MATI claims tourism on track to maintain growth in 2011, despite Male’ protests

The Secretary General of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) claims the country’s tourism industry remains on track to maintain growth despite recent widely publicised clashes between police and protesters in Male’ during May.

The total number of tourist arrivals to the country between January to April 2011 amounted to 327,563 people, up 16.9 percent over the same period last year, according to official statistics provided by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture. Of this demand, Europe continued to dominate visitor market share during the period.

MATI’s ‘Sim’ Mohamed Ibrahim told Minivan News that, as with for a number of destinations across South Asia, the Maldivian tourism sector had begun to “recover” from the impacts of global financial uncertainty in recent years. Sim said he believed the industry, through the use of strategies such as discounting during the off-season, appeared well placed to continue to profit from growing tourist interest, even with perceived challenges facing the industry relating to taxation and recent protests between police and members of the public.

Sim’s comments were made as the government pledged to increase a 3.5 percent Tourism Goods and Services Tax introduced on January 1 to five percent as part of economic reforms that led to a week of protests and violent clashes in Male’ during the beginning of this month.

These protests, which were said to have been instigated as a “youth movement” despite the involvement of several opposition politicians, saw thousands of Maldivians campaigning on the streets leading to occasional violent clashes that drew international coverage, raising some concerns over tourism safety.

Sim claimed that despite these protest concerns – which the government alleged reflected an attempt by some opposition politicians to “mislead” foreign media over their scale – the demonstrations occurring in Male’ and some islands were completely isolated from the country’s island-based resorts.  He added that the demonstrations would not impact tourism despite some nations issuing travel warnings for the Maldives.

Despite these potential concerns shown by some tourism markets, Sim said that he did not expect a huge negative impact on tourism arrival figures for May 2011 when released by authorities.  The MATI Secretary General added that he was optimistic over the impact of the government’s plans to introduce and extend direct taxation on all travel industry services and goods.

“There was some concern over the [tourism goods and services charge], the government appears to be going in the right direction by pledging to do away with duties such as bed charges by focusing on direct taxes,” he said. “On the whole we believe the tax will be beneficial to the country and the industry.”

From MATI’s perspective, Sim said that the organisation believed that instead of various duties and charges currently imposed by the government, the industry would be better served by replacing these charges with one or two “solid” direct taxes like the existing goods and service charges – a policy he claimed the government were already pursuing.

“We believe this would present a healthier picture for finance [in the industry],” he said.

When addressing potential future growth for visitor numbers amidst the Maldives’ peak tourism season drawing to an end in April, Sim said that “quite a lot” of discounting has been occurring within the industry to try and bolster arrivals.  However, the tourism association secretary general said that the decision to discount was ultimately profitable for the industry.

“We must not lose sight that the Maldives is a good value for money destination. For hoteliers, the most important thing is to keep the [visitor] figures going. There is quite a lot of discounting occurring to try and ensure more confidence to the market,” he said. “We are seeing more Chinese coming and although they may not be as high yield – in terms of spending power – than visitors from markets like Russia, they are arriving in good numbers.”

According to the latest Tourism Ministry figures, during the first four months of the year, European tourists including travellers from destinations like Russia accounted for 67.8 percent of the total market share of visitors compared to the same time last year up by 10.6 percent over the same time in 2010.

Asia and the Pacific represented 28.1 percent of the total tourist market with China alone accounting for 15.3 percent of all tourism arrivals over the period. Over the same time in 2010, visitors from the region increased by 35.1 percent to 92,132 people.

Among other regions, the Americas were found to represent 2.4 percent of the tourism market between January to April 2011, the Middle East accounted for 1.1 percent of arrivals and Africa represented 0.6 percent of the total tourism market.