As the Maldives looks to boost tourism arrivals following negative international coverage of the country’s political unrest this year, one leading branding consultant has said destinations looking to overcome bad headlines rarely find quick fix solutions to improve their image.
Following the controversial transfer of power that brought President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan to office on February 7, negative headlines regarding the political situation and violent clashes between civilians and security forces were deemed as having an adverse affect on tourism in the Maldives.
However, tourism authorities this week talked optimistically of the prospects for growth in the industry following several months of uncertainty that it said impacted growth – predicting a resurgence in international visitors towards 2013.
Earlier this week, Deputy Minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture Mohamed Maleeh Jamal claimed “the hard days” were over for the Maldives tourism industry, after a Commonwealth-backed report last week rejected accusations that the present government came to power illegally.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed and the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) have continued to allege that they were removed from office in a “coup detat”, claiming the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) failed to include key witness statements and evidence in its findings.
Amidst the uncertainty since February’s power transfer, tourism authorities in the country have pursued a strategy of collaboration with the country’s private sector to try and strengthen arrival numbers to the country. This focus included signing a US$250,000 (Rf3.8million) advertising deal to promote the country’s tourism industry on the BBC through sponsorship of its weather services.
In April, the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) confirmed the appointment of New-York based public relations agency Ruder Finn to “oversee the overall media coordination and achievement of PR related solution for destination Maldives.”
However Peter Mathews, founder and chief Executive Officer of UK-based branding consultancy Nucleus, claimed a quick fix solution to changing perceptions of a destination on the back of negative international headlines was unlikely.
Mathews took the examples of Sri Lanka and Bahrain as countries that had experienced difficulties attracting tourists on the back of unfavourable headlines relating to reports of political uncertainty or human rights abuses.
“Both of these destinations have had issues with branding. Branding alone is not an instant solution for a country’s reputation,” he told Minivan News. “If you are not transparent about issues, they will still be there for tourists to see once you scratch below the surface of a destination.”
With the growing prominence of social media and video sharing services like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Mathews claimed it was becoming increasingly difficult to move on from negative headlines without addressing the key social or political issues.
“We now live in a digital world of instant updates and information, there is nowhere to hide,” he said.
“Ultimately, the best way to re-brand in the medium to long-term is for a destination to try and ensure transparency and avoiding contradictions.”
According to Mathews, a single negative headline about a destination required number of positive stories in order for it to overcome any detrimental impacts to a country’s reputation.
“It can take a while these days for unfavourable headlines to slip down the Google rankings. Of course, some have turned to using the ‘dark arts’ but this doesn’t always work. Particularly in the luxury market, where consumers tend to be much better informed when it comes to travel,” he said.
Talking about the potential challenges for the Maldives regarding boosting confidence in the tourism industry, Mathews said that authorities would need to satisfy resort owners and the international brands operating in the country, as well as the wider population that positive changes were being enacted.
“Suddenly, word of mouth can become very important. This makes it difficult to paper over the cracks,” he said.
Mathews said the Maldives’ relatively unique resort industry – a hundred-or-so resort properties exclusively built on individual private islands – had been afforded protection from any political unrest that centered mostly on its inhabited islands.
“The Maldives resort experience is obviously very different to the Maldives experienced in the capital of Male’, and this does help insulate the industry from uncertainty,” he said. “Yet economically, I would have thought there was interest to try and bring tourism income directly to the capital and other [inhabited] local islands.”
However, the negative impacts on Maldives tourism witnessed following February’s political turmoil appears not to have been repeated despite fears of continued unrest.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) updated a travel advisory for the Maldives on August 24 to account for potential violent clashes linked to the release of findings by the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI).
Amidst talks of potential boycotts of the Maldives travel industry, a stance at one point this year backed by former President Mohamed Nasheed, Deputy Tourism Minister Maleeh contended that arrival figures immediately after February had been sluggish. However, even before the release of the CNI’s findings, which were welcomed by the Commonwealth last week, Maleeh contended that arrival figures had shown “very positive” during June and July.
The deputy minister therefore moved this week to play down fears over the country experiencing continued difficulties in attracting visitors.
“The hard days are over following the findings of the [CNI] report. Over the last week, unlike February, we have seen no major disturbances in the country and this sends a positive message out about the destination,” he said. “During the next four months we are expecting a positive outcome for the industry despite the economic crisis.”
Maleeh added that in light of political instability and “turbulence” experienced in the country since the transfer of power, internal stability was a huge part of attracting and maintaining visitor numbers
“What we do is try to provide the industry and media with information that is true and accurate,” he said.
In March, the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) announced that, as well as returning to its ‘sunny side of life’ branding, the industry had set a target during 2012 to attract one million visitors to the country by year’s end.
Maleeh claimed that the industry remained on track to meet these goals, despite certain key challenges such as the impact of ongoing financial uncertainty on some core European tourism markets like the UK and Italy.
During the last 120 days of 2012, Maleeh said that a major tourism marketing push was being planned to meet these goals. This focus was said to be focused on over 12 major emerging and established markets through Europe and Asia, including measures such as six travel road shows and an international media push.
“We will be bringing an estimated 40 journalists from around the world for press familiarisation trips to show them the ‘sunny side of life’,” he said.
Maleeh claimed that the MMPRC would also be collaborating with over 300 industry stakeholders including resorts groups, liveaboard boat operators and travel agencies to attend a number of major travel events and fairs around the world including London, Rome, Tokyo and Osaka. Key national markets in China and Eastern Europe would also be included.
Maleeh said authorities considered using special roadshow events in order to ensure a short-term boost in tourist interest.
Back in April, the MMPRC teamed up with local airline group Mega Maldives to carry out a travel road-show to promote the Maldives through what it described as a whistle-stop tour of five Chinese cities in one week.
According to Maleeh, the tours allowed the private sector to “close deals” during a period of “sluggish” growth in February and March.
“The roadshows have shown very positive results and we are looking to have one in Eastern Europe to try and boost the market in countries like Poland and the Czech Republic.
The MMPRC has also announced a commitment to take part in special market focused events like the Dive Resort Travel (DRT) Expo in China and other luxury travel-focused shows.
“Sunny side of life”
As part of the organisation’s marketing push, Maleeh added that under ‘sunny side of life’ brand, authorities would make use of a number of what he called lesser known taglines to target specific areas including ‘the spiritual side of life’ and ‘the colourful side of life’ – a tag used to play up the country as a dive destination.
“These messages are quite useful in areas like the Middle East, which are very popular with honeymooners,” he said. “Right now we are hoping that 2012 is shaping up to be a very promising year for tourism in the Maldives.”
Beyond addressing the Maldives’ image, several industry insiders have also raised concerns of late about the financial realities facing both local and multinational companies working in the country.
Just last month, several resort managers voiced concerns over revenue raising measures proposed by the Finance Ministry, which they claimed would have a detrimental financial impact on the tourism industry and provide little improvement in service or support in return.
The proposed measures were part of an ‘austerity’ package sent to parliament’s Finance Committee during August in a bid to address the country’s crippled financial condition.
However, since the publication of the CNI report, President Waheed told Reuters this month that China would grant the Maldives US$500 million (MVR7.7billion) in loans during his state visit to the country.
The loans, equal to nearly one quarter of the Maldives’ GDP, would include $150 million (MVR2.3billion) for housing and infrastructure, with another $350million (MVR5.4billion) from the Export-Import Bank of China, reported Reuters.
Minister of Finance and Trasury Abdulla Jihad told Minivan News today that despite the possible provision of finance from China, the proposed revenue raising plans such as
raising Tourism Goods and Services Tax (TGST) to 15 percent were still being discussed to help balance finances.