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The Maldives going flat out on tourism

The Maldives may be the flattest country in the world — just 2.3 meters at its maximum elevation — but tourist arrivals and new carriers flying there continue on a steep upward trend.
Image: Maldives
The sun-drenched Maldives is the flattest country in the world, just 2.3 meters (7 feet 7 inches) in elevation at its highest land point. It is made up of 1,192 islands, all of them open to tourists.Maldives Board of Tourism
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The Maldives may be the flattest country in the world — just 2.3 meters at its maximum elevation — but tourist arrivals and new carriers flying there continue on a steep upward trend.

In fact, so ambitious is the country’s tourism target that over 50 new resorts will be built over the next four years, necessitating new carriers to enter the market and existing ones to increase service to the sunny island paradise, reports Routes News.

Tourism is the country’s main industry, providing vital employment and foreign investment for the tiny, geographically isolated island state. Much of its 300,000 population is employed by the tourism industry, and the government is serious about increasing employment in the sector even further, while maintaining its exclusive and eco-friendly ‘one resort per island’ policy.

All 1,192 islands have now been opened up to tourists, with 89 resorts currently in operation and a further 50 planned (adding 11,000 beds), which should help persuade new carriers to enter the market.

“The Maldives has an Open Skies policy and we will always welcome new airlines that want to do business here. Tourism is the main source of income for the country so we will do whatever we can to support new services and products,” said Abdulla Naim, deputy director of the Maldives Tourism Promotion Board.

According to Naim, tourism arrivals climbed steadily last year, with January-October experiencing a 13 percent increase over the same period in 2006. He believes this is indicative of the destination’s steadily growing popularity throughout the world’s general leisure travel market, as well as with celebrities trying to escape the glare of the paparrazi's flashbulbs.

“Celebrities holidaying here are helping to raise our profile — something we have particularly noticed since Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes honeymooned here,” he added.

European tourists in the majority
Unsurprisingly, sun-seeking Europeans account for the majority of visitors to the islands —representing around 80 percent of arrivals. Of this, UK tourists make up the biggest share, followed by Italians and Germans. Adopted ‘national’ carrier, SriLankan Airlines, offers a large number of flights to Male from Colombo and a number of European carriers have also been serving the island for many years, but Naim warns that more services will be required if the new resorts are to be filled.

“The Maldives is well served from key European markets, but we are also going to need to see the development of more routes and new carriers into the country,” he said.

The Gulf carriers in particular have made strong inroads into the market recently, with Emirates and Qatar offering 14 and seven weekly flights respectively. This trend is a positive one, says Naim, who believes there is a lack of business class seats to the country — something the Gulf carriers are in a good position to address with their excellent business-class products.

“We need more business class seats. This is particularly true out of the Gulf markets, such as the UAE," he commented. "We are looking at Etihad coming in as it is already difficult to get business class seats on Emirates and Qatar from that region. When visitors are paying top dollar for their holiday, they don’t want to fly economy class, so we need to increase the volume of business class seats into Male.”

New air services
In addition to Emirates and Qatar, low-cost Jazeera Airways recently launched two new flights from Kuwait to Male — something the Maldivian government wants to see more of.

“The government is trying hard to give special concessions to new airlines and has approached Virgin Atlantic, which has showed some interest. This strategy will also become more aggressive as the new resorts start to open,” said Naim.

Other scheduled carriers include Singapore Airlines (daily), Malaysia Airlines (three times weekly) and Bangkok Airlines, while chartered operators include Condor, Monarch and First Choice. More good news is that Gam Airport — an hour’s flight from Male — is poised to receive its first international service from German airline Condor in early 2008.

“Condor originally planned to launch the new route in November but the resort’s opening was delayed. Now the plan is to begin the twice-weekly service in mid-January, direct from Germany,” said Naim, who believes the new service is very important, both politically and economically, for the region.

“Much of the population from that area is already working in tourism, but elsewhere in the country. This new resort and route will mean they can be closer to their families and it will also provide jobs and improve the lives of others in the region,” he said.

While things look positive on the air services side, the main gateway, Male International Airport, is in need of an upgrade and expansion — particularly if it is to serve new airline clients adequately.

“The airport will need to offer better services and facilities, and to this end there is a Masterplan in place,” Naim pointed out. “The airport is currently very small and there are congestion problems there on two or three days of the week when all the European flights arrive or depart at the same time. This is an issue that is being addressed.”

Top-end tourism
While the Maldives is known as a top-end, luxury product, the majority of visitors still arrive on package holidays, seeking sun, privacy and relaxation.

“The Maldives offers a niche luxury product and it will never be for the mass market,” he said.

“We place a lot of emphasis on the middle part of the market though, and therefore on charter traffic. While the Maldives is not cheap, I believe it offers real value for money. When you look at the big picture of what you are getting for what you are paying, it is relatively reasonable. Visitors enjoy a huge amount of privacy, private beaches, excellent service and brilliant food, so it really is an all-round quality offering.”

In particular, tourists adore the luxury spa offerings on the islands, which allow them to completely unwind and relax, and the country is fast gaining a reputation as a spa tourism hotspot.

“Spa tourism is now very popular here and almost every resort has a spa. There are over-water spas and underwater spas — they are everywhere. This is one area where there is a lot of money going into the resorts," said Naim. "Diving is also a significant niche area and there is a plan mooted for a golf course on one of the islands, but this will take a few years to develop.”

One competitive advantage the Maldives has is that it is not a particularly seasonal destination, unlike many other sunny holiday spots — and particularly those that receive monsoon rains. Carriers, therefore, are better poised to service the destination consistently throughout the year instead of having to lay on extra flights with extra equipment during certain months.

Year-round destination
“The Maldives is not a seasonal destination, although the European winter is definitely busier as Europeans come over in search of the sun,” said Naim. “But even the monsoon season can be nice as it doesn’t rain constantly and is still warm. The islands are also attracting a growing number of visitors from other markets, in particular Australia, South Africa, Russia and China, who visit us throughout the year.”

In particular, the Russian and Chinese markets are developing quickly. He explains that China Eastern Airlines recently launched an interesting route from Shanghai to Johannesburg via Male, which is now bringing in more tourists from both China and South Africa.

“Many of our Russian visitors travel by private jet and they enjoy the privacy that the islands afford them. They also tend to spend a lot when they are here, which is good for the industry,” he added.

Once tourists make it to Male, transportation around the islands is via seaplane or speedboat. With over 40 seaplanes in operation — the largest fleet of its kind in the world — the 199 inhabited islands are relatively accessible.

Effects of the 2004 tsunami
While the picture now looks rosy for the Maldives, three years ago it was a different story when the country was left reeling by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. A World Bank assessment two months after the disaster showed that total damages to the country amounted to about $470 million — close to 62 percent of the country’s GDP.

Twenty islands were devastated, with almost one third of the country’s 300,000 population affected directly. However, in two short years, the country has bounced back stronger than ever before and is again focused on rebuilding its tourism and aviation industry.

Just a year after the disaster, statistics from Pacific Asian Tourism Authority (PATA) showed that the tourism industry was on its way to recovery. Arrivals leapt from 263,467 in 2005 to 434,987 in 2006 (up 65 percent) on the back of very low arrivals figures in 2005. Of this, France saw the biggest increase in 2006, up nearly 166 percent, followed by Italy at 92 percent.

So, with this continued growth and more predicted over the coming year, while the islands themselves may be flat, the Maldivian tourist and travel market is anything but.