Dollar shortage threatens to ground local airline sales

Sales agents for some international airlines operating in and out of the Maldives have said that a lack of US dollars circulating within the economy is causing concerns, and in some cases, temporary cessation of their day-to-day operations.

Galaxy Enterprises, which operates as a general sales agent for Sri Lankan Airlines in the country has said that it has temporarily stopped selling airline tickets in the country. The group have forwarded potential customers to the Sri Lankan Airlines official website to process booking requests.

The announcement comes as financial institutions like the Bank of Maldives concede that the high level of imported goods bought into the economy are not being matched by US dollar generating industries inside the Maldives. The bank has said that the disparity had created a “lag” in terms of supply and demand for the currency.

The situation this week led to police – with the assistance of the Madives Monetary Authority (MMA) – trying to crackdown on sales of the country’s US currency beyond the pegged rate of Rf12.75 per dollar at black market rates as high as Rf16.

In the statement issued by Galaxy Enterprises and printed in newspaper Haveeru today, the group said it had been forced to suspend sales of Sri Lankan Airlines flights as it was not receiving sufficient US dollars through the banks to pay the airlines after selling tickets to its customers in rufiyaa. The group said that it will resume selling Sri Lankan Airlines tickets once the dollar shortage was perceived to have “eased”.

Galaxy Enterprises is not alone in witnessing operational difficulties as a result of the state of the nation’s finances.

Tyronne Soza, Maldives Country Manager for Mack Air Services Maldives, which represents the local interests of multinational aviation group John Keells Airlines, said that dollar supply was a major concern for its operations, although it continues to sell tickets.

“We are having some issues with obtaining and paying in dollars right now. As we are part of the John Keells group we have been able to manage the situation though,” Soza said. “It’s illegal to charge customers in dollars and obviously we accept rufiya, but it is difficult.”

John Keells serves as a holding company for aviation groups link Jet Airways and Sri Lanka-based Mihin Lanka.

Not all operators have shared these currency concerns though, with senior management for one of the world’s highest profile airlines, which works through Universal Enterprises in the country, claiming it was “business as usual” despite reports of dollar concerns amidst some competitors.

Last week, Peter Horton, the recently appointed CEO of Bank of Maldives told Minivan News that he believed the country desperately needed new ways of creating a US dollar income to try and overcome the crisis.

“A reality of the economy is that we are importing so very much, and we have so few dollar generating industries. In very simple terms, any downturn in the economy incur losses in the economy when turnover drops below break-even level. That is where we are as an economy – our revenue in dollar terms, in terms of the imports we require, is lagging,” the CEO, a British national, claimed.

“We need to look at ways of keeping dollars in the country as much as possible. [A] number of entitites are taking money out of the country – and are free to do so without exchange control. I think we also need to look at other ways of enhancing dollar revenues through fresh or new industries – and I would include financial services among those industries.”

Horton added that the issue had been compounded by economic uncertainty within international financial markets during the last few years, representing a massive national challenge that needed to be overcome.

However, police attempts to crack down on potential black market dollar sales are claimed by some low-wage expatriate workers to have exacerbated difficulties faced in trying to transfer and provide funds abroad.

Many of the country’s 100,000 foreign workers, particularly a large percentage of labourers from Bangladesh, are paid in Maldivian rufiya by their employers and are forced to change the money on the blackmarket at rates often higher than the government’s pegged rate of Rf12.85, before sending the money to their families.

The set dollar rate in the Maldives is Rf12.75, however during the dollar shortage it has increased to 13, 14, 15 and sometimes even as high as 16 on the black market.

However, banks routinely refuse to change rufiya into dollars, and experts have claimed that the crackdown will do little to address the demand for foreign currency or the budget deficit, which has led to the pegged rate not reflecting the value of the rufiya.