Maldives Was a Bollywood Bolthole During India’s Second Wave. Now Wealthy Indians are Shut Out.

CNN — Maldives has banned tourists from South Asia, cutting off an escape route for wealthy Indians fleeing their own country’s Covid-19 crisis.

The atoll nation’s Ministry of Tourism and immigration authority announced the temporary ban on Tuesday, which applies to all visa holders from India, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, as well as people who have transited those countries in the past 14 days.

Maldives’ economy is heavily reliant on tourism — before the pandemic, the islands welcomed 1.7 million visitors in 2019. Numbers plummeted to just over half a million in 2020, and the nation had been keen to set itself apart as one of the few luxury retreats as the pandemic spread worldwide. While many other destinations shut their borders, the Maldives chose to fully reopen to travelers from any country in July 2020. By May, Maldives was introducing new restrictions. All new arrivals were required to show proof of a negative test taken within 96 hours of their departure for the islands. Then, visitors from South Asia were only allowed to stay on inhabited islands. Mehra, the air charter CEO, said that had reduced demand for charter flights to the destination.


The ban, effective Thursday, will be in place until further notice as Maldives tries to control a surge in coronavirus cases, which jumped from around 100 new cases in mid-April to 1,572 on Wednesday.

That’s the highest number of daily new cases in the country since the start of the pandemic, according to the Health Protection Agency. And it comes amid a rise in new cases across the region, particularly in India, where a second wave is killing thousands of people every day.

Maldives was one of the first countries to fully reopen to tourists last year, and in recent weeks it has become a popular refuge for wealthy Indians, including Bollywood stars, whose luxury vacation snaps provoked anger at home.

Assuming its borders remain open to visitors, Maldives (with a population of around 515,696 people dispersed across 185 islands) is expected to receive 1 million tourists in 2021, about 60 percent of the 2019 number. Real GDP is therefore projected to grow by 17 percent in 2021. Tourism directly accounts for a quarter of its GDP which was US$5.642 billion in 2019 –it decreased by 2.3 percent in 2020 due to the effect of pandemic on tourism.


The travel ban doesn’t apply to people already in the archipelago, but it will frustrate the plans of those who had hoped of a potential escape to Maldives.

Bollywood blowback

As India sank deeper into a Covid-19 crisis that began in mid-March, a number of Bollywood entertainers reportedly left the country.

Actresses including Alia Bhatt, Shraddha Kapoor, Disha Patani and Janhvi Kapoor were among those who traveled to Maldives, according to CNN affiliate CNN-News18.

They were not alone. This year, India has become the largest source of tourists to Maldives. From January to March, almost 70,000 Indians visited the country — double the number of Indian holidaymakers who traveled to the islands in the whole of 2020, according to the Ministry of Tourism.

The cost of flying to Maldives from India rose sharply in April, as countries began to impose travel bans to and from India. Commercial flight prices rose more than fourfold as international restrictions limited travel options, said Rajan Mehra, CEO of Club One Air, an air charter company based in India.

Some individuals paid more than $65,000 for a one-way ticket for a charter flight to Maldives in April, Mehra added.