Maldives in the Time of Coronavirus
COASTALWATCH | TRAVEL
Story by Dashel Pierson // Photos by Richard Kotch
While most of the world has been stuck at home during the coronavirus quarantine – meandering through our daily commutes from bed, to desk, to refrigerator, then back to bed – some folks found themselves abroad when the pandemic struck.
Some of these international stowaways have been absolutely scoring in the surf department. But, aside from inciting jealousy to their counterparts trapped at home in the COVID bubble with images of empty and impeccable waves, a lot of these international operations are struggling. No visitors = no money for the staff. And in a lot of cases, the lack of surf travel has been absolutely devastating.
One such place is the Maldives. To hear more about the situation there – from the surf, to the economic impact – we hit up Richard Kotch, who runs the surfing operation at Hudhuranfushi Resort and its perfect lefthander, Lohi’s. Check out our chat below.
Hey Richard, how long have you been over there in the Maldives?
We live here for nine months of the year – about early March to late November. But this year, who knows. This year, we got here on the 26th of February. I was aware of what was going on in China and Italy. I spoke to my bosses here, and they basically told me to come on over. They were still fairly optimistic that things were going to be okay. But very quickly, it became clear that things were not okay. The hotel was still open until April. Then we closed, and we’ve been closed since. We think we’re going to reopen early September.
So, no guests whatsoever since April?
Well, this is where it gets a bit interesting. Our hotel ended up being sort of commandeered by the military to be used as a quarantine facility. Once COVID hit Malé [Maldives capital], they were very concerned. It’s a very densely populated place. So, they were concerned it would spread very quickly. Our hotel is the perfect place to quarantine people.
Back in April, we came to the realisation – we’re going to be stuck on this island to see out COVID. This is a pretty good place to be, so we weren’t exactly bummed. People were in far worse situations than ours. But once we heard that the military had taken control of the island, and it was going to be a quarantine facility, we felt a little bit of anxiety. But I’ve gotta say, the Maldivian military did a really good job. There were some positive cases, but there was no outbreak on the island.
Sounds heavy. Did the military ever put any restrictions on surfing?
Thankfully, we were able to surf the whole time. The actual area where Lohi’s is, it’s like its own contained surf zone. There’s a deck out over the ocean, and there’s a little restaurant and bar literally 15 steps from where the wave breaks. We actually put a little fence up across the pathway coming up to Lohi’s to sorta claim this area before the quarantine people came.
What has the economic loss looked like from basically losing an entire season?
It’s massive. This hotel supports so many local Maldivians. You’re talking as many as 170 Maldivians who work here. They support their family and their extended families with these jobs. It’s huge. Everyone is really struggling. They’re so dependent on the hotel, and the tourists who come here. The people who work here – they’re Sri Lankans, Indians, Bangladeshi. Some of the Bangladeshi who work here, they send 90 per cent of their earnings back to their families.
Here’s one example…I’ve had a Bangladeshi friend for a long time here. He was a young guy when I met him; he worked as a deckhand on one of the boats that we’d use to go to other waves. And I remember one day something had shifted in him. He had sent some money home to his young wife, and it was enough money to buy two chickens. Keep in mind, his wedding cost something like $18. Over the next few years, they got to the point where his family owned 10 chickens. Then, eventually, he owned chickens, a goat, and a cow. Because of his job, his family was able to do this. Knowing that now he’s not able to provide for his family, it’s heartbreaking.
On a lighter note, how have the waves been?
The last week the waves have been insanely good. But overall, it’s been a sorta strange season. There’s been a lot of southwest swell, which we don’t really get. When we had a good southeast swell, the wind wasn’t really great for the left. At the moment, though, the waves are as good as it gets in the Maldives.
When people come to the Maldives, they have this image of beautiful waves – nothing super powerful like Chopes or Desert Point. But it’s the most playful surf you can have in your life. And that’s what it’s been like for the past week or so. We’ve had perfect conditions. And it looks like it’s going to continue.
People always ask me, "When should I book?" And I tell them, "You can book any time between March and November and you can guarantee you’ll surf Lohi’s every day." This season it hasn’t really been like that. We had ten days with no surf, which is unheard of. I’ve been here for 13 seasons and I’ve never known it to be this off-and-on.
Do you feel guilty at all when you’re scoring, and all those guests who were supposed to be there are missing out?
You know, I actually don’t. And here’s why – in a typical season, people think you just surf all day. Typically, I only surf for the last half hour of the day. The guests come in and have beers on the deck for sunset. That’s when myself and the other surf guides go paddle out. The guests kind of have priority; they don’t fly around the world to come see us catch waves. So, I feel like we deserve our moment to go on a surf binge when the waves are good.
What’s the crowd been like when you have been surfing?
The most crowded it’s been is two other people in the water. It’s been insane to be in the water and have the pick of the sets. We were talking about it the other day – like, it’s going to be so strange to surf in a crowd again. Right now, sometimes we’ll look at a wave that we let go by and think, "Oh my god. I cannot believe I didn’t swing around and go on that one." But it’s because we have the pick of all the waves. There could be a bigger one behind it, or a slightly hollower one. You get kind of fussy over which waves you do take.
What’re the current travel restrictions in the Maldives?
The Maldives has opened up. We’re getting flights from Qatar and Emirates. There are a few resorts that have reopened, and there are a few charter boats operating now. But it’s still very early days, so we’re not sure what’s going to happen. That’s why our hotel management company hasn’t opened straight away.
How have the pre-existing bookings been handled? Refunds? Credits for future trips?
I keep in pretty regular contact with all the surf agents who sell our trips. They tell me that most people have just changed their trip to 2021. We have some bookings for later this year, and we’re going to wait and see with those. If we don’t end up opening, then they’d likely move to 2021.
What lingering effects from all this do you anticipate? Either from a business standpoint, or for surf travel in general?
If this was just a surf camp, once the world opens up, I would anticipate that it would be full throttle. Surfers are pretty resilient. The first guest back into the Maldives was actually a friend of mine. As soon as the Maldives opened, he was here. Like, the first person through customs. He came for a few weeks. And pretty much everyone else on the flight was a surfer.
Look at the Bali bombings. Surfers never stopped going to Bali after that. I was in Nias after September 11, and there were still a lot of surfers around. After a tsunami or an earthquake, surfers are still hanging out. So, I think if you have a surf camp, you’re going to have no problems once things start opening back up. But for a big hotel like this, where surfing is a small part of a huge operation, then it’s going to be harder. I think normal tourists might be more hesitant. If you’re a surfer and you want to go on a surf trip, you can justify almost anything. The first people who come back here will be surfers – guaranteed.
This article originally appeared on Surfline
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