Comment: Where is the love? Chinese tourists in the Maldives

In one of Minivan News’ recent articles, a tourism sector official from the Maldives was quoted as saying:

“[E]ven though total arrivals increased, the tourism industry suffered as a whole in 2014.

Total tourist arrivals have increased compared to the previous year. However, as arrivals from Europe and Russia decrease, less income is generated as the replacing Chinese visitors spend less and stay for lesser periods,”

As the Maldivian airline that brought over 30 percent of the Chinese to the Maldives – more than any other foreign or domestic airline – we know a thing or two about Chinese visitors to the Maldives. And we would like to point out that this idea of the Chinese as the poor, pot-noodle-eating, ‘second-class’ tourist is not only offensive, but also untrue.

The data

Don’t take our word for it. Data from the World Tourism Organisation show that at US$102.2 billion, Chinese passengers were by 2012 already the biggest spenders abroad. By 2014 this had reached over US$155 billion, and is expected to hit US$194 billion in 2015.

Individual country results also show similar patterns. According to the US Travel Association, Chinese tourists spend on average US$7,200, compared to US$4,500 from other nationals. Chinese tourists are so important, that some countries, like the UK, are changing their entire visa systems to attract them.

In fact, data from our own tourism ministry also implies that the Chinese are big spenders here in the Maldives too. According to the Maldives Tourism Visitor Survey 2013, 40 percent of Chinese spent over US$5,000 (not including their hotel and air package), while only 27 percent of the Germans, 24 percent of the British, and 23 percent of Russians spent more than this in the Maldives.

So, whichever way you look at it, the data does not agree with the common (mis)perception of Chinese passengers as being poor.

The Chinese ‘fad’

We in the Maldives have consistently been wrong about the China market. Let’s not forget that in 2010, there were senior officials in the tourism sector who regarded Chinese tourists to the Maldives to be a ‘passing fad’.

Thankfully for the Maldives, it wasn’t. Since 2010, the ‘fad’ tripled from about 100,000 to 300,000 today. Chinese tourists are the reason why we count ourselves a million visitor destination today.

Retail therapy

“Yes they are here”, you say. “But they do not spend”.

Despite the statistics above, we believe there is some partial truth to this. The Chinese do not spend like the Europeans on holiday do. This is partly because ‘spending’ for Chinese on holiday meant primarily one thing: shopping.

Unlike Malaysia, Thailand, or Dubai, we in the Maldives do not do ‘shopping’ as a tourism product. So when they first arrived, the Chinese did not have much to ‘buy’: no Burberry scarves, no Godiva chocolates and no Rolex watches. It was not that they lacked money. They were simply not the type to spend US$500 on a bottle of wine (at least not one they could not take back as a gift).

This gave the local tourism industry a perception of the Chinese passenger as ‘poor’. However, those of us who sold duty-free products to them, either at the airport or on their return journeys, knew perfectly well that they were not. On one flight from Male to Beijing, the entire contents of a Mega Maldives Airlines duty-free shopping trolley were sold out. Every single item!

The coming opportunity

That said, it is unlikely that we can, or even want to turn the Maldives into a shopping-focused haven of malls and discount-retail outlets. Luckily for us, we don’t have to. The spending habits of Chinese tourists are changing.

According to research by China UnionPay – one of China’s biggest bank-card association – the importance Chinese customers assign to shopping is falling. According to data analyst at China UnionPay Chen Han:

“The data show that outbound Chinese consumers are focusing more on what they gain from their travel experiences instead of what they buy at their destinations. This shift shows a heightened awareness of ‘quality time’ during their holidays.”

This means that the Chinese tourist is becoming a little more similar to the Western tourist. They will start appreciating cuisine, drinks, spas, diving and all the other ‘experiences’ that make the Maldives unique today. However, this also presents us with an opportunity to develop a much more active and innovative tourism sector product. Maldivian culture does not have to just mean the weekly local cuisine buffet, or the staff ‘bodu-beru’ band of the resort.

We could for example, have festivals of music, art, dances, poetry and literature, all of which will be highly appealing to the Chinese market. We could have talks on conservation, sustainability, nature and the environment – concepts becoming very popular in China. Natural remedies and approaches to health and well-being, as well as meditation and ‘mindfulness’ are also increasingly popular with this market, especially as Chinese cities like Beijing become increasingly polluted.

All of these opportunities generate a lot more in terms of jobs and creative opportunities for our youth, and is much better for us than selling a $20,000 Gucci handbag.

How will we get this diversified product to the tourists? The answer to this question may be difficult, but the Maldives tourism product has shown itself to be highly dynamic. The recent emergence of guest houses is one such example of this dynamism. The current government’s ‘Thumburi project,’ is also another very good opportunity to diversify these products and really develop a product that appeals to the Chinese market.

Where is the love?

Look around you. Every country in the world – from Canada to South Africa – is spending hundreds of millions of dollars in promoting their destination in the hope of attracting Chinese tourists.

But we in the Maldives, with our pristine natural beauty, were able to make the Chinese fall in love with us with little or no effort. It’s about time we put our prejudices aside and learnt to love them back.

Mizna Ahmed is a Director at Mega Maldives.

Related to this story

MMPRC to further boost Chinese visitors with tourism roadshow

Maldives mulls tourism future as China reaches quarter of all arrivals


15 thoughts on “Comment: Where is the love? Chinese tourists in the Maldives”

  1. great read and couldn't agree more. we need to revise the way we approach chinese tourists.

  2. That's a great article for sure - however what about response from the resorts where the Chinese unfortunately do not spend any additional revenue and are often here on B&B rate and have breakfast last minute so need for lunch, and then dinner is pot-noddles.... Or they catch fish and cook them in the hot water kettles in the resort. yes some do spend however you have to know the market to get these individuals to come and spend....

  3. Chinese tourists needs shopping. This can be capitalised only if the shopping at the airport is improved.

    Now only few shops are there and they do not have products for Chineses.

  4. "We could for example, have festivals of music, art, dances, poetry and literature, all of which will be highly appealing to the Chinese market."

    Great idea for all tourists except:

  5. You are very right.Without the right products you are not going to get the Chinese to spend.
    Chinese are no less spenders than Middle eastern or Russian, but you need to get your Burberry stores, Rolex & Cartier stores opened on your high streets.

    It all boils down to what a person wants to spend their money on.

  6. Chinese needs gifts for the family and cousins when returning after holiday.

    But there are no medicum priced shops at the airport. The shops at the airport are positioned to the tastes of Europeans - not Chinese.

    A good idea woud be to create a medium priced shopping mall at the airport. This can be used even by Maldivains.

    But the clique that controls the Maldives airport duty free would not allow it. Because they are not smart.

  7. Great facts Mizna!
    One thing we fail to understand is, *Maldivian tourism has no specific theme these days, and the top ten companies running the industry hardly see eye to eye
    *Although chinese are big spenders, they have to justify their expenditure. Our resorts are extremely expensive to an extent that an international traveller would feel robbed. I dont blame chinese who come for day trip to Male and return with bags full of water, cookies, noodles or biscuits. 1.5ltr mineralized water goes for over $5-12 in resorts yet its just $0.40 in Male or local islands

    We messed up a couple of years back when we shot up our prices on the basis of the filthy rich Russian oil Czars. We jumped from 2 start to 7 star, we increased our lease commitments to the government, we introduced the spa and fine dining concept yet we hardly have local expertise, and therefore opted for expensive expatriates. A salary of GMs in ten top resorts amounts to the salary of the entire ministry of tourism. We are and were simply greedy and never planned, as usual we DO NOT plan anything.

    Maybe Villa, Champa and Bandos still maintain their original markets at affordable rates, but most resorts are ripping off people. Maybe Irufushi may offer a cheap room but the Blackstone (operators of TMA)have raised seaplane charges so high that even a tourist has to think twice before heading to far atolls.
    There are many other reasons why, not only chinese but others spend less today. We are just TOOOOOO expensive yet competitive markets across the borders are offering better service, facilities, options at a third of what we charge. Top hotel chains are developing resorts and hotels in Sri Lanka, and by 2016 they would have more than what Maldives offers.
    History has been a subject Maldivians were never taught and automatically pay no interest to look in the past to plan for tomorrow.
    I suggest we read the political and tourism status of Seychelles, then and now. If I am not wrong, Maldives will be another Seychelles with empty resort islands, collapsed economy and a people with nothing but cries to UN for handouts. I might as well be one of them if the lawmakers continue their political dirty games, and the rich not bothering about developing other industries. Gang warfare, drugs, extortion seem to be normal. We are in deep s**t, and please lets respect the Chinese as without them, we are doomed!!!!

  8. A thought-provoking piece. It's a difficult time for tourism in the Indian Ocean. Still, despite what Facts has written, Seychelles looked to be doing pretty well when I visited last year, despite the high costs.

    Mauritius has gone down the opposite route, chasing the mass market by building ever more hotels. It's a policy that's ruined much of the coastline, alienating ordinary Mauritians who can no longer get to beaches, and it's caused an oversupply that's pushed some hotels into the red. A couple of years ago they held an ill-considered carnival and a farcical 'shopping fiesta', all aimed at the Chinese. The Chinese arrived, but they spent less than the Europeans they replaced. That, though, may well change, as Mizna Ahmed points out.

    Realistically, Indian Ocean islands are never going to be cheap compared with places like Thailand, so Maldives has to play to its strengths not pretend to be somewhere else. The Chinese have plenty of shopping malls in their own country.

    High-spending tourists want authenticity and uniqueness, not Disney fakes, and definitely not souvenirs made in China. The challenge is to offer things that are uniquely Maldivian - high-quality items that people cannot get anywhere else. The writer's suggestion of promoting tourism based on natural remedies, health & well-being and the environment all make good sense too.

  9. yes, China has shopping malls. All countries have shops. But when you travel abroad, its an Asian custom to buy presents to relatives.

    Europeans cannot understnd such concepts easily. Eg, Asian looks after their elderly. Europeans leave it the state to do the 'job'.

    Ok, back to topic. Chinese tourists neeed some thing that represent Maldives. After all thats what souveniers is about. But if you go in to Maldives airport duty free, you fee the mafiasque arrangement ... products from Sri lanka like tea and spice, with the lable Maldives. Even small sand bottles are labled Maldives but Made in Indonesia.
    Fact of the matter is the that tourism Ministry does not have a clue on marketing maldives indegeous products...

  10. its culture stupid on Sat, 17th Jan 2015 1:16 PM

    You talk absolute rubbish. Europeans do buy gifts for family and friends when they travel on overseas holidays and they don't leave it to the state to care for the elderly. Most Europeans pay taxes for their own care and health, therefore not to burden their children with looking after them in their old age.

    It is not a custom in China to care for elderly anymore, but a necessity and with changes from rural working to city factories the Chinese are also abandoning their elderly to care home, but without the state funding so they pay themselves, meaning less to spend on luxury holiday gifts.

    Back to the topic, It isn't the sale of gifts that will continue to attract, it is the lack of anything of historical culture that will see a decline of Chinese visitors.

    Most travellers want to see more than concrete jungles of high rise flats, dirty flooded streets, plastic bottles floating in the ocean, rude ignorant airport staff and streets crammed with motor scooters with uneven paths to walk on.

    Open green places with flora and animals, clean beaches with clear water, historic buildings, polite courteous people greeting them at the airport and genuine local products to take home are what will continue to attract the holiday traveller.


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