Maldives opens to tourists amid workers protests post Covid-19 lockdown

Male, Jul 15 (efe-epa).- The Maldives government on Wednesday re-opened the idyllic island nation to global visitors after around four months of the coronavirus crisis and amid growing protests among foreign workers employed in the country’s construction and tourism sectors that have been hard hit by the pandemic.

The first batch of visitors touched down at the Velana International Airport around 8.30 am local time aboard a Qatar Airways flight that took off from Doha, carrying 129 passengers, the airport’s media officer Hassan Areef said.

“We welcomed the first tourists today that arrived in the Qatar Airways flight. (There were) 125 tourists and the rest were locals arriving back in the country,” Areef said.

The Maldives had enforced a lockdown on Mar.27 after the first coronavirus cases were detected in the congested capital of Male, severely impacting its economy, almost entirely driven by tourism.

To lure global tourists back to its luxury island resorts, the Maldives has scrapped visa regulations and will issue a free 30-day tourist visa on arrival.

The travelers will not be quarantined but must undergo thermal screening at entry, besides submitting a health declaration form before travel.

However, travelers with symptoms of Covid-19 upon arrival will be subject to tests at their cost. They will be quarantined at a designated isolation facility or at a center in their destination resort.

Tourists are not required to pay any additional fee or produce health certificates indicative of negative status for Covid-19 for entering the Maldives.

The reopening of the island comes amid protests by foreign workers who have allegedly not been paid for months by their employers at a resort.

Moreover, they have complained of inhuman living and work conditions in the country that hosts about 100,000 migrant workers, mostly from Bangladesh, employed in the construction and tourism industries that were badly hit by the health crisis.

The protests turned violent after the migrants ransomed 13 Maldivians on the island and attacked a group of policemen who had come to their rescue.

The country’s home ministry on Tuesday declared that under the 2016 Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act, street protests and marches were not allowed without prior written approval from the police, except in one closed-off location in the capital, Male.

Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday that the government was enforcing restrictions on protests that violate fundamental rights and threaten civil society groups for supporting peaceful protests.

“The Maldives president campaigned on a promise to abolish laws curtailing free speech and assembly but now his ministers are resorting to the previous government’s old tricks to prevent protests,” Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has caused enormous challenges for the Maldives, but instead of hearing out these desperate migrant workers, the Solih administration is trying to silence them by restricting peaceful assembly.”

The rights group said the government was obligated under international human rights law to respect and uphold the right of everyone to peacefully protest.

The reopening of the borders is part of measures to ease the lockdown in the country and resume economic activity, as announced by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih earlier this month.

“As we open our borders, our aim will be to recover as soon as possible,” he said.

According to the tourism ministry, 34 out of the total 157 resorts in the country were opened on Wednesday. Meanwhile, many resorts have announced postponing their reopening by a few months.

Tourism, which forms the main pillar of the country’s economy, has come to a standstill due to the stringent public health measures taken to curb the spread of Covid-19.

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