Flights between Europe and the Maldives have been grounded due to the volcanic eruption in Iceland last week, uncovering the vulnerability of the tourism industry in the Maldives.
Although experts are saying that Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano had been erupting since March, it was last Wednesday’s eruption that created a thick cloud of volcanic ash which has spread over Europe and Scandinavia, grounding flights all over the continent.
Flights between Europe and the Maldives have also been affected, with British Airways, Sri Lankan Airlines, Air Berlin and Italian carriers Meridiana Fly cancelling flights to the Maldives until today, pending further instruction from Eurocontrol, the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation.
‘Sim’ Mohamed Ibrahim from the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) said “the cancellation of flights shows the vulnerability of the tourism industry to outside forces.”
Sim said the most important thing to note in this situation was “how vulnerable and dependent we are on external influences” and how much “incidents that we can’t control” affect the industry.
He said at the moment this is “not such a huge problem for resorts” but noted “people are not happy. Obviously, we are doing the best we can. The situation is very difficult to manage.”
Sim said although some resorts are “taking it very seriously and responsibly,” others were not doing as much as they could to ensure their guests were kept as happy and comfortable as possible under the circumstances.
“There is very little we can do,” he said, “there is no way anyone can leave or come [to the country].”
He noted Minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture Dr Ali Sawad has called for a meeting today with industry leaders, stockholders, travel agents and tour operators to discuss the best way to deal with the situation and the stranded passengers.
Dr Sawad said an estimated 63,000 flights have been cancelled in Europe from the 15-18 April, meaning about 5-6 flights a day scheduled to travel to the Maldives were also cancelled. He said around 15 flights directed to the Maldives have been cancelled from 17-19 April.
“This is an unprecedented situation,” he said, adding that a “common approach” needed to be agreed upon by the tourism industry on how to respond.
Dr Sawad said the government is discussing “how the ministry could facilitate the situation,” and assured that they were working with the immigration department so “visa and passport issues could be streamlined.”
He said some tourists are choosing to stay in the Maldives until their flights are re-scheduled, while some are trying to be re-routed.
“The problem is some people may have over-spent their budget,” he said, noting that “there must be some arrangement” made by the government and the tourism industry to facilitate the situation for foreigners.
He noted that industry leaders were now communicating with insurance companies to see how much impact this has had and how much damage is covered by insurance. Reports in the UK today were warning travellers that many insurance policies had ‘Act of God’ escape clauses that would leave travellers to fend for themselves.
“I’m sure tour operators and travel agencies are technically geared for this, but we must discuss it,” Sawad said, noting that the meeting later this afternoon would clear up the details and extent of the damage to the industry.
Over twenty European countries are being affected by air restrictions caused by the volcanic ash, with many closing their airspace completely.
Statistics from Eurocontrol show that on 16 April, one day after the eruption, 20,000 flights would have normally taken place in European airspace, but only 11,000 flights took place. By 18 April, the expected average of 24,000 flights was dramatically reduced to only 5,000.
The British High Commission in Colombo has sent a message to stranded British nationals advising them to seek consular support and to check with their airline before going to the airport.
Airlines are offering passengers the choice of booking a later flight or getting a full refund, have advised to check with the airline before travelling to the airport. Some airlines have begun carrying out test flights, but most flights are still grounded until further notice.
The cancellation of flights has also affected many other import/export businesses in the Maldives, with many businesses being unable to send or receive their goods until flights resume.