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.
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.
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.