Introducing rival seaplane operators vital for tourism: MATATO

The Maldives Association for Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO) feels it is imperative that competition be introduced to the country’s seaplane industry to assuage fears that the resulting monopoly has negatively hit tourism.

MATATO President Mohamed Khaleel has alleged that the sale of both Trans Maldivian Airways (TMA) and Maldivian Air Taxi (MAT) to US-based private equity fund Blackstone in February of this year has already led to increased prices for guests and tour operators.

“We need to find a competitor to [Blackstone],” said Khaleel.

The merged company now operates under the TMA brand.

Several major hospitality groups operating in the country wrote to the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) in August claiming their “worst fears” were being realised regarding the monopoly on the country’s seaplane services.

“You are of course aware that ‘The Blackstone Group’s’ recent entry into the market has had the effect of eliminating competition and creating a monopoly in the charter seaplane market in the Maldives,” wrote the CEO of a major multinational operating in the Maldives.

“We were concerned from the outset about the potential disruptions this could cause in the market and have been monitoring the situation closely.”

In the letter, the company said it was particularly concerned at several contractual points it alleged were being “forced” upon operators by TMA as a result of the seaplane monopoly.

At time of press, Minivan News was awaiting a response from both Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb and TMA  to the allegations raised in the letter.

MATATO concerns

Aside from the impact of the increased costs being passed on to travel agents and consumers, MATATO President Khaleel alleged operators had not been receiving the same levels of support from the seaplane operator under Blackstone in order to promote the industry.

“For instance, we try to run [familiarisation] trips for journalists as part of promotion efforts for the country as a destination, every year in the past we used to get complimentary seaplane services [for promotional purposes],” he stated.

Pointing to key developments in the Maldives business sector in recent years, Khaleel said that introducing competition to the country’s communications and telecoms sector had helped lead to positive changes in price and services since the introduction of private competitors.

He expressed confidence that there was sufficient finance and know-how within the local aviation industry to try and establish a new seaplane operator locally.

Khaleel stressed that although the emergence of a growing number of domestic airports across the country was providing alternative transport options to using seaplanes, the best solution would be to encourage competitive pricing in the market by encouraging competing operators.

“There are multiple people around who can afford this to try and establish fair competition,” he added.

Blackstone “treated us well”: guesthouse operator

Meanwhile, one small hospitality group providing guesthouse accommodation in Noonu Atoll, which has recently renewed an agreement for seaplane services, confirmed it had faced successive rise in costs for the use of seaplane services over the last 12 months for a one way journey from the capital.

A one way seaplane flight to Noonu Atoll per traveller earlier this year rose to US$300 from US$260. The cost per head recently rose again to US$375 under its latest agreement signed within the last month, the operator added.

According to the guesthouse manager, the increased rates had not drastically impacted upon its operations as the property had worked with a specialist European tour operator to bring in groups of travellers – the costs therefore being absorbed into a wider package rate.

Outside of costs, the operator stressed that transport – particularly for the country’s fledgling independent travel market – was a “big issue” for their guesthouse, with the prospect of being priced out of using seaplanes potentially creating long-term difficulties for business.

“We were hoping that they would not raise the seaplane rates too much, and they didn’t,” the guesthouse manager added. “We would have otherwise had to use a recently opened domestic airport nearby, but this would be such a hassle requiring hiring a speedboat for further transportation. [The seaplane] is easy, smooth and elegant for us.”

The operator stressed that, owing to the costs already associated with using seaplanes compared to other forms of transport, its guests usually only took a one-way flight to the property itself with alternative transport arranged by sea as part of the experience.

The guesthouse manager added that seaplanes also gave an additional exotic appeal to the country as a destination, describing one tour operator as being “astonished” after their maiden flight across the country’s skies using the services.

This appeal, the operator argued, was a major additional selling point of the current package offered to guests visiting the Maldives.

“A monopoly makes it much tougher to do business, so in the long-run, I would say it could be a bit scary for the industry,” the manager stated.


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.


Cruising the Maldives by cargo-boat: Travelmag

While most visitors to the Maldives seek the pampered comfort of the resorts, travel writer Donna Richardson became one of the few independent travelers to island-hop to Gan via cargo vessel. She wrote about the experience for independent travel publication Travelmag.

“The blazing sun moves eastwards we enter Laamu atoll. This is going to be the government’s newest ‘zone’ developments. I am struck by the beauty of the islands, all uninhabited save the Six Senses resort Laamu which is due to open its doors this month. However, there is to be much change in this atoll over the coming years with the government’s new plans to extend transportation networks and extend into mid-market tourism. In fact there is talk of a three star ‘Costa Del Maldives’ of guest houses, restaurants and bars happening here to bring in hordes of backpackers and mid marketers, making the Maldives much more accessible in the near future.

“I made my way back to the cabin and slept through until we moored into Dhaandoo in the Huvadhoo atoll – our first port drop. The pink sky above the island illuminates the gleaming presidential yacht which is moored right next to us, flanked by two MNDF Coast Guard boats.

“Evidence of reclamation is evident on the sea front in this island which is in desperate need of housing. The interior betrays a curious mix of coral houses glimpsed through the jutting palm trees. It is clear that this island is quite poor in comparison with its neighbours. Women rise early to collect rain and sea water to boil and condensate so they can wash and cook during the day, while their men prepare for their days work on the fishing boats. Small dhonis lap in the waves and in the distance is an uninhabited picnic island in the distance.

“Fishing is the main income of the island, yet there are only three fishing vessels – so not everyone can be a fisherman. With limited agriculture and infrastructure there are only a few key jobs in the public sector for teachers and doctors and island councillors. There is a small school, a satellite hospital, which is more like a general practice and an island council office.

“Despite it being a Wednesday men are hanging around and doing nothing (known as holhuashi) swinging in undolis (giant handwoven swings) beneath the shady trees lining the island. Surprisingly these are not layabouts but a mix of learned men including teachers and politicians as they sit in silent protest to the presidential visit on the nearby islands, this being an opposition island.”

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