Wealthy Indians shut out of Maldives as COVID-19 cases surge

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

Wealthy Indians shut out of Maldives as COVID-19 cases surge

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.

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.

Bollywood actress Alia Bhatt at the 20th International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards in Mumbai, September 2019.

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.

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.

Male, the capital island of the Maldives.

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 percent 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.

Source : 9 News More   

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Relief for Aussies on first flight from India

Those who've made it home, are just a fraction of the 9000 wanting to return, prompting calls for Australia to do more.

Relief for Aussies on first flight from India

The first repatriation flight from India landed in Darwin today, marking the end of the government's travel ban from the COVID-ravaged country.

But those who've made it home, are just a fraction of the 9000 wanting to return, prompting calls for Australia to do more.

There were 80 Australians on board the flight, which they had to pay $1500 for plus $3000 for quarantine, and a lot of empty seats.

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More than 40 people were turned away before take-off, after they tested positive at the 11th hour.

Their close contacts were also banned from boarding.

One of the passengers, Akriti Gupta, is now locked down in Darwin's Howard Springs quarantine facility.

She said she was "relieved" but worried for those left behind, including her mother.

"It was a good feeling, definitely it was a good feeling," she said.

There were 80 Australians on board the flight and a lot of empty seats.

"But yeah, with a little fear in my heart."

Today's arrivals are just a tiny fraction of the Australians desperate to escape the India's COVID tsunami, which has swamped millions.

Today, after a two-week ban on arrivals, the former mining camp in the Northern Territory has taken in the first returning Aussies.

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A month-long lockdown in the capital Delhi has seen infections drop by 40 per cent, but the other numbers are dire.

India now has surpassed 24 million cases of COVID-19 with 340,000 of those in the last 24 hours.

Now, there's not only a shortage of oxygen and medical treatment, there's not enough wood for the Hindu funeral pyres.

First repatriation flight from India touches down in Darwin

There are 9000 Aussies still in India to be allowed to board a flight home. They must test negative for COVID twice.

But with a virus running rampant and a health system not coping, there are calls to allow COVID positive people to come home.

"They're distraught, terrified about what's going to happen next," Amar Singh from Turbans 4 Australia told Today.

"So why don't we start with two separate flights, negative and positive, because our mission is to bring these people back, right?".

First repatriation flight from India touches down in Darwin

The next plane from India is due to arrive in Darwin next weekend, while Australia's cricketers who made it out of the COVID hotspot and went to the Maldives are expected home within days.

'More flights to come'

The Federal Government said it is continuing to work to bring more Australians home from India after the first repatriation flight out of the country touched down in Darwin.

Flight QF112 landed in the Northern Territory today at 9.20am (9.50am AEST) where passengers will spend two weeks at a quarantine facility in Howard Springs.

However, nearly half of the 150 passengers were not allowed on the plane due to testing positive to COVID-19 prior to departure, or being a close contact of an infected person.

Australia India COVID

Of the planned passenger group, 72 were banned from the flight home to Australia. There were 48 people who tested positive for the virus and another 24 family members deemed close contacts.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said defended the decision and said there is still capacity for additional Australians to return home throughout the rest of this month.

"We're following the medical advice and ensuring that we protect Australians here and I'm pleased that first flight has arrived and, obviously, there'll be more flights to come," Mr Frydenberg said.

"We invoked the Biosecurity Act because of the need to protect Australians and to ensure that we were doing everything possible to prevent the spread of COVID."

He said the health standards were set high to protect Australians.

Australia India COVID

"A tragedy for them"

High Commissioner to India Barry O'Farrell said it was tragic for those who were set to be on Australian soil this weekend.

"This is a tragedy for them today, and equally for their families in Australia," Mr O'Farrell said.

"We're in the middle of a COVID crisis here in India and it takes 24 hours at least to get the results of a COVID test, so the likelihood of people quickly taking places on the plane is harder than it seems."

A positive diagnosis means Aussies will be stuck in India until they recover.

https://twitter.com/MarisePayne/status/1393073873575321601?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had been working to fill the flight with more passengers but the 48-hour pre-flight testing proved an obstacle.

Qantas flights heading to India to bring back Australian citizens have also been carrying vital supplies to the subcontinent, including ventilators and oxygen concentrators.

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Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said today's flight brought the total number of repatriation flights from India to 39.

"These government-facilitated flights will be focused on returning Australian citizens, residents and families who have registered with our high Commission and consular offices within India and will prioritise the most vulnerable people," Ms Payne said.

Source : 9 News More   

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