Tourism in the Maldives is making a dramatic turn under a new president. Earlier this month in Beijing, a group of Chinese travel agents told a delegation from the Maldives what would be needed to increase the number of tourists from Mainland China. Affordability was the key. The Maldives has never been known for affordability. The competition between international luxury hotel brands has never been fought over price, but the emergence of short-haul markets in its region, such as India and China, are giving the destination a chance to diversify.
On July 1, the Maldivian government revealed solid figures showing an 11.9 percent increase in tourist arrivals for the first five months of the year. Between January and May, a total of 624,178 tourists arrived at the country’s gateway, Hulhule Island where the international airport is located, even as earnings grew 35.8 percent to $901.8 million in that period. Hardly an environment that called out for radical change, but the potential of these huge short-haul markets and perhaps an underlying sense that the country’s tourism was too devoted to the wealthiest of travelers, encouraged the move.
Tourism is not an afterthought in the country, which has had some political upheaval in recent years. The latest was a 2012 coup on the island of Male, site of the capital. Tourism makes up 28 percent of GDP in the Maldives. Though the country’s first popularly elected president was forced from office, the crisis took place far from the country’s tourism. Located in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives are made up of some 1,200 islands scattered among 26 different atolls across an area about the size of Portugal.
Most Americans who vacation in the Maldives fly there via Dubai and often combine an extended island stay with a few days of luxury shopping in Dubai. The waters of the Maldives are known for their singular clarity and teeming coral reefs, making the destination a favorite with divers. The Maldives would appeal only to American travelers with plenty of time and money. To diversify the country’s tourism product, the government is proposing to build guest houses that target travelers at the three- and four-star level; a real departure from the existing model, which is basically, one high-end resort per island. The government chose the island of Thumburi in the Laamu atoll for its first guest house. The project includes a 2,100-bed resort.
When first broached, the government insisted that only Maldivians be permitted to invest in such projects, but in Beijing the delegation courted Chinese investment for the proposed guesthouse project, which the Chinese travel agents heartily endorsed because it meant resort development in the mid-market range. Private hoteliers are also beginning to drift lower in the market also. In June, COMO Hotels and Resorts soft opened its second property in the island nation, the 66-room Maalifushi by COMO. The Cocoa Island by COMO, located further north in the South Malé atoll, opened in 2002. The new property, located in the Thaa Atoll, would sit comfortably in the high upscale range with rates beginning at $650 per night. While that price point is hardly low, it’s below the high-end big flag brands in the Maldives such as Four Seasons, Jumeirah and Six Senses to name a few.
Both overwater and garden accommodations at the Maalifushi are suited to families with small children. The island is surrounded by smaller uninhabited islands, one which can be booked for picnics or romantic private dinners. The resort’s overwater accommodations include luxury suites and three two-bedroom villas with private pools. Public amenities at the resort include the all-day Madi restaurant; the COMO Shambhala Retreat spa with gym, eight overwater treatment rooms, and yoga pavilion; an on-island Dive Center and guided diving excursions led by a Marine Biologist and certified PADI instructors.
Unfortunately, there is a political aspect to all of this. Maldivian President Abdullah Yameen made an official boycott of all Israeli products and the annulment of all bilateral agreements with Israel this week in what he characterized as support for Palestinians. Part of the motivation for the ouster of former president, Mohamed Nasheed, was based on the anger many felt in the Maldives because he had gone to some lengths to open relations with Israel. New tourism product designed to appeal to local tourism markets would certainly help the new Maldivian government to make these kinds of stands in the western markets that so many of its current hotels rely on, though only 2,569 Israeli tourists visited the Maldives in 2013.
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- Chinese Tourists to Maldives up by 20.2% in first half of 2014 @ Global Post (2014)