How will guest house islands benefit the community?

With the unveiling of the first guest house island plan this week, industry experts have questioned whether the government’s new guest house tourism policy will benefit the local communities in the same was as past approaches.

“The guest house is a policy – a development implement,” said former Minister for Economic Development Mahmud Razee.

“It should be an equitable thing – if it is purely a tourism policy that is only on a selected island, then we are moving away from the fundamental issue of enabling all Maldivians to benefit from tourism.”

The model’s first project – the Thumburi ‘Integrated Resort Development’ scheme – was launched on Monday night (June 23), being branded as a way to “responsibly diversify the tourism product of the Maldives”.

Recent guest house development – reintroduced by the Maldivian Democratic Party after a decades-long hiatus – was intended to open up the billion dollar tourism market to small and medium sized businesses.

While the placement of guest houses on local island was also intended to stimulate the local economies, concern was expressed by religious groups regarding the impact on local communities.

President Yameen’s guest house island policy – included in his election manifesto – instead plans to recreate the more traditional resort concept, with the participation of multiple smaller entrepreneurs.

“Once again today we are looking to diversify tourism, to shape it in a different way. It does not mean moving away from the existing concept of having one resort on one island,” said Yameen at Monday’s launch.

Yameen also revealed that future developments would take place within proposed special economic zones, which will cede local authority to incoming foreign investors as part of  a system of incentives agreed upon at the government’s discretion.

‘A new concept for a world class brand’

Describing the project as “a new concept for a world class brand”, the Thumburi brochure reveals plans for several beach hotels with rooms ranging from US$100-200 – far less than that currently charged by the country’s budget resorts.

The development of the project will be overseen by the government’s marketing corporation, the MMPRC – who unable to respond to further queries at the time of press.

Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb has previously told Minivan News that, while his government would continue to support individual guest houses, there was a reluctance to promote them for fear of damaging the country’s brand as a luxury tourism destination.

“The thing is, from a marketing perspective, we have positioned the Maldives as a high-end destination,” explained Adeeb.

“A-category guests will continue coming for as long as we market the country as an A-category destination. Guests for B,C,D and E categories are something we automatically get.”

General Manager of Sales and Marketing at Triple A resorts Willem Fokkenrood, however, disagrees with this assessment, suggesting that this type of exclusive approach is outdated.

“Does guest house and B&Bs damage Hawaii’s image? No, it just puts more money into the pot.”

Fokkenrood also suggested that placement of the of the guest house concept on single islands would “defeat the purpose” of the model.

“People want to have guesthouses so the local people can reap the benefit from it. If you open a guest house island, what benefit are you talking about?” he asked.

“Because you get to stay with the local population, it’s a draw for a lot of people to say ‘I have stayed in the real Maldives’.”

Fokkenrood felt the key difference between the new concept and the traditional guest house model would be the addition of pork and alcohol products – illegal on the Maldives’ inhabited islands – to the mid-market sector.

“That would change the game, then it becomes a direct competitor to these established resorts,” he said.

Razee, however, felt that the policy may represent an attempt to reassure current industry leaders – described as oligarchs in a recent UNDP report – that the mid range market would progress in a “more controlled fashion”.

Minivan News was unable to obtain further comment from the Tourism Ministry on this subject.