An Olympic swimmer, Arjuna awardee, six-time national champion, and most recently a golfer, there is nothing that Rehan Poncha cannot do, once he sets his mind to it. We caught up with this multi-talented sportsman on life during the lockdown, what travel in the post-COVID world looks like, and why he keeps going back to the Maldives. By Amitha Ameen
1. Why did you choose the Maldives as your first international holiday destination post the lockdown?
2. What preparations were required to travel during the pandemic?
Travel has become a little more complex in the present. You have to take a PCR test 96 hours before travelling and fill out health declaration forms for the Maldives and repeat the same process while returning to India.
Different states have different quarantine and health declaration rules, so you have to check those thoroughly before planning your travel. In my opinion, the check-in and other travel processes in terms of airlines have actually become much more efficient in many ways, with everyone doing web check-ins, etc. Airlines are trying to ensure safety by providing passengers with masks, shields, and PPE kits, but passengers don’t always comply.
Our flight to the Maldives was full, and many passengers refused to wear their masks. So I think, as citizens, we all have to make more effort.
Hotels are also doing a lot to make the stay safer. All the housekeeping staff at Finolhu wore full PPE kits and masks. There were daily temperature checks at all restaurants and hand sanitisation was compulsory before entering the dining areas. Public areas were sanitised often, check-in was done online and in advance, seating was at a distance and food was served in single portions even on the buffet so as to avoid contamination. It was very thoughtful, easy and we felt very safe.
3. How was your stay?
It has been a fantastic and rejuvenating experience that’s left me completely refreshed. This resort was the last one I visited before the lockdown and the first one after! It’s one of my favourite places in the world.
The villas are luxurious, the food is delicious and the hospitality is so warm and welcoming. The reef is teeming with colourful marine life like fish, turtles, rays, and reef sharks that swim around, and it is a really fabulous spot to snorkel or dive.
There is no dearth of activities at the resort. The kids in our group loved the watersport options that were available like kayaking and paddleboarding. I particularly enjoyed the resort’s new indoor golf simulator. It’s the best in the Maldives, and you can play on exotic courses around the world.
4. What experiences do you look forward to indulging in when in the Maldives?
5. Did you face any challenges while travelling during these times?
Our flight back was a connecting one through Bengaluru and the airline just randomly cancelled the Bengaluru-Mumbai leg the night before and sent us a cryptic message saying it was for “reasons beyond their control.” So we had to book an extra night in Bengaluru and rebook flights to Mumbai as the airline did not do that. So there is still some level of uncertainty and it can throw away your travel plans.
6. Any tips for travellers wanting to travel internationally during COVID-19?
7. Your favourite place to take a dip in?
I’ve done a lot of swimming in the Maldives. Depending on what you like, you can plan an expedition to swim with rays and hammerheads, but on this visit as I was with friends, we stayed on the reef around the hotel, which is also very rich. There is a point along the buoys that mark the safety lines about a kilometre out, where the reef drops off into the deeper ocean, and the marine life there is truly spectacular.
8. How have you been spending your lockdown days?
9. What was the last place you travelled to?
Seaside Finolhu was actually the last place I visited before the lockdown, back in February. The hotel has since been refurbished, as earlier, it had a retro vibe and now it’s very contemporary and chic. I also love the food here, and you are provided with an excellent choice between five restaurants. You can choose between eating soft shell crab tacos with your toes in the sand at Crab Shack or opt for a fine-dining Asian experience with great sushi at KanuSan.
10. Any post-COVID travel plans?
11. A destination on your bucket list?
Ladakh in India and a safari in Africa.
12. How do you think the world of travel will change post COVID-19?
Travel will need much more preparation, patience, and cooperation post COVID-19. We will also see many more small group activities and digitalisation to reduce contact. Testing has become faster and cheaper already, and perhaps we will be able to develop instant tests that can make it safer to travel and help revive the sector while we wait for the vaccine.