Deputy Minister of Tourism Mohamed Maleeh Jamaal had claimed the Maldives tourism industry expects “phenomenal growth” in the Chinese market, following the conclusion of a travel roadshow representing the Maldives on a whistle-stop tour of five Chinese cities in one week.
The main aims of the tour, according to Maleeh, were to build confidence in the Maldives as a destination as well as portray the country as an investment opportunity. The roadshow was also intended to update the Chinese industry on new tourism developments in the Maldives.
The tour was a joint enterprise with the Mega Maldives airline and took in all of its current Chinese flight destinations: Beijing, Chengdu, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. The group also included travel agents, tour operators , and resort companies from the Maldives.
China has become the market leader in terms of visitors to the country. Last year, the number of visitors from China surpassed those from Britain, reaching 198,000. The tour also aimed to publicise the industry’s aims to attract a record 1 million visitors this year.
Recently released figures from the Ministry of Tourism show that total tourist numbers for the first quarter of 2012 were over a quarter of a million.
Overall arrivals for the first quarter of 2012 were up 3.3 percent compared with the figures for the same period in 2011. However, the same figures for the corresponding period in 2011 shown a 12.8 percent from 2010, suggesting a substantial slowdown in growth.
After the political disruptions of this year, there were fears that the now vital Chinese market may have been unsettled. A combination of a quiet period in the Hong Kong tourism market, with the addition of the Maldives being placed by Hong Kong authorities on the country’s travel alerts, saw Mega Maldives cancel its chartered flights from this location on February 18.
Ali Faiz, Marketing Director at Mega Maldives, said that the company had been working hard to educate the Chinese about the Maldives to assuage concerns.
Services from Hong Kong resumed on April 4 and are said by Faiz to be doing well. The amber travel alert, warning tourists to “monitor the situation” and “advising caution”, was introduced on February 8 and remains in place.
“The Chinese market is still a fairly new to Maldives tourism. Most of them don’t understand the geographic nature of the Maldives. This is the difference between the developed markets (Europe) and developing market (China),” said Faiz.
The tourism ministry’s figures reflected this worry with monthly Chinese tourist figures down 34.8 percent for March and 28.4 percent for February, compared with 2011’s numbers.
Despite this, Maleeh said that the Chinese market would continue to grow: “Everyone expects phenomenal arrivals in June and July.”
Describing the tour, he said, “We also wanted to hear from our Chinese counterparts about what the trends are and what Chinese tourists are expecting so we can share this with our industry.”
“This is particularly important as we develop our fourth tourism master-plan. It will help us understand if we are targeting the right market in China,” he continued.
Maleeh also mentioned that attention was given to the recent social and digital media campaign launched shortly before the team left for China. Discussions were held regarding the best way in which joint promotion schemes might be utilised for the Chinese market using social media sites such as Weibo.
The success of the road trip has prompted thoughts of similar events in Japan, South Korea, and possibly Europe, Maleeh told Minivan News.
The Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Company (MMPRC) recently advertised for a PR company to provide “strategic counsel”, “stakeholder engagement”, “proactive” media relations and “key message and storybook development” after the controversial change of power in February.
Boosting tourism confidence was one of the objectives required of the company that successfully bids for the three month contract.
Maleeh commented on this approach at the time of the story: “The main focus right now is increasing investor confidence. We have to include all fronts include economic angles,” he said. “There has been a barrage of international media coverage and we need to try to convert this interest into positive coverage.”
Chinese travel agents contacted by Minivan News during the political crisis expressed concern about cancellations. Shanghai travel agent Sun Yi said she was faced with many cancellations just two days after February 7: ”It has seriously affected our business. Many guests cancelled the Maldivian holiday package which used to be very popular,” she explained.
Social media suggested that the average Chinese traveler was not well informed of the situation in the days following the resignation.
Before most Chinese media outlets had reported news of the Maldives’ change of government, travelers-to-be noticed a post in WEIBO (Chinese version of Twitter) by Maldives resort-based Chinese diving instructor Jai He. After posting the news on WEIBO he was immediately contacted by Chinese media outlets.
Within days, however, a WEIBO search for “Maldives” yielded only a few incomplete statements of the actual events. Most posts voiced only poetic concerns of a tainted dream holiday or honeymoon, or an exaggerated description of the current situation.