As managing director of the Maldives Marketing & PR Corporation, Thoyyib Mohamed has played a crucial role in the reopening of his country to tourism. Here he shares his insights and experiences about how the Maldives was one of the first countries in the world to ease restrictions.
Breaking Travel News: The Maldives became one of the world’s first countries to reopen to tourists. What measures did you implement in order to facilitate this?
Thoyyib Mohamed: After almost four months of border closure, Maldives reopened its borders on July 15th last year with proper health and safety measures put in place countrywide.
The health and safety of tourists and visitors have always been paramount, and the resumption of the tourism industry was only given the go-ahead following extensive protocols after important consultations with health professionals and relevant stakeholders. Originally, tourists only had to fill out an online health declaration form within 24 hours prior to departure and a negative PCR test for Covid-19 was not mandatory. However, this was later changed and now all tourists are required to hold a negative PCR test for Covid-19 as well, conducted 96 hours prior the scheduled time of departure from the first port of embarkation en route to Maldives. All tourists were required to wear masks at all times, maintain physical distancing and practice hand sanitisation as much as possible. Tourists were also encouraged to install the contact tracing app, TraceEkee.
A confirmed booking in a tourist establishment registered with the ministry of tourism is mandatory. Tourist establishments were regulated to ensure that they were in line with the Covid-19 tourism guidelines as per the ministry of tourism and local Health Protection Agency (HPA).
During the first phase, only resorts and liveaboards on uninhabited islands resumed operations. The signature “one-island-one-resort” concept also ensured that visitors to the country were based in their respective resorts. Together, these unique arrangements made it easier for visitors to maintain social distancing, whilst enjoying a truly safe and secluded holiday.
On October 15th, guesthouses in inhabited islands resumed operations as well. Wearing masks was made obligatory for tourists and locals at all times on these islands. The development of local tourism was further aided by the introduction of “Split-Stay.”
At first, this was only permitted between resorts but as of October 23rd, the local Health Protection Agency (HPA) permitted split stay between all tourist establishments, with prior approval as per the guidelines by the ministry of tourism. As of December 14th onwards, and guesthouses in the greater Male region were also allowed to resume operations.
BTN: Describe how the pandemic has impacted a nation such as the Maldives, which is so reliant on tourism.
TH: Tourism had to come to a standstill and the country had to close its borders as part of the stringent public health and safety measures taken to curb the outbreak. The industry was hit hard, but we continued to remain vigilant and work together to improve the outcome of the situation.
Those were challenging times, but the continued support and cooperation by the government, relevant ministries and stakeholders ensured that we rise up again. We had to change our marketing plans and shift to online and digital platforms. The means of communication had to change, and we had to adapt within a short period of time. We made sure that Maldives remained a top of the mind destination for tourists and continued to work hard, day and night. In this regard, immersive content was distributed among various channels to keep the destination visible.
Our primary focus was to assure potential tourists that we were fully prepared to greet them as we believe we are one of the safest destinations to travel to during such an unprecedented time. After almost four months of border closure, we reopened with proper measures in place to ensure the safety of tourists as well as everyone in the tourist industry. Despite reopening, the arrivals were also dependent on factors such as travel restrictions in their residing countries, as well as the resumption of flight connectivity. We worked tirelessly to promote the destination and assure tourists that Maldives is a safe haven. By the end of 2020, Maldives has welcomed 100,000 tourists since the reopening of the borders on July 15th, and 500,000 tourists for the year 2020. Maldives was also recognized as World’s Leading Destination by World Travel Awards during such a prominent time.
Maldives has also received the Safe Travels Stamp granted by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and the Airport Health Accreditation by the Airport Council International (ACI), which further attests to the safety provided by the destination.
Overall we are looking at a positive increase for the year 2021, as we have already reached over 100,000 tourists within the first 35 days itself.
And we are seeing a gradual increase in the level of tourist arrivals. We hope to reach pre-pandemic tourist arrival rates soon.
BTN: Why is collaboration across the travel industry imperative to navigating the post-virus landscape?
TH: Now, more than ever, collaboration across the travel industry is required.
Governments are building post Covid-19 policies, along with stakeholders such as hoteliers, airlines, airports and more. We need full support and cooperation from all of these parties to implement and uphold these policies accordingly. Maldives took the bold step of closing down the borders and reopened with stringent measures that were followed by all industry partners, with strict SOPs. It is this sort of collaboration that helped us achieve over 500,000 tourist arrivals last year, as well as over 100,000 tourist arrivals since the reopening.
We have also initiated our vaccination drive and more than 38,000 people have been vaccinated already, amongst which include the tourism industry staff. We hope to have a fully vaccinated tourism industry in the coming months.
BTN: What advice from your own experiences would you offer to other nations yet to emerge from lockdown?
TH: We think that it is imperative for stringent health and safety measures to be put in place onboard flights, at the airports and even at the tourist establishments. Wearing of masks is essential and so is physical distancing. PCR testing should be made mandatory to ensure the safety of both the tourist and the people around him.
During such a time, we have also started the vaccination process, so we feel that this is something to go ahead with, if you have the resources for it.
Additionally, maintaining a visible online presence and developing new and existing relations between the travel trade and customers is imminent.
BTN: What trends in travel and tourism do you see emerging in the aftermath of the pandemic?
TH: For starters, our marketing strategies had to be shifted to online and digital platforms. Our means of communication changed, and we developed a greater flexibility in terms of organising marketing events, webinars, fairs and information sessions, among many others. This enabled us to develop more effective communication channels with the travel trade, and customers across various markets.
We feel that this will continue to be important even in the future. We have to continue to develop trust in our partners and customers across the world, and once again, online and digital platforms come into play. Online and digital marketing has become an integral part of our lives right now.
And of course, we will see the implementation of strict health and safety measures in tourist establishments, as well as onboard flights and airports.
It is a vital part of our everyday lives now, as travellers look forward to visiting the safest destinations. Emerging trends have also been applied to many workplaces in the tourism industry, and this will continue being something of significance.
BTN: Have you had any positive changes in your own outlook in reaction to the crisis?
TH: As mentioned before, our means of communication changed and we developed a greater flexibility in terms of organizing marketing events, webinars, fairs and information sessions, and so on. Our marketing activities shifted to both online and offline platforms, and during 2020, we held several activities for source markets to promote the destination in various ways. Out of 412 activities, 314 activities were carried out under the crisis plan.
We have several more activities – both online and offline – planned for the rest of the year 2021. We also want to highlight the initiation of the Maldives Border Miles programme by Maldives Immigration, which launched on January 1st. This is the world’s first tier-based travel loyalty programme.
Once a tourist is registered as a member, they will earn points based on the duration of stay, visits to celebrate special occasions, visits on local occasions of Maldives, frequency of visits, and other aspects. It is expected to provide a considerable boost for the Maldives tourism and an added advantage when promoting the destination.Additionally, Allied Insurance has launched the first Covid-19 insurance plan in Maldives, in association with the ministry of tourism.
The package consists of two options which covers medical charges, isolation facility charges, emergency medical transportation charges and interment charges following a positive diagnosis for Covid-19 of a tourist during their stay in Maldives.