Chinese investment in Maldives tourism ‘expected to rise’

Tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb has said he expects an increase in Chinese investment in Maldives tourism following the lease of a second island for resort development to Chinese companies.

The joint venture -between China’s Guandong Beta Ocean and a Maldivian company – were awarded Vaavu Atoll Kunaavashi this week to develop a five-star luxury resort with some 142 rooms.

“More Chinese investors will follow. There is a lot of interest, from Sri Lankan and Singapore companies as well,” Adeeb told Minivan News today.

The tourism ministry in May also signed an MOU with the state-owned China Machinery Engineering Corporation (CMEC) to develop Thaa Atoll Kalhufahalafushi as a resort.

Chinese tourists accounted for nearly one third of arrivals in 2014 with a total of 363,626 arrivals. China now represents the single biggest source market for tourists in the Maldives with a 30 percent market share.

On Monday, Adeeb said China’s Ambassador to the Maldives, Wang Fukang, had pledged to increase Chinese arrivals to one million. The venture would require extensive infrastructure developments, such as airport developments and building new resorts to increase the total bed capacity of the country, he said.

Mifzal Ahmed, the director of strategy and business development at privately owned airline Mega Maldives, said he hoped “this is the start of a full wave of such investment in the country, and the Government should be congratulated for the role they have played in making these investments happen.”

Mega Maldives pioneered direct flights from Maldives to China in 2009. It operates four to five flights a week from Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

“We have long argued that the demands from the Chinese tourists to the Maldives are at times a little different from the European traveller. Therefore, getting investors who understand the mentality of these tourists is a very good thing,” he added.

Mauroof Zaki, the secretary general of the Tourism Employees Association of the Maldives (TEAM), noted the importance of equipping Maldivian staff with the skills to cater to an influx of Chinese tourists.

“We need more language classes on Mandarin or training on food and beverage services to Chinese tourists,” he said.

However, he said he was concerned that Chinese tourists may not be as conscientious as European tourists on labor rights, human rights and the environment.

“When ethical tourists come to the Maldives, it improves the work environment for Maldivian staff, for example, tourists pushed for the equitable distribution of service charge to staff,” he said.

A resort owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said Chinese developers must take care to develop international resorts. “Does the Chinese traveler want to be on an island by themselves? From what I’ve seen, they want to be among others, and do not like to be segregated.”

The Maldives Association of Tourism Industries (MATI) was not available for comment at the time of going to press.

The Maldives reached the one million tourist arrival mark in 2013. In 2014, the Maldives welcomed 1.2million arrivals, and the government hopes to see 1.4million arrivals in 2014.

The tourism ministry last week launched the “Visit Maldives Year 2016” campaign. The US$10million will see festivals and trade events, and award free holidays throughout the year. The Maldives has also been designated as the partner host country for the ITB fair in Berlin in 2016.

According to Forbes, Chinese investment in the global hospitality industry has seen a surge in the last two years. The trend started when Chinese Dalian Wanda group announced plans of investing a US$ 1.09 billion luxury hotel in London.

Since then, Chinese companies has announced a US$ 900 million skyscraper in Chicago, a US$ 1.95 billion acquisition of New York’s Waldorf Astoria, and a US$ 399 million hotel in Sydney.

Maldives has become a main attraction for Chinese travelers, with South China Morning Post saying, the country has topped travel lists for Chinese travelers, with the country being promoted in China’s media as an “approved destination” by the Communist Party government.


Divers continue search for Chinese tourist missing from Maldives resort

Coastguard divers are trying to locate a Chinese tourist reported missing from the Bandos Island Resort and Spa property since Thursday (December 6).

Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) Spokesperson Colonel Abdul Raheem said that a diving team was conducting further searches of the area surrounding the resort to try and locate the tourist, identified as a female Chinese national who had been staying at the resort.

When contacted by Minivan News today, a spokesperson for Bandos Island Resort and Spa said it would not be making any comments on the matter at present, asking to be contacted in 24 hours time.

“It is not possible for us to comment today, our manager is not on duty,” said a representative for the property’s marketing department said.

Police Spokesperson Sub-Inspector Hassan Haneef was not responding to calls from Minivan News at the time of press.

Boat collision

Details of the search operation were announced after a male tourist from Finland was killed last Sunday (December 2) when an express speedboat service to the island of Hulhumale’ collided with another vessel belonging to the Bandos Island Resort and Spa.  Nine local people were also injured in the collision.

The Honorary Consul of Finland in the Maldives confirmed this week that it was assisting the resort property in working to arrange repatriation of the tourist, while investigations by police and transport authorities continue into the matter.

Following the collision on Sunday, a spokesperson for the Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC) said it had temporarily suspended its express speedboat service between Hulhumale’ and Male’ while it reviewed guest safety procedures.

“We believe we need to do some work on safety,” a company spokesperson told Minivan News. “We will be working with transport authorities, the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) and the police on the matter and will resume the services after that.” Dhoni services will continue to run between Male’ and Hulhumale’ as normal, the MTCC added yesterday.

Danger awareness

Over the last 12 months, tourist deaths – usually while snorkelling – have been disproportionately higher among Chinese tourists, which now account for a majority of Maldives tourist arrivals even compared to traditional European markets.

Mohamed Ibrahim ‘Sim’ from the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) previously told Minivan News that Chinese guests in particular needed to be made more aware of the dangers of snorkelling in the Maldives, “because it is a totally different environment than what they are used to.”

Back in October, police said that a 26 year-old male from China staying at Alif Dhaal Atoll Vakafaru resort was suspected to have died in a snorkelling accident at the property.

Meanwhile in January, two Chinese nationals on vacation at separate island resorts in the Maldives were found dead within 48 hours of each other.  Authorities said they suspected both incidents were the result of snorkelling accidents.


“The country I want to go most eagerly is not safe anymore”: WEIBO China

In the poll “Has the coup affected your holiday plans in the Maldives?” hosted on a Chinese website on February 12, a little more than one third of the 8,107 votes chose “it has affected them more or less”, while one third of Chinese voters indicated “it has no influence on them”. Less than one third were unaware of the political situation.

Following the abrupt resignation of former president Mohamed Nasheed early last week China’s embassy in the Maldives, which opened in November, 2011, notified Chinese agencies and media outlets in an unofficial advisory that capital Male’ is currently unsafe for tourists and advised tourists to make only necessary trips to Male’.

“We have been trying our best to ensure Chinese nationals’ personal safety. Tourists reach the international airport and then can directly go to the resort. They will be safe on the resorts,” said Sun Jianbo, Second Secretary of China’s Embassy in Male’.

“As far as I know, no harm to Chinese tourists has been caused by these political events yet,” he added.

In 2011, China rose to become the No.1 source of tourism, surpassing the Maldives’  traditional European market with over 700,000 arrivals last year. The jump in business has re-shaped the industry- local travel agencies and resort staff are now keen to hire Mandarin speakers and are working to stay current on Chinese cultural habits.

Although many have projected that China will remain a stable, even growing partner in tourism, the Chinese market was quick to respond to what Nasheed’s government has called a coup d’etat on February 7.

A few Maldivian travel agencies who work closely with the Chinese market told Minivan News that the current politics has started to influence their bookings. “Quite a lot of Chinese customers are very concerned of this situation. Some of them are hesitant to make reservations now,” said Emy Zheng, a Chinese national working at Villuxa Holidays. She noted that only a few bookings have been cancelled, while several others have tried to postpone their holiday.

Zheng suggested that most Chinese nationals responded well to explanations of the situation, and assurances that the Maldives one-island one-resort mantra guarantees vacationers distance from local events.

“I told guests about the real life in Male’, which is more reliable than news they get from media in China. Some friends in China are very worried about my life here after seeing news on TV, but personally I don’t feel threatened living in Male’ as my friends and I just stay at home after work,” Zheng explained, adding, “I don’t think many Chinese have the access to know the real life here.”

Like Zheng, many Chinese national workers in Male’ have stuck to their routines. For them, the tourism industry has only been minimally affected. In China, however, travel agencies say the market is taking a heavy hit.

Shanghai travel agent Sun Yi said she was faced with many cancellations just two days after the coup. ”It has seriously affected our business. Many guests cancelled the Maldivian holiday package which used to be very popular,” she explained.

Yi continued that her company has also decided to suspend its plan to hold a commercial event at a Maldives resort this spring.

Although a Chinese tourism industry professional on the marketing of holiday destination Maldives, Yi has not yet visited the country. She said she is very worried about the current state of affairs.

Social media suggests that the average Chinese traveler is barely informed.

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.

Mr. He received the news of Nasheed’s resignation while watching national television during his lunch hour on Male’. After posting the news on WEIBO he was immediately contacted by a few Chinese media.

But now, a WEIBO search for “Maldives” yields only a few incomplete statements of the actual events; most posts voice poetic concerns of a tainted dream holiday or honeymoon, or an exaggerated description of the current situation in paradise.

One forum user wrote, “Fires of war are burning through the country. The country I want to go most eagerly is not safe anymore.”

Among the posts the word “democracy”- a concept politicians on both sides of the divide are using as weapon and shield – was uncommon.

WEIBO has undoubtedly become a platform for some Chinese to enjoy a moderate amount of free speech. While the Maldives is a definite topic of conversation, WEIBO users are more concerned with the damage to their holiday dreams than the threats on Male’s streets- or the connection between the current change of government and China’s own so-called “democratic centralisation”.

But the government is more cautious.

While the US and India have recognised the Maldives’ new regime under former Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, China has not officially expressed any political leaning.

Second Secretary Jianbo told Minivan News he had no idea what would happen to the regime, but “things seem to gradually be calming down now as the new government has appointed new officers today.”

In spite of the uncertainty, the Chinese tourism board has not issued a travel alert for the Maldives.

“We are not able to release anything now towards the current situation until the Chinese
foreign affairs department speaks,” Sun said, indicating that more information would be available in a few days’ time.

“The Embassy’s most important function is to maintain and deepen the two countries’ relationship,” Sun explained. Asked whether China will continue to foster a close relationship with the new government, Sun said, “No comments”.


Etihad, Hainan start service to Maldives

Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) welcomed the maiden flights of Etihad Airways and Hainan Airlines yesterday, making Male’ Etihad’s 67th destination.

Etihad flight EY278 from Abu Dhabi touched down at approximately 2:17 pm and was welcomed with a water cannon salute, bodu-beru dancers, coconuts and a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The Hainan flight from Beijing that touched down approximately 20 minutes later was similarly received.

Passengers who disembarked from both flights appeared curious, surprised, exhausted and delighted at the festivities. Etihad Executive Vice President Halid Al Marhedi was invited to cut a golden ribbon with GMR CEO Andrew Harrison and Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation (MMPRC) Managing Director, Simon Hawkins.

The new partnerships reflect the travel and tourism industry’s changing patterns.

While Etihad, the official airline of the United Arab Emirates, is projected to expand arrivals to the Maldives significantly, Hainan signifies China’s growing demand.

“It’s a good sign that these two airlines are having their maiden voyages today,” said Mahika Chandrasena, GMR Head of Corporate Communications. “Etihad shows that we are interested in expanding and working with these larger, well-known airlines. Hainan shows that we are interested in working with the Chinese market, which is growing dramatically.”

Hainan is the third Chinese airline to open operations in the Maldives.

Etihad is making the rounds in the region: today, it makes its maiden voyage to the Republic of Seychelles. Although Etihad will celebrate its 8th anniversary in the next few days, as one of the youngest premier airlines it has seen astonishing growth.

“Forward booking indicates that the Maldives has become one of the most popular destinations for leisure travelers and honeymooners,” said al Marhedi at a reception held at Naladhu resort last evening. Al Marhedi said Etihad was “very pleased to invest in the Maldives and support its economic growth.”

Speaking at the ceremony, Hawkins said the Maldives tourism industry could only benefit from the higher connectivity offered by Etihad. “It’s interesting to learn why people don’t come to the Maldives,” he said. “The number one reason is, people simply don’t know where we are. So when a major airline like Etihad opens services here, we know we can expect better connectivity to new markets and a fundamental boost to the country’s economy.”

Hawkins concluded that team work between airlines, travel agents, resorts and other sectors were essential to the growth and maintenance of the national economy.

Etihad has taken steps to offer customers a complete travel experience. Special travel packages are tailored to a range of budgets and travel purposes; airline guest members who book early and fly in the next 30 days will have their mileage points doubled.

INIA currently receives approximately two million arrivals each year from 29 different airlines. GMR aims to raise that to three million in the next year, and to 5.2 million by 2014, Chandrasena said.

“Alitalia will be joining us in December, bringing our airline numbers to 30,” she added. “We don’t want to say ‘no’ to anyone.”