Maldives tries to fight off travel alerts as tourists stay away

Tourists waiting in the departure hall at Velana International Airport in Male, Maldives, on Feb 13, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

MALE, MALDIVES (REUTERS) - Tourists have been cancelling hundreds of hotel bookings in Maldives every day since the imposition of a state of emergency last week, tour operators say, despite government assurances things are normal in the resort islands, far from the capital.

China, India, the United States and Britain issued travel warnings after President Abdulla Yameen imposed the emergency and arrested judges who had ordered him to free jailed opposition leaders.

"We have had about 50-60 room cancellations per day and the number is consistent since it started. This is the same for all of our properties in the country," said a spokesman for Paradise Island Resort-Villa Group which runs the 282-room hotel, a 20-minute ride by speedboat from Male, where the turmoil is centred.

Tourism accounts for a third of Maldives' gross domestic product, measured at US$3.5 billion (S$4.62 billion) in 2017.

Ratings agency Moody's has said it would lower its 2018 growth forecast of 4.5 per cent if tourists are deterred for a prolonged period.

Calls from Mr Yameen's opponents for military intervention by India, the leading power in the region, have added to the uncertainty.

The Muslim-majority nation of 400,000 people lies close to international shipping lines and has become another arena of contest between India and China.

China, which has built close ties to the Yameen government in its push for a network of friendly ports in the Indian Ocean under its "Belt and Road" initiative, has cautioned against foreign interference.

But that hasn't stopped it from issuing a travel warning to its citizens, who make up a fifth of the tourist traffic.

"We have a higher market for Chinese and Indian travellers and we are seeing most of the cancellations from these markets," said a tour operator in Male speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting the government.

Early estimates pointed to a 20 per cent to 25 per cent rise in cancellations over the normal pattern since the crisis began, he said.

The Chinese New Year begins on Thursday (Feb 15) when millions of Chinese travel at home and overseas during a week-long holiday. The tour operator said the big worry is that travellers will stop bookings going into March.

Ctrip.Com International Ltd, China's biggest online travel agency, said it was coordinating with hotels and airlines and helping guests who wished to postpone or cancel trips to the Maldives before Feb 28. A spokeswoman declined to say how many cancellations or postponements there had been.

Shanghai's state-run Xinmin Evening News said last week about 3,000 people from Shanghai had been expected to visit the Maldives over the holiday, and that in recent years, more than 300,000 Chinese visited the country annually.

Airlines have not yet cancelled flights, but carriers including Air India, India's SpiceJet, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines have allowed customers to cancel or change their tickets at no cost during specific dates during February.

The Chinese airlines also echoed Beijing's warnings about visiting Maldives.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Wednesday China had sent security reminders regarding the situation in the Maldives.

"According to my knowledge, relevant Chinese departments are actively giving guidance to Chinese citizens to pay high attention to the security risks in travelling to the Maldives and appropriately plan their itineraries."

If Thailand's experience is a guide, the disruption could be short-lived. The bombing of a Buddhist temple in Bangkok in August 2015 caused a 17 per cent drop in Chinese tourists to Thailand in the weeks afterward.

But they began coming back again by October of that year, the government said, and Thailand finished the year with a record number of Chinese arrivals.

Some Chinese tourists have complained travel agents have been slow in refunding money already spent on booking flights and hotels in the Maldives, or even refusing to offer refunds altogether.

During a state of emergency in 2015, economic growth slowed to 2.8 per cent from 6.0 per cent the previous year, dragged down by a sharp slowdown in tourist arrivals growth.

Almost 1.4 million tourists from across the world visited the Maldives in 2017, according to government statistics.

Trouble began on the idyllic islands, famed for white-sand beaches and crystal clear diving spots in its turquoise waters, when the Supreme Court quashed terrorism and graft convictions of nine opposition figures and ordered they be freed. Among them was the exiled former president, Mohamed Nasheed.

Yameen rejected the ruling and declared an emergency for 15 days. He also ordered the arrest of two of the court's five judges, several opposition members and his 80-year-old half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had ruled the Maldives for 30 years.

They were all plotting a coup against him, Mr Yameen said.

The remaining judges have since nullified the court's ruling and the government sent envoys to China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan seeking support from "friendly" nations and to reassure them the islands were safe for international travel.

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