More than one year into the pandemic and it’s been even longer since most of us have had a proper holiday.
With travel restrictions still in place and social distancing the norm, UAE families have forgone their usual time off and trips abroad, choosing the safety of staying home (or at work) instead.
But our refusal to take time off is not doing anyone any favours. It’s estimated that 75% of workers are experiencing burnout, and people are at 102% greater risk of depression than pre-pandemic, according to Deloitte. The situation is even worse for parents, who have had to juggle these pressures with childcare responsibilities and impromptu home schooling.
It’s pretty clear: we all could do with a break.
But is it crazy to even attempt a family vacation during the pandemic? Is it really worth the stress, uncertainty and paperwork required? Dubai mum Yvonne Kerr decided it was. The Irish writer and her husband took their two boys – aged 20 months and four years – to the Maldives this April for their first family vacation since before COVID hit. Here’s how it went…
Travelling to the Maldives with kids during the pandemic
My first glimpse of The Maldives is from a seaplane at 7am as we glide over what resemble giant, crystal clear green emeralds, seemingly pulsating amid a vast, deep blue Indian Ocean, but which are actually a sprinkling of tiny, coral islands that shape this spectacular archipelago, each rimmed with the whitest of sand. Even amid the deafening din of seaplane propellers, both my kids are asleep, exhausted after travelling through the night from Dubai. A sign outside Velana airport, Malé declares Maldives as the “world’s leading destination 2020”.
The boast is justified because, as a pandemic destination, The Maldives is almost perfectly designed (with the exception of the capital Malé, where one third of a population of approximately 400,000 Maldivians live; it’s one of the most densely populated cities in the world). Only 200 of almost 2,000 coral islands are inhabited, with a select number of these islands on 26 atolls taken over by secluded, luxury resorts where individual villas are naturally socially distanced. There is an added sense of security in knowing that the time difference at our resort, The Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, is one hour later than in Malé, where the majority of the 25,000-plus Covid-19 cases have been recorded since February 2020. Open to tourists since July 2020, The Maldives has taken advantage of its unique geographical formation by offering heavily discounted deals to travel-starved UAE expats. In April 2021 our family decided to take a calculated risk and become one of them, travelling to the Maldives with our two toddlers for a well-deserved break.
Tots on a plane (during a pandemic)
One of the first things most parents might worry about when it comes to pandemic travel is the plane journey. And both our inbound and outbound flights from DXB-MLÉ and MLÉ-DXB were full. However, all passengers and staff were masked. Being fully vaccinated definitely reduced my stress levels and I also felt relatively safe because my children slept most of the way, but if they had been awake and running around I would have been more nervous – at 20 months and 4 years old they just grab everything, including other people's food trays and juice etc.
I was elated once I got onto the plane as it meant we were actually going. There is no real guarantee in a pandemic that your trip will go ahead until you sit on that plane. There are so many balls in the air (tests, forms, flights, evolving Covid cases) up to that point.
Once we had arrived in Male, we waited for the seaplane in a spacious, air-conditioned resort lounge and then waited outdoors to board with only about 10 other people, so that bit felt safe. But the queue at Velana airport to get through immigration once we exited the plane was very slow with no social distancing and I felt quite nervous then.
Pandemic vacation safety precautions
My husband and I have been vaccinated - although this is not a prerequisite for travel at the moment, it did make us feel a lot safer. One of the most off-putting aspects of travelling as a family during the pandemic is the COVID-19 testing that is required but, although it takes a bit of planning, in reality it is pretty simple and another layer of safety that is actually quite reassuring.
PCR TESTS: All travellers over the age of one year require a negative PCR test result to travel to the Maldives. To reduce costs, we went to a government-run COVID-19 test center in Sharjah (Wasit). Four Covid-19 tests were free. We paid Dh220 (Dh55 each) for four Covid-19 travel certificates. (This option is available for Sharjah residence visa holders only). Results were delivered by text message within 48 hours and travel certs collected from the test centre.
All travellers must also fill out a self-declarative travel form within 24 hours of travel to and from The Maldives. This Imuga form delivers a QR code for each passenger that must be shown at each airport check-in.
Travellers over 12 years require an additional PCR test to return to Dubai from The Maldives, so our children didn’t need to be tested again. This test in The Maldives was very simple and all arranged by our resort, the tests cost US$150 (Dh550) per person.
There is a list of countries, such as Georgia and Turkey, that require a second COVID-19 PCR test upon your return to Dubai, and passengers are advised to quarantine in their homes until results are delivered, usually within 24 hours. UAE nationals are exempt from holding negative COVID-19 test certificates on their return, but must test upon arrival at DXB.
RESORT PRECAUTIONS: At Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, social distancing and safety precautions meant we felt very safe. All staff wore masks and food and beverage staff also wore gloves. Restaurant menus were accessed on our own phones via QR codes. Our temperatures were taken before every meal. Hand sanitising stations stood at every entrance and in every bathroom. Perspex panels divided golf buggy drivers, used by guests and staff to traverse the island, from passengers. The Conrad is part of the Hilton Group that introduced a global ‘CleanStay’ programme in 2020. The resort has a 24-hour health clinic where a qualified doctor and nurse administer PCR tests with results delivered directly to guests via WhatsApp within 24 hours. In case anyone does test COVID positive then they must isolate immediately in their own villa before being flown to an isolation facility in the capital Malé.
Is The Maldives really suitable for young children?
The Maldives is at the top of many a romantic couple’s bucket list as the ultimate honeymoon destination but the same cannot usually be said for families. Maldives resorts are working hard to address this with many properties offering free accommodation for children aged less than 12-16 years or free meals for children aged 6 and under, plus designated kids’ clubs and free transfers for children aged 2 years and under.
One thing to consider is how easy your resort is to access and whether it requires a seaplane. Our resort was a 30-minute seaplane trip from Velana airport in Malé. While this offered spectacular views of the coral islands below, it was also an extension of our journey with young kids, and with our luggage that was weighed and checked in (again). Consider if the length of your holiday is worth the extra time and, in our case, extra cost - as with two large bags and a child’s buggy, we were 18kg over the seaplane limit of 17kg. This cost us US$78 (Dh286).
However, we found the Conrad Maldives to be very kid-friendly. The kids’ club, Majaa Explorers Hub, opens daily at 10am, offering hourly activities until 6pm such as kids’ yoga, water dodge ball, coconut painting and a pirate cruise. Children aged three years and above can be signed in by parents and left under adult supervision. A babysitting service is offered for younger children at the rate of US$18 (Dhs66) per hour. Kids aged under three could stay at the kids club with a parent or guardian.
All 12 restaurants at the resort offer the same kids’ menu (pizza, burger, chicken, hot dog). My boys, aged four years and 20 months, enjoyed the adult activities too, which included a glass bottom boat trip over the coral reef and a trip to the world’s first undersea restaurant Ithaa, where they observed sharks. We found all staff to be extremely helpful with families and our youngest was often whisked off for a little stroll so mum and dad could finish their meal.
Our Deluxe Beach Villa was spacious and furnished with a sofa bed for our oldest and a large cot. We had our own private pool with beach access. Resorts typically do not allow kids aged less than 16 years to stay in an over-water villa but the Conrad Maldives do if parents sign a disclaimer.
Of course a lot depends on the ages of your kids. Mine are young - the four-year-old is easy but I have a busy toddler of 20 months and really, it's difficult to totally relax anywhere with him unless he's asleep! But the kids’ club at our resort was a real haven, where both kids were happy and could play in a safe environment, and also we genuinely found the staff to be incredibly helpful. Aside from this, the resort offered a number of extremely shallow pools where both kids could splash and jump around as we relaxed with a drink in clear view of them.
Will other parents judge you for travelling?
Before we left, we did not feel judged for travelling for pleasure during the pandemic at all. The majority of parents we spoke to were thoroughly excited for us to travel to such an idyllic place. This all changed upon our return however. We felt a tangible COVID-paranoia towards us from families who had not travelled overseas. One neighbour shouted “Hello COVID,” from across the street. It is entirely understandable. The Maldives however is seen as a “safe” destination for travel and as we encountered other guests only at mealtimes and many restaurants were outdoors or open-air, the environment felt totally safe.
Is pandemic travel with kids worth the stress?
It had been almost two years since our last family trip overseas, to Ireland for the birth of my youngest, before we decided to take this trip to the Maldives.
Because it had been so long since we travelled overseas as a family, boarding the plane at DXB with my two children felt extremely surreal and when our seaplane finally landed in The Maldives, literally on the Indian Ocean, I felt as if I was in a dream. The vibrant greens of tropical plants, coconut and Frangipani trees, alongside the luminescent azure blues of the clear coral reef, was breathtaking.
I have travelled a bit and never have I witnessed a myriad of colours so memorable. As we all sat down to drink a fresh coconut juice, to gather ourselves before being taken to our villa, all our stress prior to that moment literally melted away and I felt giddy and so lucky to actually be in the Maldives. Yes there’s a lot more paperwork to sort out when travelling in a pandemic, but it was such a tonic to get away after a full year of so much stress. Four days away felt like two weeks!