Maldives leads tourism recovery, buoyed by Russian travelers


Nikkei Asia

Several Asian destinations benefit from limited choices after war

A resort on the Maldives’ Gaafu Alifu Atoll: The idyllic islands are enjoying a tourism rebound, thanks in part to Russian travelers.   © AP

HONG KONG — The Maldives is ahead of other Asian destinations in terms of attracting tourists in the wake of COVID-19, thanks in part to flocks of travelers from Russia who have been shunned by many countries following the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Over 523,000 foreign tourists visited the tropical island country in the first quarter of this year, up 8.5% from the same period in 2019 and making the Maldives one of the first nations where arrivals have exceeded pre-pandemic levels.

Russian nationals made up the largest chunk of those visitors with 65,060 arrivals, more than double the figure for the same time in 2019. The Maldives was not a hot spot for Russians until 2021, when the smallest nation in South Asia bucked the global trend to keep its airports open at the height of the delta wave of the coronavirus.

The Maldives’ popularity has remained even as the pandemic ebbed, especially after Europe and North America banned Russian flights from traveling over their airspace following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last year. That has made it difficult for holidaymakers from Russia to reach some of their favorite destinations in Europe.

Unlike European nations, countries in South and Southeast Asia have kept their doors open to Russian tourists. Aeroflot, Russia’s flag carrier, regularly flies between Moscow and the Maldives’ Velana International Airport.

In Sri Lanka, one in five international tourists was Russian in the first four months of this year, more than from any other country. The 95,000 Russian visitors over the period compares to 43,000 for the same time in 2019.

Over the same period, Russians also made up 8% of tourist arrivals in Thailand with more than 682,000 visits, ranking third after Malaysians and Chinese. Moreover, they made 21,631 visits to Cambodia in January and February, nearly 70 times more than the same period the year before.

But for Vietnam, the number of Russian visitors dropped significantly after the country suspended direct flights to Moscow. About 45,000 people arrived from Russia in the first four months, down from 274,000 during that period in 2019.

China used to be a top source of tourists for these countries, but its stringent zero-COVID policy dampened people’s enthusiasm to head abroad. The nation eventually reopened its borders in January, but the recovery in outbound tourism has been tepid since then.

Chinese people made 17,691 trips to the Maldives in the first three months of 2023, less than one-fourth the level during that time in 2019.