Maldives tourism and the “Robinson Crusoe” experience

This story was originally published on Minivan News’ spin-off travel review site,

As a destination, the Maldives has long attempted to sell itself as a real ‘Robinson Crusoe’ destination, trying to evoke Daniel Defoe’s 18th century novel of exotic isolation and cultural relativism – albeit with air-conditioned luxury and underwater wine cellars.

Yet while the country’s exclusive island resort properties have garnered international attention over the last four decades for high-end luxury, an increasing number of hospitality groups are seeking to offer their own take on what a desert-island Maldives experience should be.

These attempts at trying to create a picture postcard-quality romantic idyll include offering luxurious camping for a couple on a private beach location, isolated champagne picnics on a sandbank or the opportunity to hire an entire island exclusively for a small group of friends or loved ones.

At the the W Retreat in North Ari Atoll for instance, guests are being offered the opportunity to stay overnight on the nearby private island of Gaathafushi.

According to the resort, the island is entirely deserted apart from a special hut housing a large bed swing – or in the case of overnight stays – one of W’s “signature” beds . However, depending on a customer’s imagination, the island can also come equipped with Seabob underwater propulsion devices or even a personal DJ.

W has said the island is traditionally set aside for couples or small groups of friends, although it can be booked for special private events such as wedding celebrations.

An overnight Gaathafushi experience, including breakfast and transfers costs US$3,500. Other packages can be found on the group’s website.

Meanwhile, the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island resort in Alifu Dhaalu Atoll is offering guests the chance to experience luxury abandonment on a desert island. Guests are provided with a hamper, a bottle of chilled champagne and a mobile phone as their only connection to the outside world.

The package, costing US$800, includes speedboat transportation to and from the resort. Guests are able to call for collection once they are ready to return to the resort.

Borderless dining

The Dusit Thani resort has attempted to combine an idyllic deserted beach experience with a focus on culinary experimentation, offering picnic experiences on nearby uninhabited islands or sandbanks.

“Our guests really enjoy this sense of isolation on their own deserted island,” said Dusit Thani Maldives General Manager Desmond Hatton.

“We also offer borderless dining on our own beaches. A concept which allows for our chefs to create a culinary experience tailored to our guests’ desires. Whether it is a champagne breakfast as the sun rises or a candle lit BBQ in the sand at sunset, there is no limit.”

Available all year round, prices for the borderless dining package start at US$165 per person and US$175 for the uninhabited island picnic.

However, it is not just resort operators seeking to play up the potential of island exclusion in the Maldives.

Island for hire

Straddling the line between more independent travel and the country’s exclusive island resort model is the island of Olhahali.

An expanse of beach and vegetation just 285 metres in length and 60 metres wide, Olahali’s management claim the island is one of the few destinations in the country that can be booked for a guest’s exclusive use.

Silke Weber, PR Manager for the island’s management company, Grand Meridian Pvt.Ltd, said that Olhahali catered for a wide variety of customers from private mega yacht and safari vessel owners, to resort guests and locals.

“As well special offers for Maldivians and expatriates working in Maldives. We also offer guided snorkel trips and guided dives as well fishing trips by boat,” added Weber.

“The extensive beach of fine white sand surrounding the island is stunning and the heart of the island is abound in lush green vegetation left as nature intended, providing cool and shaded spots.”

While offering a unique level of privacy to customers, Weber claimed that having operated Olhahali on a single-guest basis was not without its challenges when compared to a multi-villa island resort property. However, she maintained that Olhahali was a unique experience in the Maldives, even amidst attempts by local guest-houses to try and offer desert island getaways.

“The [big] challenge is the marketing and to handle the bookings as we rent out the island only to one client at the time and specially in the high season that can be a challenge,” she said.

Available for a maximum of 40 people for US$2000 a day, Olhahali offers a number of other packages for guests that are available on the island’s official website.

Independent travel

In December last year, the author of the latest Lonely Planet travel book to focus on the Maldives told Dhonisaurus that there huge potential to expand independent travel across the Maldives’ ‘inhabited islands’ through use of sandbanks and desert islands

However, the author added great compromise would be needed by authorities to ensure independent operators could be viable going forward.

Under the country’s laws, traditional holiday staples such as the sale and consumption of alcohol and pork products, and women publicly sunbathing in bikinis, are outlawed outside designated ‘uninhabited’ islands set aside exclusively for resort development.

Tom Masters, a journalist and travel writer who contributes to the Lonely Planet series of travel guides, said he ultimately believed 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.

Despite the claims, the Maldives Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture has said that even with the emergence of a number of boutique guest houses around and the planned expansion of domestic flights routes in the Maldives, the market for independent travel will remain “quite insignificant”.


“Compromise” essential for growth of independent travel in the Maldives: Lonely Planet author

This story was originally published on Minivan News’ spin-off travel review site,

There remains huge potential to expand independent travel across the Maldives’ ‘inhabited islands’, though only a “tiny proportion” of tourists would presently accept legal restrictions in the country without it becoming more inviting for holidays, the author of a major new Maldives travel guide has claimed.

Under the country’s laws, traditional holiday staples such as the sale and consumption of alcohol and pork products, and women publicly sunbathing in bikinis are outlawed unless on designated ‘uninhabited’ islands set aside exclusively for resort developments.

Tom Masters, a travel writer and journalist who has authored the latest Lonely Planet travel book to focus on the Maldives – released back in October – said he ultimately believed local islands can provide independent travellers with “sufficient attractions”, even within the strictly conservative laws practiced 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,” Masters told Dhonisaurus.

Despite the claims, the Maldives Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture has said that even with the emergence of a number of boutique guest houses around and the planned expansion of domestic flights routes in the Maldives, the market for independent travel will remain “quite insignificant”.

Ultimately, no law can be enacted against the tenets of Islam, according to the Maldivian constitution.

Even last month, debate took place in parliament about the legality of selling alcohol in the Maldives, both in terms of outside the country’s resorts and even on its exclusive island properties, with a bill potentially outlawing any form of alcohol sales being narrowly accepted by the People’s Majlis.

“Great changes”

The Maldives has undergone great changes in terms of tourism and national development since the Lonely Planet last published a guide on the Maldives in 2009, according to author Tom Masters.

“The last [Lonely Planet] guide was researched and published in 2009, a time of great optimism and change for the Maldives after the election of President Nasheed. The changes introduced by his government were a fantastic step in the right direction for tourism, I think, especially given the global financial climate, which made relying on high-end tourism alone a dangerous path,” he said.

“The biggest change was undoubtedly the opening of guest houses on inhabited islands and the creation of a national ferry network. These were both fantastic for the independent traveller and a great way to make visiting the Maldives affordable.”

While Masters remains optimistic for further developments in independent travel in the Maldives, he added these feelings were tempered by the challenges facing the market – not least in better managing the expectations of travellers within the context of local culture and practices.

“The travellers I met staying in guest houses were all very culturally sensitive and of course came knowing that alcohol, bikinis and pork weren’t going to be available. However, many suggested that in the future some degree of compromise might be possible – perhaps allowing beer drinking inside guest houses or the opening of closed-off ‘Westerner’ beaches where tourists could swim and sunbathe without upsetting locals,” he added.

“I also think that the ferry network needs to be invested in and improved, as at present it’s slow, unreliable and hard to access as an outsider. Online timetables, better vessels and more frequent boats would all make independent travel far easier and appealing than it is at present.”

Masters stressed that the Maldives remained “overwhelmingly a luxury destination” – a tag he did not anticipate would change drastically unless island tourism could be made more “inviting”.

“The financial demographic hasn’t much changed, but the geographic spread of visitors has enormously – the Chinese have risen from a tiny part of the market to one of its biggest groups, which in turn has changed the feel of many resorts where large groups of Chinese visitors predominate. The independent traveller is still a tiny and unknown quantity in the Maldives, but one that I’m confident will continue to grow as long as the new government doesn’t try to further restrict their behaviour,” he said.

“The question is whether that is in the new government’s interest. As the new government is made up of many resort owners, I’d be very surprised if they felt that encouraging island tourism was a priority, which I think is a shame.”

Forty years of tourism

With the Maldives celebrating 40 years since the inception of tourism, the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture has spent the year trying to claw back consumer confidence in the destination, which was damaged by political instability during the early months of 2012.

The ministry has also been working to outline a fourth long-term master plan for pursuing growth within the Maldives travel sector – now expected to be unveiled before the end of 2012.  Independent travel will be included in this focus.

From a Maldives perspective, the independent travel market market is represented mainly in the country through guest houses and safari/dive vessels, being described by veteran guide book author Adrian Neville as “a weakling in need of love and nurturing”.

Speaking to Minivan News last month, Deputy Tourism Minister Mohamed Maleeh Jamal told Minivan News that amendments approved in 2010 to the country’s Tourism Act had allowed for a renewed focus on guest house development.

“There is opportunity in the area [of independent travel] with growth in domestic flights that is being seen. [The island of] Hulhumale’ already has some very good quality guests houses and boutique bed and breakfast properties,” he said.

“However, guest houses represent a minute number of beds and that number will continue to remain quite insignificant.”

Until 2008, guest houses had been banned by Maldivian law since May 1, 1984.

Back in June, Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Ahmed Adheeb said that it was difficult to say where authorities stood on guest house development as the industry was still relatively niche compared to the established resort sector.

“The Maldives continues to be branded as a luxury destination within the tourism market. It is a bonus therefore that these guesthouses allow us to supply mid-market demand,” he said at the time.

“We are formulating our plan right now. This will look specifically into how many guest-houses have been built and how they contribute to the economy,” he said.

However Raki Bench, founder of the Guest-houses in Maldives website which offers specially prepared packages to experience a more independent holiday experience in the country, has been 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, who said he was realistic about the economic reasons for this.

“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?” he said.


Maldives mulls tourism future as China reaches quarter of all arrivals

China has accounted for just under a quarter of all visitors coming to the Maldives for the first nine months of 2012, contributing substantially to a 3.4 percent increase in arrivals compared to last year despite declines in established European markets.

The Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture has said the figures indicated that the country remained on track to meet its aim of welcoming a million visitors in 2012.

Tourism authorities also said that despite the growing importance of China to visitor numbers, European markets remained the main overall contributor to the Maldives tourism sector.  As the country looks to commemorate 40 years since the introduction of the travel industry, officials have said that even declining custom from markets like the UK has begun showing positive trends in terms of demand for more lucrative high-end holidays.

According to the statistics, between January and September 2012, there were 691,608 tourist arrivals in the Maldives.  During September 2012, 76,806 visitors travelled to the Maldives – an increase of 6.9 percent over the same time last year.

In terms of regional demand, the ministry figures showed that European arrivals fell by 2.9 per cent between January and September to 376,674 people over the same period in 2011.  A five percent increase in traffic from Central and Eastern Europe was ultimately insufficient to offset double-digit declines in travellers from northern and southern European countries.

Arrivals from the Eastern Mediterranean region were also up between January and September by 10.4 percent to 5,191 people. In the region, tourists from Turkey and Israel coming to the Maldives increased by 7.6 percent and 21.8 percent respectively over the same period.

During September 2012, European arrivals overall fell 3.2 percent to 33,975 over the same time last year.

The statistics showed that the Asia Pacific region has continued to drive growth in visitors to the Maldives, with 275,343 arrivals between recorded January to September 2012 – an increase of 10.2 percent.

According to the figures, arrivals in September alone from the Asia Pacific region reached 38,483, up 17.5 percent on the same time last year.

Key to this regional growth has been demand from China, which for the first nine months of 2012 accounted for 24.5 percent of all tourism arrivals to the Maldives.

In the Americas, total arrivals from the region rose 12.3 percent to 18,375 for the first nine months of the year, with Brazil Canada and the US all posting growth. The US was the region’s largest market over the period with visitor numbers up 10 percent to 10,899 people.

Visitors from the Middle East were also up for the first nine months of the year by 54.6 percent over the same time in 2011, amounting to 16,211 people. However, visitor numbers for the region fell by 3.3 percent during September when compared to the same period of time in 2011.

Arrivals from Africa between January and September this year were up by 9.8 percent to 5,005 compared to the same period this year.

For every month of 2012 since February, resort occupancy has been down on a single figure basis, a trend continued into September with occupancy at the country’s island tourism properties falling 5.5 percent over the same period last year.

Occupancy rates have also fallen for hotels, guest houses and safari boats when compared to the nine month period between January and September 2011, according to the statistics.

Encouraging figures

Deputy Tourism Minister Mohamed Maleeh Jamal told Minivan News that the figures were encouraging for the industry. Maleeh stressed that this encouragement was not representative just of growth in Asia, but also due to the performance of key markets like Germany and Switzerland.

“Some 55 percent of traffic [during 2012] has still come from Europe,” he said.

However, even in markets like the UK, which for the first nine months of the year saw visitors fall by 13.7 percent to 67,987, Maleeh claimed the decline failed to reflect a changing customer demand for high-end holidays in the country.

Having recently returned from visiting London for the World Travel Market 2012 travel fair, Maleeh said that industry insiders and travel operators he had spoken to at the show identified a shift in the UK market towards more lucrative higher-cost packages.  He added that with the overall economic situation in Europe still uncertain, it was important to keep an industry presence in the region.

“We will be keeping a presence in these markets and wait for them to bounce back.  Countries like Germany and Switzerland have shown good growth,” he said.

Master plan

Along with celebrations to commemorate 40 years since the introduction of tourism, the ministry has said it also expects to unveil its fourth official tourism master plan by year-end. The document is anticipated to outline developments across the industry – dealing with the expansion of biospheres and other “value-adding” focuses – as well as an integrated plan to promote the destination internationally.

“We are working on the fourth tourism master plan in line with groups like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank to focus on a destination strategy,” Maleeh said.

Following February’s controversial transfer of power, the incoming government of President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan sought to utilise public relations groups and advertising to try and offset the impact of negative news headlines resulting from the change in government.

This focus has included agreeing a US$250,000 (Rf3.8million) advertising deal to promote the country’s tourism industry on the BBC through sponsorship of its weather services, as well as signing a £93,000 per month (US$150,000) contract with public relations group Ruder Finn to try and improve the country’s image internationally.

Having previously claimed that the “hard days” were over for Maldivian tourism, Maleeh said he hoped the government – currently facing increasing pressure to reduce its fiscal deficit by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – would provide a sufficient promotional budget to support such plans.

“The Maldives should be present in two to three of the largest news sources, these are CNN, the BBC and the National Geographic channel,” he said.  “These are frequently watched by major investors. Tourism is vulnerable and we need to have continuous engagement and visibility, if not, it can be a case of out of sight out of mind.”

While unable to outline the exact scope of the new master plan, Maleeh said that as President Waheed this year announced a strategy to make the Maldives the world’s largest marine reserve within the next five years, the commitment could prove particularly beneficial to tourism.

“Since the foundation of tourism 40 years ago, the environment has always been hugely important to the Maldives. After 40 years the country is still pristine making us very popular with tourists and we welcome any actions to encourage maintaining this,” he said.

Maleeh added that the foundation of reserves in the country at destinations like Baa Atoll was helping the area become a “premium destination within a destination”, adding further value to properties located in an area of strong natural interest.

Along with the potential benefits of operating as a marine reserve, Maleed claimed that the country’s status of being a protected marine reserve would not itself impact on the type of tourism developments being sought in the Maldives. These plans have included ambitious proposals such as the construction of five man-made islands to support leisure developments including a 19-hole golf course in the Maldives.

Maleeh claimed that he did not think these type of projects would be threatened by the Maldives protected reserve status, with developers still being required to work within existing environmental laws that impose several restrictions on the amount of development possible on each island.

“All plans are required to undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and resort developers are very good at working within these parameters,” he said.

In Baa Atoll, which has been awarded the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Biosphere Reserve status, several resort operators have said they remain uncertain as to the direct impact protected marine areas may have on their operations.

Reethi Beach Resort General Manager Peter Gremes has previously told Dhonisaurus that while obtaining the UNESCO reserve status last year was a “prestigious” accolade for properties in the atoll, it was unlikely to impact visitor numbers on a significant basis.


Maldives travel retail in the spotlight after airport sells US$39,000 bottle of whisky

This story was originally published on Minivan News’ spin-off travel review site,

Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) in Male’ has become the second duty free operator in the Asia Pacific region to sell a recently launched US$39,000 (MVR592,000)  bottle of whisky, reflecting what one retailer said is the growing significance of the destination for providers of high-end luxury goods.

Earlier this month, resort chain Anantara announced it would be offering guests a limited edition elephant-harvested coffee – priced at US$1,100 per kilogram – to target high-end gourmet appeal.

While the sale and consumption of alcohol products outside of the country’s airport and resort properties is prohibited under local law, the Maldives National Chamber of Commerce and Industries (MNNCI) said there remained definite potential for local industry and crafts to profit in a market like INIA, despite the MNNCI’s “concerns” over the development.

According to the Moodie Report, an influential travel retail publication, one Chinese passenger travelling through INIA this month purchased the limited edition commemorative Balvenie Fifty whisky just nine days after it had gone on sale at the site. Only 88 bottles are said to have been produced.

“With the Maldives being a top luxury travel destination in the Indian Sub-Continent, we believe that Malé duty free can act as a gateway to the great collection of rare and vintage malts,” distiller William Grant and Sons’ Indian Sub-Continent Brand Development Manager Neeraj Sharma told the trade publication.

GMR, the Indian infrastructure group with a concession agreement to manage and develop the new airport terminal and retail facilities, has taken exclusive rights to certain duty free items to be sold at INIA.

However the GMR contract, which was drafted with assistance from International Finance Corporation (IFC), has come under intense criticism in the country’s political circles, with some key MPs and now government-aligned parties accusing the company of corruption and seeking to “enslave the nation and its economy”.

GMR has denied the charge, contending that it is contracted to operate as a caretaker for the site, which continues to remain Maldivian owned.

However, in the same week when INIA was selling the exclusive whisky to a passenger, local groups supporting a move to “re-nationalise” the airport continued to campaign to sway public opinion against the developer, releasing a large balloon in the capital adorned with the message “go home GMR”.

The government and GMR are presently involved in an arbitration case in Singapore concerning GMR’s levying of an airport development charge.

Authentically Maldivian

MNCCI Vice President Ishmael Asif said aside from selling exclusive duty free goods, local manufacturers of products such as wood carvings and traditional clothing could also benefit from operating in INIA.  However, Asif stressed that local laws needed to be amended accordingly.

“There are no local laws right now protecting authentic Maldives products. The goods being sold as Maldivian often come from other countries and do not reflect our traditions and culture,” he claimed, pointing to the types of products sold in stores on busy retail streets like Chaandhanee Magu in Male’ as an example.

Asif claimed that legislation outlining quality and production standards could greatly boost the profitability and market for local techniques such as wood carvings of fish and dhonis (local boats) as well as smaller items like drums used in bodu beru – a local musical form combining rhythmic drumming and dancing.

According to the MNCCI, factories previously existed during the 1990’s specialising in such local woodworking techniques, which used paints and fabrics derived from local materials and colourings. Asif claimed that these factories were no longer in operation outside of some specialist operations supported by resorts based in Baa Atoll.

“We have been trying to work on a special logo that can be used to identify local Maldivian products, this is something that could be done and used at the airport,” said Asif.

The MNCCI added that in recent years, specialist retail groups had set up operations to try and provide authentic products to the country’s lucrative tourism trade, but had more recently struggled to maintain a property in the capital. The commerce group added that organisations such as the UN were now being sought to provide support to such enterprises to help maintain local cultural practices.

In terms of high-end luxury products, Asif added that traditionally INIA – formerly Male’ international Airport – had been viewed locally as a way to bring tourists to the country, rather than as a means of making money as a retail location.

“We are known [as a destination] for having expensive resorts, and the Maldives has tried to develop the best resorts in the world,” he claimed.  “GMR seem to feel this is only a place for the elite, [while] we need to accommodate everyone.”

GMR said that as part of a redevelopment of the existing airport terminal, new restaurant properties providing fast food and Thai specialities – particularly popular with Maldivians – would be opened to both passengers and local people.

Yet despite the untapped retail potential for Maldivian products at INIA, the MNNCI said it held “concerns” over the airport agreement with GMR, which was signed with the previous government, and complained it had not been consulted about developing local retail potential.

Asif has previously said that the MNNCI held concerns about the impact of the GMR deal on local businesses, alleging that a planning council related to the infrastructure group’s bid had not been open to the public or its members.

He pointed to the case of local enterprises such as MVK Maldives Private Limited, which in December last year was ordered by the Civil Court to vacate the Alpha MVKB Duty Free shop based at INIA after its agreement had expired.

However, speaking to private broadcaster Raaje TV last month, former Economic Development Minister Mahmoud Razee, who worked with the previous government and international partners on the GMR agreement, denied the deal had resulted in local enterprises being kicked out.

“The privatisation policy does not itself kick others out. It is about honouring the contract. No one has actually been kicked out, but private parties have opportunities to participate. The issue that has always existed is getting cheap capital for small scale businesses,” he said at the time.

Razee claimed that the GMR deal reflected a commitment by the former government to pursue privatisation as outlined in the Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP’s) manifesto.

“Firstly, if or when anything is run like a business, private people are more skilled and efficient. They are far more competent and they work for profit unlike the government,” he claimed.  “This means it requires less cost for the government, but needs more outside investment or capital. Private people are more skilled and efficient in terms of managing. The end product thus is more beneficial.”


Bikini business: the challenges of paradise on a budget

This story was originally published on Minivan News’ spin-off travel review site,

With tourism authorities committed to branding the Maldives as a luxury destination, the establishment of guest-houses for independent travellers is presently seen as more of a niche “bonus” for the country’s economy, rather than an up-and-coming business model.

The Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, currently in the process of attempting to claw back consumer confidence in the destination damaged during the early months of 2012, is also in the process of outlining a fourth long-term master plan for pursuing growth within the Maldives travel sector.

As part of these plans, government officials have said they are presently analysing the contribution to the economy of all tourist properties – including resorts, safari boats and guest-houses – before unveiling how each sector will be developed in the future.

While the demand for experiencing guest-houses on the Maldives’ inhabited islands is said to be comparatively “low”, one expert providing independent holiday experiences in the country has said there was interest nonetheless in providing options for backpackers and budget holidaymakers.

As a Muslim traveller first arriving to the Maldives in early 2011, Raki Bench was looking for alternatives to the country’s well publicised island resort experience. Bench, an internet marketing specialist by trade, said that after asking around at what was then Male’ International Airport, he found it was possible with perseverance to negotiate an escape to a local guest-house or even a stay on a desert island.

“We didn’t want to go to a resort and were interested instead in guest-houses and experiences with local people,” he said.

However, when considering the country’s strictly Islamic society, which outlaws certain holiday staples travellers may take for granted at other destinations – like wearing bikinis and purchasing alcohol – Bench said that catering for the needs of holidaymakers outside the Maldives’ resorts was not without its challenges.

Aside from cultural sensitivities, he pointed to several logistical and transport issues, as well as a lack of government support in recent years for the sector, as key concerns holding back the development of the guest-house industry.

Yet almost a year and a half after first arriving to the country, Bench is now the founder of the Guest-houses in Maldives website, which offers specially prepared packages to tourists from all over the world looking for a more budget-friendly, independent holiday experience.

“We find that the business caters for a mix of more budget-focused travellers and also those looking to explore the natural environment in the country. Since 2011, we have started to get interest from families wanting to come to the Maldives on a budget,” he said.

“At present, our main customer-base are Europeans for sure, there are a lot of backpackers staying in Sri Lanka for instance with an interest in coming over to the Maldives for a few days to stay in guest-houses. We also receive some requests from countries like Singapore, but Asia is not our main market.”

The magic number

As the Maldives this year aims to attract a total of one million holidaymakers to its islands, Bench stressed that the country’s reputation as a luxury destination underlined that fact that the guest-house model would not cater for everyone’s tastes.

He added that 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, who said he was realistic about the economic reasons for this.

“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.”

According to recently published official travel industry figures, the number of bed nights recorded at Maldives guest-houses during January 2012 was up 17.3 percent to 2,867 compared to the same period in 2011.

Over the same period, 622,944 bed nights were recorded by the country’s resorts. Bed nights are used by the hotel industry as a measure of occupancy per person per night.

While the actually occupancy rate of guest-houses was also found to have increased by 2.8 percent in January 2012 over 2011,  guest-house accommodation was found to be only at 20 percent of total capacity, according to the statistics.

Bikini restrictions

From his own experience, Bench said that as the country’s current crop of guest-houses had opened in recent years, not all their proprietors were perhaps experienced in running a travel business – meaning properties were not always being used to their full potential.

“My advice to guest-house owners would be to try and think of the problems they will face,” he said. “Think if there will be daily transfer to your island, think of the restrictions on wearing bikinis on local beaches, therefore is there a resort or private beach nearby?”

Both through his own website, and working as a guest-house product manager for the Maldives Dive Travel company, Bench said that he only offered customers full-board packages. He claimed this was important decision, both as a means to provide the best value for money, but to also overcome the potential challenges in hosting foreign guests.

Taking a typical day staying at a guest-house as an example, Bench said that upon waking up and having a traditional breakfast prepared by their hosts, visitors would then be offered a choice of excursions from diving or surfing, to spending a day aboard a liveaboard boat, private island or even a resort.

“The main reason for this is to leave the island to overcome bikini restrictions. All people who book with us are offered excursions due to the restrictions imposed under local laws,“ he said.

Bench claimed he also aimed to ensure guests booked excursions in advance, as arranging trips such as reef snorkelling or a day on a private beach once staying at a guest-house could prove much more costly.

“You can often find a room yourself at guest-houses for around US$70, which is cheap, but you need to be aware of the regulations and some of the hidden charges that are there,” he said.


Despite cultural and legal restrictions on the wearing of bikinis and selling alcohol on the inhabited islands where guest-houses are based, Bench said that increased booking numbers, particularly from European tourists, highlighted that holidaymakers were adapting to the unique nature of more independent travel in the Maldives.

“The increased bookings seen at guest houses in general shows that people are adapting to local cultures during their stay and we haven’t faced too many problems in this regard,” he said.

Aside from guest-houses, with the Maldives’ territories estimated to be comprised of over 90 per cent water, it is perhaps not surprising the safari boats – with their cabins and trained dive staff – have also become an important part of the development of mid-market travel in the Maldives.

Maldives Dive Travel, a company Bench also represents, has itself begun offering guest-house experiences to customers along with its traditional liveaboard voyages, allowing the chance to combine a stay both above the water and on the country’s inhabited islands.

However, Bench said that as a wider industry development, collaboration in the country between safari boat operators and guest-house owners that would allow greater mobiltiy between local islands presently appeared far from viable.

“I know we have thought about combining voyages on safari boats and allowing guests to travel to different islands before. But the only real solution for this would be if a liveaboard boat had the same owner as guest-houses,” he said. “Logistically, for foreign companies like us, this would be impossible to arrange, the infrastructure is not there.”

Bench added that while the Maldives’ laid back island culture was extremely appealing for guests on holidays, a similar attitude sometimes found to be adopted within the country’s ministries and administrative offices also hampered coordination between different industries and sectors.

“Love and nurturing”

Adrian Neville, a veteran of travel writing in the Maldives, told Dhonisaurus that guest-houses had played a role in the development of the country’s holiday industry since being founded in 1972. However, the 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.

According to Neville, there was one key challenge that he ultimately believed would hold back the wider development of guest-houses and opening up independent travel up to tourists.

“Transport. Transport. Transport,” he added. “The ferry system is a sine qua non. A no brainer and a great idea but sadly it has died, withered on the vine as it tried to establish itself. The economic plan to make it happen turned out not to be viable,” he said. “Until this is reworked not enough is being done to open [guest houses] up to tourists.”

Master plan – version 4.0

Ahmed Adheeb, the recently appointed Minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture, said that provisions allowing guest-houses to cater for tourists were provided under law back in 2008.

However, with the government of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan having replaced Mohamed Nasheed’s administration earlier this year, tourism authorities have said they were now in the process of devising an overall tourism plan that would include potential developments for independent travel.

Adheeb said that it was presently difficult “to say where we stand on guest-houses” as the industry was still relatively niche compared to the established resort market.

“The Maldives continues to be branded as a luxury destination within the tourism market. It is a bonus therefore that these guest-houses allow us to supply mid-market demand,” he said.

With the Ministry of Tourism of Tourism, Arts and Culture working with bodies like the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) on the development of a fourth national “master plan” for outlining tourism industry developments, the exact nature of diversification was as yet undecided.  The third master plan was concluded last year.

“We are formulating our plan right now. This will look specifically into how many guest-houses have been built and how they contribute to the economy,” he said.

Adheeb said that he would be also be looking at quality standards as well as issues of security at more independent properties as part of the master plan before divulging how the government might look to support and promote guest-houses.


Maldives eyes underwater festivals and bio-reserves among dive innovation efforts

This story was originally published on Minivan News’ spin-off travel review site, Dhonisaurus.

Diving has been a long-standing part of the Maldives’ attempts to appeal to tourists as a tropical island holiday paradise over the last 30 years. With almost every Maldives-based resort island now providing a certified dive centre to guests, the local tourism industry has begun looking at means to bring further innovation to underwater exploration.

Beyond the establishment of high-profile sub-aquatic spas and restaurants in the country, some resorts are opting to play up the emergence of nearby protected marine parks and reserves. Other properties have even moved to hold underwater festivals in attempts bolster interest in exploring life beneath the Maldivian waters.

With an estimated 95 percent of the Maldives landmass underwater, Dolores Semeraro, PR Manager at the LUX* Maldives resort in South Ari Atoll, believes snorkelling and diving are a must-try experience for guests visiting the country.

Underwater festival

In order to try and better play up the appeal of diving to guests of all experience levels, the LUX* Maldives resort this month hosted what is claimed to be the country’s first ever underwater festival. The event had a central focus on underwater photography, as well as the chance to spy some of the Maldives’ most exotic – not to mention attention grabbing – wildlife in the form of whale sharks and manta rays.

Experts including photographer Junji Takasago and free diver Jean-Jacques Mayol joined the resort’s Resident Marine Biologist Chiara Fumagalli during the week to oversee the festivities and provide special programmes and presentations on diving and photography.

To Semeraro at least, while Maldives tourism is often associated with resorts offering high-end, beach-side indulgence and relaxation, the country’s reefs and dive spots are a hugely important contributor to the destination’s overall mystique.

“Events like the underwater festival highlight positively the destination from this point of view and it is incredible to see how interested our guests are in subjects such as whale sharks, snorkelling, coral reefs and so on,” she said.

The festival, which ran during a seven day period this month, concluded on May 20 with a prize giving ceremony for underwater images captured by guests during the week that were judged to be the best.

The resort said the festival was designed to cater for a wide variety of guests; ranging from accomplished underwater explorers, to holidaymakers looking for a more sedate spot of high-brow after-dinner entertainment.

LUX* Maldives therefore promised guests in attendance during the festival a number of special programmes such as free diving courses, the chance to learn special free diving breathing techniques, and illuminated outings for night time reef exploration. Presentations and screenings by marine experts in attendance during the festival were also conducted.

According to Semeraro, after six months of planning, the festival passed with favourable reactions from both media and attendees. She claimed that on average, two full boats of divers were heading out daily with underwater photographers, or to take part in the free-diving and apnea (special breathing) programmes.

When addressing some of South Ari Atoll’s more unique dive sites available to the festival’s attendees, Semeraro claimed that the Kudarah Thila and Digurah Thila sites were among the area’s most notable and popular destinations for underwater exploration.

“It’s hard to choose the key dive sites, they are all amazing,” she claimed. “South Ari Atoll showcases a few dive sites of world-wide renown.”

Semeraro stressed that the resort had committed itself to try and make the festival inclusive even to guests unaccustomed to underwater photography or diving.

“Divers are always keen photographers while underwater. However, it can be disappointing to check your pictures and find out that they were out of focus or not properly set once back on the surface,” she said. “That is when our underwater photographers stepped in to coach divers of all levels on how to have a more confident approach to photography while diving. For the non-divers, we opened several snorkelling sessions guided by our resident marine biologist for guests who are keen on trying snorkelling/underwater photography.“

Semeraro said that all guests who stayed at the resort were invited to participate in the festivities with a complimentary discovery scuba diving session being made available for newcomers to acquaint themselves with the Maldives’ underwater environment.

Semeraro claimed that diving and reef-based events were being monitored “at all times” by its diving instructors and marine biologists.

Sustainable promotion

Amidst the outspoken attempts of former President Mohamed Nasheed to try and put the Maldives on the global map during his tenure with an ambitious carbon neutral plan, Maldives tourism authorities had previously sought to promote the destination under the banner of “Always Natural”. After receiving a mixed reception, the branding was dropped earlier this year by the new government of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan.

Alongside claims by resort operators of their commitments to bring their operations in line with international sustainability standards, the country has begun to see the formation of marine parks and other underwater reserves that may have implications for their properties in the future.

Over in Baa Atoll for example, which has recently been awarded the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Biosphere Reserve status, properties like the Reethi Beach Resort are uncertain as to the direct impact protected marine areas may have on their operations.

Resort General Manager Peter Gremes told Dhonisaurus that while obtaining the UNESCO reserve status last year was a “prestigious” accolade for properties in the atoll, it was unlikely to impact visitor numbers on a significant basis.

With the UNESCO reserve area situated on the other side of Baa Atoll, Gremes claimed that he expected a negligible impact on the number of divers already coming to his resort to explore local underwater sites.

“We have a very high occupancy rate here at the resort, so we don’t really need to use the reserve in terms of a marketing tool,” he said. “At present, discussions are still taking place on how the atoll will aim to make use of its status as well as the costs involved. A lot of unanswered questions remain on this.”

The resort manager said he did welcome increased regulation and protection measures to the waters of the atolls that would – in theory – mean much tighter restrictions on the amount of divers coming to the area at any given time.

Gremes pointed to developments in the country’s renowned Hanifaru Bay area that previously led some tour operators and local people to raise concerns about the huge traffic of visitors coming to an area deemed to be of significant natural interest.

In 2010, amidst a 260 percent increase in tourist arrivals to the area, local island authorities raised concerns about the number of safari and dive boats that were attempting to cram themselves into the bay – a small enclosed reef the size of a football field.

Increased government regulation in terms of diving and other activities conducted in the area were likely to be beneficial in the long-run for local resorts, at least according to Reethi Beach General Manager Peter Gremes.

“After some of the issues we have had with the number of safari boats coming to dive sites, this will be beneficial for us at the resort,” he claimed.

Local NGOs have welcomed the previous government’s commitments to establish and extend several protected ecological preserves in areas like Baa Atoll, despite calling for amendments to the efficiency of collaboration between different ministerial branches in ensuring eco-protection.

Environmental NGO Bluepeace said last June that government action to protect marine areas was an “encouraging development”, despite wider concerns about the efficiency of collaboration between different ministerial branches over eco-protection.

Ali Rilwan of Local environmental NGO Bluepeace said at the time that he supported government in regard to environmental protection across the southerly atoll, yet insisted the measures were more of a “first step” towards a comprehensive national preservation system rather than a finalised commitment to conservation.

Yet Baa Atoll is not the only stretch of the country’s waters to be afforded greater enforcement in protecting its reefs.

Within the seclusion of the country’s northerly Noonu Atoll, the Hilton Iru Fushi resort has began working with the country’s first Marine National Park (MNP) at Edu Faru in a bid to play up the surrounding natural appeal of the area for guests.

According to the MNP’s management, after signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the previous government in August 2011, guests staying at certain nearby properties like the Iru Fushi resort are cautiously being welcomed to explore the protected underwater habitats.

“The project is still in its early development stages and we are working towards having an official opening ceremony at the end of 2013,” said a representative for the MNP.  “The level of protection is yet to be determined in collaboration with the government and experts in the field.”

As a marine reserve, the MNP’s management team have said they continue to work on outlining exact policies for resort guests coming to the area.  A representative for the MNP told Dhonisaurus that balancing tourist interest in the area with the need to preserve coral and other inhabitants would always create “ecological challenges” for its operations, but it was working to overcome them nonetheless.

“The MNP will rely on marine-based tourism such as scuba diving and snorkelling,” the MNP spokesperson said.  “We strive to achieve a balance between recreational use and preservation of ecological values that form the MNP and the biological carrying capacity and prevent overuse of the site.”

In bringing guests to the site, the Hilton Iru Fushi resort has presently been set strict guidelines by the MNP on how guests can visit the site.

At present, guests are able to enter the house reef of the reserve for snorkelling and diving expeditions on the basis of private, non scheduled tours consisting of a small number of people.

Additionally, boats used to transport guests are also not permitted to anchor with the MNP area over concerns about the potential damage to the coral.

“At this stage, we prevent guests going ashore the islands within the MNP until we adequate knowledge about the specific biological values and vulnerable species and habitats and how they can best be protected,” said the MNP spokesperson.  “Therefore, we will have to seek more advice to develop appropriate management strategies for the marine-based tourism industry.”

In terms of costing, the MNP’s management said that as a non-profit organisation, the scheme would be run on grants and donations.  A sum of US$10 will be donated to the MNP project by guests who visit the site, the project’s management added.

Master plan

Marine parks and bioreserves are currently said to be among the “wide number” of options being considered by Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Ahmed Adheeb to try and diversify the appeal of the country’s tourist properties.

Adheeb claimed that the exact nature of there diversification plans was as yet undecided.  Authorities are now trying to devise a fourth Tourism Master Plan outlining developments in the country’s travel industry.  The third master plan was concluded last year.

“My predecessor, [Dr Mariyam Zulfa] explored a number a number avenues in terms of diversifying tourism here,” the tourism minister said.  “We have been provided with a large number of options.”

Adheeb claimed that with a fourth Tourism Master Plan expected to be completed later this year, discussions were currently taking place with industry stakeholders and bodies like the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) on what direction future developments in the country should take.

“Before making decisions we need to know what is the current situation with the tourism industry here.  We need to see what the industry feedback is as well,” he said.  “What I can say right now is that we are already seeing bio-reserves and marine parks being set up here in the country.  Some of these have already by endorsed by the UNESCO.  A lot of value can be added to the market from these programmes.”

Adheeb stressed that it was also important to account for shifts like the growing interest in the Maldives from Asian markets like China when devising future plans to develop the industry.


Reethi Beach and Kuda Huraa scoop awards from reader rating publications

The Maldives’ Reethi Beach resort has been rated as one of the world’s top beach holiday destinations by users of the Switzerland-based travel ratings website

The site awarded the top 99 reader-recommended hotels across several categories, drawing on 530,000 reviews received in 2011.

Other winners in the beach holiday category included Hotel Royal Dragon in Turkey, Hotel Iberostar Varadero in Cuba and Hotel Ramada Resort Khao Lak in Thailand.

Meanwhile Four Seasons’ Kuda Huraa resort was named ‘Best Overseas Leisure Hotel’ in the Condé Nast Traveller India Readers’ Travel Awards 2011.

The award, which canvased Indian readers of the upmarket travel magazine, follows the publication’s awarding of ‘Best of the Best’ Award and ‘Best Overseas Leisure Hotel in the Middle East, Africa & Indian Ocean’ to the resort at its UK event.

Reethi Beach currently has a 76 percent rating on Minivan News’ resort review website, Dhonisaurus, which calculates ratings from 10 Maldives-specific categories. The resort currently scores a very high 90 percent rating for its beach, and similarly high ratings for service, house reef, and value. It scored lowest (60 percent) for its rooms.

Kuda Huraa scores 73 percent overall with an exceptional 100 percent for service, and high ratings for its environmental commitment, rooms and its overall look and feel. It scored lower for its house reef.


Introducing ‘Dhonisaurus’: Minivan’s new independent travel review and ratings site

Minivan News is proud to introduce our new subsidiary travel site, offering the first independent, comprehensive, reader reviews and ratings for the Maldives tourism industry.

A ‘dhoni’ is a traditional Maldivian vessel with a distinctly curved prow, while a thesaurus helps you choose exactly the right word for the occasion. Stick the words together: Dhonisaurus. The dinosaur is just a bonus.

The Maldives is world famous for its beaches and clear blue waters.

But what really makes one resort different from another? It’s surprisingly hard to tell from a glossy tourism brochure, or an article written by a well-pampered travel journalist.

Opinion sites such as TripAdvisor powerfully influence the decision of tourists to visit a destination, but these large, international travel review sites do not have the luxury of detail as they must be able to objectively measure a rented château in Paris alongside a backpacker hostel in Yemen.

Moreover, rather than staying a few nights, the average visitor to the Maldives spends US$10,000-12,000 and stays on a single island for several weeks, so we figure they could use a bit more detail before making the big decision.

We pick up where TripAdvisor leaves off, asking visitors to rate resorts for Rooms, Service, Beach, Activities, Dining, Bar Experience, House Reef, Environmental Responsibility, Value and ‘Look and Feel’. We average these scores and all submitted reviews to automatically generate an overall rating out of 100. This way the more ratings submitted the more accurate the reviews become.

The ratings on Dhonisaurus reflect readers’ opinions, not our own, and the site pays its way through banner advertising rather than being sponsored by a consortium of resorts and tour operators, or by taking a cut from bookings. We have a vested interest in giving useful, impartial information, as this makes readers come back, review their experience and help make us even more accurate and credible.

Because we take an average from 10 categories, our ratings may seem harsher than those of other Maldives review websites, but the advantage of doing things this way is that you can get an honest, overall picture of what a resort is really like behind the brochures and press junkets. It’s also the first time resorts in the Maldives have been reviewed and contrasted for qualities such as their environmental responsibility.

The in-house reviews on Dhonisaurus are written by Maldives experts, including guidebook author Adrian Neville, who has reviewed almost every resort in the country over 20 years writing about the Maldives.

Adrian and the Dhonisaurus team will also be answering questions posted by travellers in the new site’s Advice Forum, on topics as diverse as diving, expat living and marine biology.

As Dhonisaurus grows we intend to add local guest houses on inhabited islands, include useful tools and forum posts for independent travellers in the Maldives, develop a separate rating system for safari boats, and hold award ceremonies for the winners of each category.

We’re very excited about the launch of Dhonisaurus as it greatly expands Minivan News’ presence in the travel sector and the advertising opportunities we can offer, and gives us an additional revenue stream to reinvest in growing independent journalism in the Maldives.

For a limited time only we are offering discounted introductory rates on for businesses keen to capture a high-conversion audience right in the act of planning their trip to the Maldives.

We want Dhonisaurus to be comprehensive. If a resort is not listed or has just opened (or closed!), contact us and we will ensure it is amended. Listed resorts must be open and receiving guests.