(CNN) — In most destinations, being a million tourists short over the previous year would be a huge cause for concern, the result of a horrible natural disaster. But that was before 2020, and before the coronavirus pandemic changed the way we travel forever.
The Maldives, an Indian Ocean island archipelago practically synonymous with romance, normally sees north of 1.7 million visitors per year. In 2020, it had around 500,000. And despite the significant decrease, it marks one of the most successful tourism stories amid the pandemic.
The country’s geography also lends itself well to coronavirus protocols. Many hotels and resorts are on their own private islands — there are more than a thousand to choose from, even before man-made islands come into the equation — which makes isolating and social distancing exceptionally easy.
Countries around Asia and the Pacific have been more cautious about reopening than those in Europe and North America, meaning that tourists in the region had few options for places to go.
Understandably, there were some hiccups. The Maldives reopened unconditionally in July, only to walk it back in September by requiring all travelers to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test upon arrival.
The One&Only Reethi Rah (pictured) had its doors open for most of 2020.
Thoyyib Mohamed is the managing director of the Maldives Marketing & PR Corporation, the country’s national tourism authority.
He says that the country received a total number of 555,494 visitors in 2020, surpassing their adjusted arrival forecast of 500,000 arrivals by the end of 2020.
“Our biggest advantage is the unique geographical features of Maldives,” he says, adding that the implementation of strict hygiene protocols combined with the ease of spreading people on different islands made a compelling combination for travelers who wanted to get away from it all.
“We promoted the destination as a safe haven to the tourists.”
Infrastructure played a role as well. Many resorts have private boat or plane transfers built into their packages, meaning that visitors who arrived in the country could get to their final destinations without encountering many — if any — other tourists.
Jan Tibaldi, general manager of the One&Only Reethi Rah, tells CNN Travel that while they didn’t have significantly more visitors in 2020 than they did in 2019, there was a massive increase in the amount of time these visitors were spending there.
“Our guests are traveling less frequently, but for longer and with more purpose,” she said.
As a direct response to the increased amount of time visitors were spending in the Maldives and the fact that most people were going digital-only for work and school, the resort devised a special package for guests staying a full month. The 28-day offering includes meals, high-speed internet, wellness activities and use of a kids’ club and is priced from $42,600 for a family of four.
Still, there’s no such thing as a completely positive travel story when it comes to navigating the new world under Covid.
Many Maldivians who work in hospitality found themselves effectively “stranded in paradise,” forced to stay at the resorts where they worked in order to look after just a handful of guests.
However, the numbers alone show that despite reopening the Maldives has been able to keep the pandemic largely in check.
As of February 2021, the country has had 17,828 confirmed cases and just 58 deaths.