensure the safety of all visitors to the Maldives.

Another measure that is likely to stand Indians visiting the Maldives in good stead is the Allied Inbound insurance policies. The Allied Insurance Company is offering these policies in partnership with the Maldivian Ministry of Tourism. In case of an enforced quarantine, these policies cover medical expenses, isolation facility charges, interment charges, and emergency medical transportation charges.

Every new level in life creates the need for learning new skills and ways to cope. Considering the global pandemic situation and what is at stake for a tourist-heavy economy, the authorities believe that the COVID-19 protocols being followed by the Maldives offer the best possible long-term chance to continue visiting a Covid-safe dream destination. "We urge all Indian tourists to follow Indian and Maldivian safety and health regulations and precautions during their travel and stay. The High Commission establishes contact with affected tourists and ensures that their basic needs are met," comforts Rathish.

From February 1, 2021, the country has begun to roll out the AstraZeneca COVISHIELD vaccine. The Ministry of Tourism is currently working on creating a luxury "vaxication" package that would allow visitors to enjoy a holiday and get vaccinated on the trip. The Maldivian Ministry of Tourism website offers the latest information and guidelines on the COVID-19 situation in the Maldives. Even the current policy that has been in effect since February 20 is also been shared on the website.

As of date, the total number of Coronavirus cases recorded in the world stands at 128 million, and numbers remain high around the globe. Even the fundamental interactions required while travelling stand to increase the potential of getting and passing the virus on to others. Social distancing and staying home are the best ways to stop the spread of coronavirus in its tracks.

However, the phenomenon of corona fatigue is also a real one. People are looking for ways to get out of the home to enjoy a luxury-filled vacation to make up for a year’s worth of social distancing. Travelling in the post-Covid world has its own set of unique challenges—from manoeuvring international travel restrictions to planning for the potential enforced institutional quarantine.

Your dream holiday could quickly turn into a money-bleeder as it did for the Indians stranded in the Maldives. “This holiday turned into way more than we had bargained for,” said Joshi, “The stress of not knowing what will happen next coupled with the daily expenses made me wonder if the vacation was even worth it.”

*(Note: All names of the passengers have been changed to maintain their privacy)

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