The shifting demographics of the Maldives tourism industry presents new challenges – and a great many opportunities – for the country to grow as a destination, says CEO of new Maldivian flag carrier Mega Maldives, George Weinmann, during a ceremony in Male’ this week to mark the airline’s launch of direct flights to Shanghai and Beijing.
Since its maiden flight between Gan and Hong Kong early this year, Mega has focused on the country’s booming Chinese market. Chinese visitors last year showed the highest number of arrivals over more established markets, and were widely credited with insulating the Maldives from the effects of the economic recession afflicting the UK and Europe.
Weinmann emphasises that “while the Chinese market is now the number one market for the Maldives, is still not a mature market.”
“The agents in China don’t know the Maldives as well as the European agents who have been coming here for 30 years,” he explains. “The new agents are often asking us for help finding hotel rooms, and negotiate with the hotels – it’s not really our job, we’re an airline and there’s plenty of travel agencies on both sides – but oftentimes they aren’t connected. There have been incidents in the past where certain agents get very excited and think they can just fly their guests here, only to find there are no hotel rooms for their guests.”
Without intending to become a travel agency, the airline had found itself becoming an intermediary between the Chinese tour operators and resorts, he says, many of which are still getting to grips with the unique demands of the new market.
“We talk to resorts that are suffering with occupancy, perhaps 30-40 percent,” says Mega’s Marketing Director Ali Faiz, “and see how we can help each other. We also meet with resorts that are popular with the Chinese market and offer our jet to help them sell the Maldives.”
Whereas European guests tend to stay up to two weeks at resorts, the current trip pattern for Chinese visitors is very short – “four nights, five days,” says Weinmann.
“They are much more activity focused – a little less sun and sea, a little more doing things on a boat,” he says. “Like every other market they are very food conscious – but the type of food they are looking for is different, which for instance affects how we cater for inflight meals – although everyone likes ice-cream,” he adds.
Moreover, “as someone who has lived in China for seven years – they are huge spenders. The Chinese love to buy things. One complaint they may have with the Maldives is that there is not enough stuff to buy – they come here often with large wads of money and then go home with it. That’s an opportunity for local businessmen.”
The market is also rather risk adverse, which the fledgling airline found to its detriment in May when Hong Kong authorities issued a travel warning for the Maldives, triggered by excitable global media coverage of opposition-led protests in Male’.
“That was a near tragedy for us. We almost didn’t survive that period,” Weinmann acknowledges. “It came at the same time as changes on our side with pricing, and we almost lost the entire month of May because people who had been intending to go to the Maldives but hadn’t yet bought their tickets decided not to go.
“There was very low additional sales in May. Those people who had already bought their tickets – who had spent hundreds of dollars on rooms – couldn’t get that money back so they came anyway, and of course there were no problems. But when a warning like that goes out, anybody who has the discretion to choose not to buy, to choose somewhere else or postpone their trip, will do so. It doesn’t matter if it’s a yellow, red or black warning – it’s a huge hit. Just ask people in Thailand about what they experienced during their local turmoil. It is a roller-coaster ride in terms of bookings.”
Mega worked with resorts and the government to try and reassure visitors that the protests were limited to a few streets of the capital city – which few visitors to the country even set foot on.
“Recovery takes time,” Weinmann says. “When the incidents are over, then you have to go out and educate the market and tell all the travel agents what is going on. For a market like China that is growing as fast as it is, they do have other choices, and they are not as comfortable with the Maldives as the European market, which sees such incidents as a small bump in road.”
“We did obviously recover,” he adds, “because we launched Beijing-Shanghai a couple of months later, and that’s been very successful.”
Mega subsequently decided to introduce free cancellation insurance for every ticket, covering the first night of accommodation in the event of a delayed flight, which Weinmann explains was a way of offsetting the non-negotiable cancellation policies of many resorts in the Maldives.
“It’s one of the biggest issues in the Asian market right now,” he said. “We are competing against other Asian markets such as Bali and Thailand, and other island destinations such as Guam that are developing very fast, and in many of these countries hotels don’t have the kind of cancellation policies that exist in the Maldives. It makes it more risky for tour operators to sell the Maldives – we’re trying to eliminate that risk.”
Weinmann believes the Maldives also has room to grow existing markets, and said Mega hoped to launch flights to so-called ‘tier 2’ cities and stimulate growth in places such as Eastern Europe.
Korea also has more potential, he explained, noting that Mega would introduce a flight to Seoul in September.
“There are current five wide-body aircraft flying between Korea and Hawaii every day. That’s a nine hour flight, and the Maldives is probably a little cheaper.”
India, on the Maldives’ doorstep, was exactly two years behind China he predicts.
“But it’s a challenge that regulations prevent a Maldivian carrier flying more than 200 seats to Mumbai or Delhi. We have 250 seats, and we’d like to change that.”
Cargo imports are another growth opportunity, Weinmann says, announcing 15 discounted tickets to kickstart a trade delegation of Maldivian traders and businessmen to find opportunities in China.
“Right now all the cargo coming into the Maldives goes through Sri Lanka, Singapore or Dubai,” he explains. “Not much is produced in these locations, it’s all coming from somewhere else – a lot of it from China. We want to increase direct imports from China which should mean less cost and cheaper prices, as there will be less middlemen involved.”
Meanwhile, the airline has begun recruiting more Maldivian cabin crew, in addition to the two classes already through, and is currently training six Maldivian pilots and soon, engineering cadets. Weinmann predicts the company will employ over 100 Maldivian staff by the end of the year.
“We not doing this just because we want to, but because it’s the right thing for the airline. We think Maldives aviation can grow a lot further,” he says.