Since the inception of Maldives tourism over 40 years ago, the country has seen the development of more than 100 islands into exclusive resorts which – by focusing on secluded luxury – are almost entirely cut off from local laws and politics.
The potential for expanding mid-market tourism in the Maldives through the “niche” guesthouse segment may emerge as an early election issue after senior opposition and government figures clashed over how best the country’s inhabited islands can profit from visitors.
While the present government has boasted of nearly doubling the number guesthouse business since coming to power in February last year, the country’s opposition unveiled plans to address what it called a “total disconnect” between the lucrative island resort model and local people.
Beyond the political rhetoric, a growing number of specialist operators have emerged trying to cater to the mid-market demand from tourists looking to experience the ‘real Maldives’ – a side of the country often unseen due to the prevalence of the lucrative ‘one island, one resort model’.
One such group is Secret Paradise, which this year began offering tourists special packages in North Male’ Atoll and South Male’ Atoll aiming to combine the traditional tourist staples of sunbathing, water sports and diving with authentic Maldives experiences like cooking and eating with local families, or assisting at island schools.
Ruth Franklin, a senior UK business figure who helped develop Secret Paradise with a local partner, said that aside from providing a more authentic travel experience, a key selling point for the business was to provide more affordable holidays for tourists concerned the Maldives was out of their price range.
Franklin added that trying to realise the full potential for mid-market tourism was not without challenges, especially in terms of a tourist’s perception of budget.
“To many travellers, ‘budget’ means a room for US$20 or less a night in many Asian destinations. In the Maldives, budget should be interpreted in relation to the cost of a night on a resort for bed and breakfast. Guesthouses on average start at US$50 verses the cheapest resort at US$250,” she said.
Franklin identified another hurdle in the general lack of information available to tourists about life outside the country’s resorts; from the cost of transportation and the availability of local ferries – which are further limited on Fridays and public holidays – to adhering with local laws and culture on ‘inhabited’ islands. On these islands, drinking alcohol and wearing bikinis are not permitted.
“Our packages are designed to take this into account so that travellers have the option of day visits to resorts, sandbanks and picnic islands where the restrictions do not apply,” Franklin added.
Franklin said that compared to the country’s resort and even safari boat industries, the niche status of guesthouse tourism did grant the segment a unique appeal in the region.
“Independent travel will never be in my opinion as it is in Thailand for example and quite frankly I wouldn’t want it to be. My belief is that local islands should have a set number of tourist beds available that is governed by the Tourism Ministry,” she said.
“Whilst I think it is right to open up the island to tourists to allow travellers to experience local customs and traditions and to help support local economy I would not want to see islands inundated with travellers to the point that the best of the Maldives customs and traditions disappear.”
Franklin suggested that wider success for the guesthouse industry could eventually lead to growing pressure to amend laws relating to alcohol and allowing women to wear bikinis on local beaches as part of a potential trade off for greater economic viability of mid-market tourism.
“Whilst my belief is that alcohol will not and should not be available on local islands there is definitely already a keen interest by guesthouse owners to provide private beach areas for tourists,” she added. “I am not in support of this as I think those guests who stay on a local island should do so to also experience culture and tradition and as ‘guests’ should respect a country’s law and regulations.”
In December last year, the author of the latest Lonely Planet travel book to focus on the Maldives told Dhonisaurus that compromise would be needed by authorities should they wish to ensure independent travel was viable for a wider number of businesses going forward.
Lonely Planet author Tom Masters said he ultimately believed that local islands could still provide independent travellers with “sufficient attractions”, even within the strictly conservative laws practices outside of the country’s resort islands.
“However, I think only a tiny proportion of potential visitors would be happy to accept such a number of restrictions on their annual holiday, and so if some degree of compromise could be reached on issues such as alcohol or sunbathing, then the number of travellers opting for island tourism over that in an expensive resort would rise enormously,” he said at the time.
“A weakling in need of love and nurturing”
Adrian Neville, a veteran of travel writing in the Maldives previously told Dhonisaurus that beyond the recent political arguments, guest-houses had played a major role in the development of the tourism industry, dating back to their foundation in 1972. However, such properties were abruptly closed for many years as of May 1, 1984.
“This was pretty much directly at the behest of the resort owners for obvious reasons and on the spurious grounds of social problems and the wrong type of tourists,” he said. “Of course, now those wrong types are just fine – now they are not ‘hippies’ but ‘independent travellers’.”
While guest-houses had been reintroduced back in 2008, Neville contended that he was not sure whether the general attitudes of resort owners in the country would have changed much, particularly in terms of supporting the fledgling industry.
“The sector is up and running, but it is a weakling in need of love and nurturing,” he said.
Neville claimed that while there was clear interest in the further development of a guest-house sector to allow independent travellers to take in the Maldives, the country’s long-term segregation of tourists from local communities may also serve to limit the potential.
“There is sufficient interest but it won’t grow quickly until the issue of separation or, most unlikely for the foreseeable future, co-habitation with different lifestyles, is resolved,” he said.
Tourism authorities last year noted that guesthouse demand would likely remain “quite insignificant” when compared to demand for the country’s island resorts.
However, speaking to Minivan News in March this year, Deputy Tourism Mohamed Maleeh Jamal praised the industry as a “phenomenon” that the present administration would look to continue to support.
“The industry is doing well right now in Hulhumale’ [an island situated ten minutes from the capital by speedboat]. I understand major operators are already coming out with their own brochures,” he added.
Despite pledging government support for the industry, Maleeh claimed that it would be vital to ensure that quality standards were maintained across the industry in line with the reputation built up by the Maldives resort industry over the last forty years.
“We don’t want anything unexpected to happen,” he added. With a growing number of domestic airports anticipated to be developed across the country in the coming years, Maleeh said he expected a growing number of guesthouses would be established to meet demand .
“Where there are transports hubs, there will of course be more guesthouses appearing,” he said.
However, Maleeh stressed that the success of mid-market tourism was dependent on making sure that infrastructure was in place to welcome tourists.
“In some of these islands, the infrastructure is just not there; sewerage, drinking water, garbage disposal and 24 hour electricity supplies are needed,” he said. “My main interest is that while any Maldvian can open a guest-housem can we make sure that the customers are there?”
Ahead of presidential elections scheduled for September this year, opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) candidate Mohamed Nasheed has pledged to promote and support wider guesthouse development as part of efforts to try and aid wider economic growth.
“Having tourists on inhabited islands is not going to result in the community facing any additional detrimental effects that do not already exist. On the contrary, having tourists will empower the islanders to overcome whatever objectionable issues that they may face,” the former president claimed.
“Maldivians will have to open their eyes to outside cultures, and allow for the increase in opportunities for development. In addition to direct employment and income generated by guesthouses, it will also boost other existing island businesses.”
Despite guesthouses seemingly being in vogue as a topic for electioneering, Raki Bench, founder of the guest-houses in Maldives website last year said he was critical of the role played by the present and former government to develop the industry.
Bench added in recent years, despite previous government commitments to provide more mid-market accommodation for visitors wanting to explore the country’s inhabited islands, further support had been lacking.
“The government has not really been helping guest-houses at all. It is a small sector, but it is showing growth within the wider tourism industry. I don’t see any promotion from authorities,” added Bench.
“I do understand why this is the case. After all what is the point in promoting an industry with a value of US$50 a night when you compare that to what resorts can make.”