President Nasheed’s references to guesthouse tourism on the local inhabited island of Maafushi in the recent televised presidential candidates’ debate has drawn comment from many in the tourism industry (not to mention the opposition parties and the various political affiliates whose only job seems to criticise Nasheed at every available opportunity).
Those references by Nasheed were made for a very good reason. Because Maafushi is a shining example of how successfully guesthouse tourism has been implemented on an inhabited island, and illustrates how every employable person, every man or woman seeking a job on the island, has the opportunity to seek gainful employment.
Not only that, all the service-provision on the island has thrived on the commercial viability and need of the visitors coming to the island’s shores.
Cafés, restaurants, and water-sports businesses are thriving, as is the home gardening of local vegetables and fruits which can be sold to readily available buyers. All of these of course are what the guest-house policy is designed to achieve.
Occupancy of guest houses on the island is impressive with an average occupancy rate of over 70 percent – further demonstrating that demand is steady enough to support this newly emerging segment of the Maldives tourism product. In short, Maafushi demonstrates that guest-house tourism can indeed be successfully replicated across all the atolls of the Maldives.
MDP’s guest-house policy, like all of its policies, has been designed after extensive research, public consultation and with assistance and guidance of experts from the economic sector. During our public policy consultation process, which took the form workshops and repeated visits to local islands over several months, local entrepreneurs and concerned citizens alike consistently expressed their desire for an MDP policy “to bring tourism to our atoll”.
Without a doubt tourism, as it should, has remained the cornerstone of MDP’s vision for regenerating growth in the economy. The guest-house policy especially is aimed to kick-start local economies and more importantly to utilise the natural resources endowed on our beautiful islands. The competitive advantage of the Maldives as a tourist destination is the unique formation of the small islands, ringed as atolls, surrounded by reefs and ensconcing a breathtaking undersea marine life.
MDP’s policy team has asked all the right questions. What exactly is the Maldives tourism product? What are its components? At what point of maturity in the destination’s image should new components be introduced? Can occupancy rates be met if we introduced a different segment of tourism? What will guest-house tourism do to the existing resort tourism and safari-boats and dive-tours? Will budget tourism dilute the ability to market the destination successfully as a romantic island getaway on which exclusivity to guests is guaranteed?
These questions have been thoroughly discussed and scenarios considered before the policy was included in the MDP’s manifesto. The policy debates have produced many encouraging answers.
I believe the Maldives tourism industry and indeed local entrepreneurs in the country have reached a point in maturity in which new initiatives could be boldly introduced. The concern of the resort industry is that the current cache of 5 to 7 star island resorts built exclusively on uninhabited islands is emblematic of the destination’s image, with the view that any form of tourism on inhabited islands will create confusion and sully that image.
Looking at destination maturity across many other countries in the world, the timing is appropriate now to showcase what the rest of the country is about. Is there a single destination in the world without a network of guest-houses, youth hostels and locally based homestay arrangements? The existence of these facilities do not detract from the image portrayed by the destination marketing organisations, in fact they are seen as a necessary addition complementing the primary tourism product.
I am convinced such will be the case for the Maldives too. Forty years of tourism has created a specific image of the islands in the marketplace. And that is all about the islands’ natural beauty – such unique beauty not found in any other part of the world.
The guiding post for this policy is the answer to the question: Why do tourists come to the Maldives? The answer: to experience the spectacular natural beauty of its isles. Being on a resort or an inhabited island does not deprive a visitor or indeed any tourist of accessing such beauty.
To walk on a pristine white beach, snorkel in the azure seas or experience the breathtaking underwater world is entirely possible whether tourist facilities are provided on an inhabited island, or exclusive purpose built resort island.
Dr Mariyam Zulfa was former President Nasheed’s Tourism Minister at the time of the overthrow of his administration on 7 February 2012.
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