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