Vacation from the virus: Maldives still welcoming Bollywood stars and rich Indians

COLOMBO (AFP) – The Maldives is still welcoming Bollywood stars and other rich Indians to its secluded beaches and crystal-clear lagoons even as countries ban flights because of a brutal Covid-19 surge.

The Indian Ocean archipelago of more than a thousand islands reopened its international borders in mid-July after being shut for three months, and Indians have accounted for the most visitors.

This week, as a string of other countries banned visitors from India, the Maldives government made only slight changes to its rules for passengers from its giant neighbour.

Holidaymakers arriving from India now can only stay at a resort or a safari boat and are not allowed to check into guest houses in inhabited islands where locals also live.

“The geographical location of our islets help us to minimise the (virus) risk,” Mr Thoyyib Mohamed, the head of the country’s tourism authority, Visit Maldives, said.

“Each islet is a self-contained single resort. Even if we have a few cases popping up here and there, we can contain it within the resorts without exposing the local population.”

Tourism workers vaccinated

Mr Thoyyib said that they have also launched a campaign to vaccinate the entire workforce of 50,000 in the tourism sector and many others providing services relating to the hospitality trade.

“We want to be the first fully vaccinated tourism sector in the world,” Mr Thoyyib told AFP by telephone. He said about 90 per cent of workers were already vaccinated.

Media reports have suggested that the Maldives might even offer Covid-19 vaccines to foreign visitors.

But officials said that they had no such immediate plans until all Maldivians and resident non-nationals had received both doses of the AstraZeneca or the Sinopharm vaccine.

More than two-thirds of its 330,000 population has already received the first dose, according to health ministry figures.

The country has reported just over 29,000 virus infections with 73 deaths, although case numbers have been rising sharply in recent weeks.

Yoga on Insta

Mr Thoyyib said there was a decline in the number of Indians visiting in the past week, but they remained the largest single group of visitors to the archipelago this year.

Bollywood stars escaping India in recent weeks include Alia Bhatt, her partner Ranbir Kapoor, and Shraddha Kapoor, who posted Instagram photos of herself doing yoga at sunset at a Maldives resort.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CNkQoaxlP6l/

A post shared by Shraddha ✶ (@shraddhakapoor)

Press reports suggest that private jet firms have seen a surge in demand to Europe, the Middle East and the Maldives, including from people clubbing together to hire an aircraft.

“It’s not only the ultra rich,” Mr Rajan Mehra, head of New Delhi-based private plane firm Club One Air, told The Print news website.

“Whoever can afford to take a private jet are taking private jets.”

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India on Friday reported 385,000 new cases in the past 24 hours – a new global record – and almost 3,500 deaths, according to official data that many experts suspect falls short of the true toll.

With the surge blamed on new virus variants and huge religious and political gatherings in recent months, India’s hospitals are struggling to cope, particularly, but not only, in the capital New Delhi.

The Maldives attracted a record 1.7 million foreign tourists in 2019, a 15 per cent increase from 2018, according to the government, with China the biggest source of visitors.

The numbers fell to 555,494 last year because of the pandemic, but was showing signs of a recovery. Some 381,000 tourists have visited so far this year. China has now dropped below the top 10.

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