By Stuart Forster
Social distancing was, by default, a happy norm at Maldivian resorts long before it became a global buzz phrase and an element of everyday life. Secluded overwater villas and beachfront accommodation promising both luxury and privacy have helped establish the Maldives among the planet’s most desirable destinations for honeymoons and romantic breaks.
That seclusion now broadens appeal of Asia’s smallest country to sun-seeking holidaymakers warier than ever of spending time in strangers’ company because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Grouped into 26 atolls, the Maldives’ 1,192 islands straddle the equator and are blessed with an average of at least 200 hours of sunshine every month of the year. From Ihavandhippolhu Atoll in the north to Addu Atoll in the south, they are distributed across more than 500 miles of the Indian Ocean, naturally limiting contact with passing strangers.
Since the opening of the Karumba Maldives on Vihamanaafushi in 1972, the country has practiced a one island, one resort concept. More than 150 island resorts currently operate, giving holidaymakers choices of accommodation across price points. At a time when travellers are seeking reassurance, it’s worth noting that inter-island travel must be approved and is subject to health screenings.
The combined landmass of the Maldives measures just 115 square miles. The islands’ have 400 miles of coastline. Much of that shoreline is characterised by palm-fringed beaches of soft white sand offering open space for barefoot strolls. As the appeal of some of the Maldivian resorts broadens to families and multigenerational travellers, the soft sand represents a safe space for youngsters to play near other family members.
Proximity to water is a factor in average temperatures fluctuating by just 1.5°C across all 12 months the year, remaining in the high 20s throughout. At a time when experts have deemed outdoor spaces safer than those indoors – because fresh air enables coronavirus particles to disperse rapidly – the islands’ beaches, swaying hammocks and roomy balconies offer visitors plenty of places to lounge in confidence away from other people.
The Maldives has put in place stringent measures to hinder transmission of the coronavirus and, simultaneously, reassure both locals and visitors. The Maldives’ Ministry of Health requires people to stay three feet apart, an outdoor practice that UK residents will already be familiar with from back home. Similarly, frequent hand washing is also recommended.
Tourists do not need to quarantine upon arrival but all travellers arriving in the Maldives are required to take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test that produces a negative result within 96 hours of departing the first port of embarkation of their journey. The name on the certificate must match the passenger’s passport and display the test lab’s name and address. Anyone in transit for longer than 24 hours must take an additional PCR test.
Face masks must be worn in transit between islands. Most visitors arrive into the Maldives at Velana International Airport, close to Male, the nation’s capital, in the North Male Atoll. From the airport transfers tend to be by speedboat or light aircraft – often seaplanes with floats that take off and land on water.
In addition to the island resorts that many holidaymakers now associate with the Maldives, a smattering of hotels offer upscale accommodation. Even those in Male, where a third of the country’s 540,000 population resides, offer access to beaches and activities on and in water.
Private islands are an option for people seeking opulent luxury without disturbances from other visitors. At Voavah on the Baa Atoll, Four Seasons operates a seven-bedroom villa giving access to a spa, yacht and a team of dedicated staff plus 24-hour security.
Around 200 of the Maldives’ many islands are inhabited. Staying at a guesthouse on what are termed ‘local islands’ represents a way of gaining insights into traditional ways of living. Typically far less expensive than overnight accommodation in resorts, guesthouses are likely to appeal to independent travellers who appreciate immersive experiences, local cuisine and freedom to arrange activities.
The tropical water of the Indian Ocean is characterised by colourful coral species and teems with marine life, including more than 1,100 species of fish and five types of sea turtle. Integral to the success of the country’s tourism industry, the health of the ocean has prompted increased commitment to the environment and sustainability.
Renowned for its clarity and warmth, the seawater of the Maldives is regarded among the world’s best destinations for scuba diving and snorkelling. Boats and yachts with accommodation aboard enable keen divers to explore dive sites and uninhabited islands while enjoying personalised service. Many of the vessels offer intimate experiences geared towards couples and small, self-contained groups of friends and family members travelling together.
At a time when travellers are seeking safe destinations for holidays in the sun, the Maldives, traditionally seen as an exclusive destination, increasingly presents a range of options across price classes.