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Maldives travel ban: The Bollywood bolthole during India's second Covid wave now shuts out wealthy Indians

CNN logo CNN 5/15/2021 By Jessie Yeung and Meenketan Jha, CNN
a blue and white boat sitting next to a body of water: Lily Beach Resort & Spa on Huvahendhoo Island, Maldives © Provided by CNN Lily Beach Resort & Spa on Huvahendhoo Island, Maldives

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.

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.

a group of people on a beach in front of a tree: The Maldives plans to offer vaccinations to travelers in a bid to boost tourism. © Carl Court/Getty Images The Maldives plans to offer vaccinations to travelers in a bid to boost 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.

a group of people in a room: A medical worker swabs a man for a Covid-19 test in Male in June, 2020. © Ahmed Shurau/AFP/Getty Images A medical worker swabs a man for a Covid-19 test in Male in June, 2020.

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.

a group of people on a street in front of a building: People line up to receive the Covid-19 vaccine in Male, Maldives, on March 15, 2021. © Xinhua/Getty Images People line up to receive the Covid-19 vaccine in Male, Maldives, on March 15, 2021.

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

In the early weeks of April, several Bollywood stars posted sunny beach photos and vacation shots on social media -- angering the Indian public and film industry figures who accused them of flaunting their wealth at a difficult time for many poorer Indians.

"These entertainment celebrities (are) posting vacation pictures at a time when the world is reeling under the worst recession," said Bollywood actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, according to CNN-News18. "People don't have food and you are wasting money."

Even celebrities who didn't fly to Maldives faced blowback for not doing more to help curb the spread of Covid-19. Critics argued the stars' massive social media base could be used to amplify calls for help or to coordinate efforts on the ground.

It appears some may be listening.

Since paparazzi images purported to show her leaving India for Maldives, Bhatt has shared helpline numbers for non-government organizations and state governments on her social media accounts. In one post in late April she said India was facing "a time of great uncertainty."

In early May, Bhatt and a number of other celebrities also took part in a virtual fundraiser, "I Breathe For India," that raised more than $2 million in Covid relief funds.

Covid spreads in India's neighbors

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.

This April, officials announced plans to offer vaccinations to tourists on arrival, once all Maldives residents had received their shots. So far, around 25% of locals have been fully vaccinated, according to data compiled by CNN.

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.

Maldives is not the only place in Asia battling a Covid resurgence. The India outbreak has been linked to a rise in infections in several nearby countries, with many reporting cases of a variant first detected in India.

Cases have skyrocketed in Nepal to the north and Sri Lanka to the south. And it's not just India's neighbors -- further away in Southeast Asia, case numbers are also rising in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia.

The rapid spread of the virus has placed enormous pressure on the countries' health systems and medical supplies, and some have called for international assistance.

But a handful countries in the region have been relatively unscathed by India's second wave -- and remain open for visitors.

Maldives' restrictions mean many wealthy Indians are now looking elsewhere for a getaway -- and Dubai is emerging as a top alternative destination, with bookings increasing by up to 10% in recent weeks, said Mehra. Some customers have paid up to $1,400 for a ticket -- five times what it normally costs on a commercial flight, Mehra said.

The Maldives travel ban aside, similar flight restrictions from other countries could also be driving the increase in traffic to Dubai, he added.

graphical user interface: Bollywood actress Alia Bhatt at the 20th International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards in Mumbai, September 2019. © Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images Bollywood actress Alia Bhatt at the 20th International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards in Mumbai, September 2019.
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