Tourist arrivals show decline of 7.6 percent in January 2013

Tourist arrivals for January 2013 were down by 7.6 percent compared to the same month in 2012, figures from the Ministry of Tourism have revealed.

Earlier this month, Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb told local media he was confident the Maldives would reach one million tourist arrivals in 2013, after narrowly falling short of the same target for 2012.

However, figures released by the ministry show that tourist arrivals from Europe and Asia – the two largest markets – had fallen by 4.4 percent and 16.8 percent respectively in January 2013 when compared to the same month in 2012.

According to figures from the tourism ministry, last month was the first time in three years there had been a decline in tourists coming to the Maldives in January when compared to figures from previous years for the same month.

The monthly number of Chinese tourists arriving in the Maldives fell for the first time in over six months compared to figures from previous years.

China, which holds the largest share of the arrivals to the Maldives at 21.6 percent, fell by 31.4 percent from 28,008 in January 2012 to 19,208 in January 2013.

The European market continues its steady decline, with Italy – which held the largest share of tourist arrivals in Europe in January 2012 – falling by 32.5 percent from 10,451 to 7,050 in January 2013.

Russia now holds the largest share of tourists for all countries classified under ‘Europe’ by the ministry, accounting for 10.2 percent of all arrivals in January 2013 at 9,061.

Arrivals from United Kingdom fell from 7,001 in January 2012 to 6,367 in January 2013, while German arrivals – which account for the third largest share of the European arrival market – fell by eight percent when compared to the same month in 2012.

In contrast, India’s tourist arrivals grew by 51.2 percent from 2,303 to 3,483 and arrivals from countries in the Middle East increased from 1,303 to 2,312.

Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb was not responding to calls from Minivan News at time of press.

Tourism budget increased by MVR 60 million

Earlier this month, the tourism budget for 2013 was increased from MVR 20 million (US$1.2 million) to MVR 80 million (US$5.1 million).

The increase came after criticism from the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI), who last month called for the government to reconsider the MVR 20 million budget allocated for tourism marketing in 2013.

The initial sum of money allocated was the lowest in eight years, according to a statement from MATI, which highlighted concerns that the Maldives’ economy was mostly reliant on tourism.

Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb told local media that the ministry had initially requested a budget of MVR 200 million (US$12.9 million) to carry out tourism promotion for the year, however parliament had “erased a zero” from the figure when finalising the budget.

Adheeb noted that while tourism promotion is expensive, the revenue generated from the industry “drives the entire engine”.

“When we put down MVR 200 million, the government authorities don’t actually realise the priority that this requires. Parliament erased a zero from the MVR 200 million we proposed, and gave us MVR 20 million,” he told Sun Online.

“Then we had to work in all other different ways, and now the Finance Minister has committed to give us MVR 60 million more.”


Maldives to intensify Asian and Middle East tourism promotion: TTG Asia

The Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) is set to step up marketing efforts across Asia and the Middle East to try and capitalise on recent arrival numbers from similar emerging markets.

Travel news publication TTG Asia has reported that tourism authorities are pushing ahead with road-show events in Singapore and South Korea next month, after a similar strategy was held last month in a number of Chinese cities.

The report added that familiarisation tours for journalists based in a number of middle eastern markets like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Lebanon were also being conducted.

TTG Asia claimed that the strategy was designed to capitalise on improving visitor numbers to the Maldives during April from markets like China amidst declining custom from countries like Italy.


China leads Maldives’ 18 percent tourism boom

Over 700,000 tourists visited the Maldives in the first seven months of 2011, the majority of visitors from China.

The Tourism Ministry has released data showing that the number of tourists who visited the Maldives between January and July 2011 increased by 18.3 percent to 520,483. This was compared to the 439,864 tourists who visited the Maldives during the same period last year.

Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO) Secretary General, Mohamed Maleeh Jamal, told Minivan News that the timing of Europe’s economic decline matches that of the growing Chinese market. Asia’s high season corresponds with Europe’s low season, he said, and resorts are now catering more to Chinese tourists to keep business up.

Jamal also noted that airlines such as Qatar Airways had increased direct service to the Maldives in the last 10 months. He also noted that more airports are being constructed closer to resort islands, such as in Baa Atoll.

“The President has also decided to increase the marketing budget from US$1.5 million to US$7 million, since we expect the industry’s growth to continue,” said the MATATO secretary general.

Statistics show that Chinese tourists dominated the market in the first seven months with 103,734 individuals, accounting for 19.9 percent of the total arrivals. The United Kingdom was the second-largest contributor to tourism arrivals, composing 11.7 percent of the market.

Jamal forecasted “phenomenal growth” in the Chinese market, and estimated that the Chinese would account for 40 percent of the total tourists in coming years.

The Maldives currently hosts over 100 resorts boasting a total of 22,000 beds. Jamal said 3-4 more resorts were currently under construction, and noted that it was important “to always have excess demand and limited rooms to keep the appeal of the Maldives up.”

Secretary General of the Maldives Association of the Tourism Industry (MATI), Ibrahim Mohamed Sim, was more guarded on the issue. Sim told Minivan News that “we are holding steady in growth, but the market looks mixed since the decline of the US economy could affect our traditional European markets.”

Italy and the UK, formerly leading contributors to the Maldivian tourism industry, have declined, said Sim, but Germany was holding steady.

Sim said the demand from China was significant, and that the Maldives “is in a very lucky position to have the chance to meet that demand.”

Sources in the Chinese media and Mandarin-language tourism forums have meanwhile noted the rise of practices such as segregation of Chinese visitors from other guests at meal times.

Sim commented that although he did not believe there was segregation, the Chinese “stand out, they come here for a different reason than most tourists. They do not come here to sun tan, they come here to see a different place.” He noted that some resorts were also designed to specifically appeal to different groups.

Another recent event in the Maldives’ tourism industry was its withdrawal from the New7Wonders competition.

Jamal told Minivan News, “we think it was a loss that the Maldives pulled out. New7Wonders was a marketing tool, and major tourism companies were competing for the award.”

However he said he did not think that the Maldives’ decision had affected the tourism industry.


Dutch ambassador departs, Italian ambassador arrives

Ambassador of the Netherlands to the Maldives Leoni Cuelenaere is departing the Maldives while the new Ambassador of Italy accredited to the Maldives Fabrizio Pio Arpen Am presented his credentials to the President yesterday.

In a farewell meeting with Cuelenaere President Mohamed Nasheed expressed his gratitude for the work done by the Dutch Ambassador and highlighted major joint ventures between the government and the Maldives, including Royal Boskalis Westminster and Dutch Docklands. Cuelenaere in response praised Nasheed’s initiative to open up the Maldivian economy and strengthen democratic institutions.

Meanwhile, the new Italian Ambassador Fabrizio Pio Arpea presented his credentials to the President, and spoke about the proposed trip of 20 Italian students to the outpost of the University of Milano-Bicocca in the Maldives.

Arpea reiterated the importance of the ongoing business engagements between the two countries, especially in tourism – Italy is historically one of the Maldives’ strongest European markets.


Maldivian bone-marrow transplant patient recovering in Italy

The first Maldivian Thalassaemia patient to be treated under and agreement between Italy and the Maldives is recovering following a bone-marrow transplant operation.

Haveeru reported that a second patient has now arrived in Italy and is awaiting treatment. The risky procedure is one of the only potential cures for Thalassaemia, a genetic blood disorder common in the Maldivan population.

Italy, which is a world leader in the procedure, has agreed to treat 10 Maldivian patients.

Under the agreement made between the governments of Maldives and Italy on January 23, bone marrow transplants of 10 patients are to be conducted in Italy.


Dhoni captain appeals for help to save life of thalassaemic daughter

“This could be my one chance to save the life of my daughter.”

When Mohamed Faiz received a letter offering his eight year old thalassaemic daughter a life-saving bone marrow transplant in Italy, departing on October 25, he was ecstatic.

“It was amazing, I was surprised and thought we would never get such an opportunity,” he tells Minivan News.

But their dream was shattered when he learned that while the Italian regional government of Abruzzo would bear the cost of the operations, and the Associazione Genitori Bambini Emopatici (AGBE) would arrange accommodation, the offer was conditional on his paying food and all other living expenses for five months – a cost they estimated at US$4500 (Rf57,375).

The 46 year-old father of four has spent most his life trying to extend the life of the two of his children who suffer from thalassaemia, a crippling genetic disorder that affects the body’s ability to produce red blood cells.

The Maldives has the highest incidence of the disease in the world, and for those like eight year old Fathimath Shama with Beta Thalassaemia Major, the disease causes severe anemia and requires lifelong treatment.

According to the National Thalassaemia Centre of Maldives, Abdul Gafoor, there were more than 690 thalassaemia patients registered in the Maldives last year. Since then, 30 have fully recovered while 150 have passed away.

Separated for his wife and working as a dhoni captain, Faiz spends most of his monthly salary of Rf6500 (US$505) on his two children.

“I wasn’t able to save anything,” he says. “I spent Rf4000-5000 a month on the kids’ blood transfusions, Desferal (a drug used to moderate iron in the blood of transfused patients) and other kid’s stuff, mostly medical treatments essential for their wellbeing.”

The relentless financial pressure of caring for children with thalassaemia makes for “a hard life” he says.

“You have to struggle, and most of your time is spent thinking about the future of the poor kids,’’ Faiz explains. “It’s hard to handle the situation when you have to afford the same treatments every month, without any idea of when you might find a better way.’’

Faiz received word through the government one and a half months ago that Fathimath had been selected for a bone marrow transplant in Italy, a risky procedure with many possible complications and reserved for patients with life-threatening disease, but nonetheless offering a chance of recovery.

His other daughter, aged 18, needs to travel to Italy as well to serve as the bone marrow donor; according to the National Thalassaemia Centre of Maldives, only 10 patients in the Maldives have a donor sibling who matches closely enough to attempt a bone marrow transplant.

But despite beating those odds, and so close to a cure, Faiz has despaired of being able to afford the high cost of living in Italy for five months.

“The organisation will bear the cost of the operation, accommodation and tickets, but we were asked to cover all the other expenses,’’ Faiz says, awkwardly. “We have to stay there five months at least.”

He now believes the offer is the only hope his daughter may fully recover, and increasingly desperate, has resigned from his job to focus full-time on raising money for the trip.

“For an ordinary person like me, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Faiz says. “I would despair with the world if missed this only chance, the only hope to save my daughter. I would have to live knowing I missed a miraculous opportunity to make my daughter normal, and give her a real chance at life.”

Mohamed Faiz can be contacted on (+960) 773 4042, or (+960) 762 7899. Faiz’s Bank of Maldives account number is 7701-153358-101.


Q&A: Marco Cisini, CEO of tour operator Hotelplan Italia

Hotelplan is a Swiss-based tour operator that has operated in the Maldives for 25 years and is a key player in the Italian market, bringing 20,000 tourists to the country each year. Minivan News spoke to the CEO of Hotelplan Italia, Marco Cisini, during his recent visit to the Maldives.

JJ Robinson: What is the occasion of this visit?

Marco Cisini: We are ending a 25 year long love story with Maafushivaru (in Ari Atoll) and Universal Group. We decided it was very important we come and visit before the island closed and is refurbished and upgraded. After that it will go to a new tour operator.

JJ: How has the market changed over 25 years?

MC: It has changed a lot – for a start, the number of flights arriving. A wide number of offerings have been built in last 20 years, and while there are islands at price, when the government identified the power of tourism it decided to increase the rates and taxes, for that reason a lot of deluxe hotels were built rather than four or three star properties.

The occupancy depends on the quality and quantity of clientele you can find for these products. Today the quality of the products – and the professionalism – has increased a lot. Quality in the Maldives is a target that has been reached, and while certainly some things could still be done better, generally the suppliers are well organised and it’s working very well.

We are pleased that the country is becoming much more modern and flexible in its ideas, and we remain good investors in this country because we believe in the future of this place.

At the same time we know there are new markets coming in, from Asia especially, that will absolutely give an international image to the country.

JJ: The market for tourism in the country has traditionally been very Eurocentric – have you considered broadening into these new markets?

MC: Hotelplan is an international company based in Zurich and is present in England, Switzerland, France and Italy. Obviously as the CEO of Hotelplan Italia I am looking at the Italian market, but as a company we are looking at these emerging markets.

However to sell product such as we are selling, you need to be well integrated into the [source] country and be identified as a country expert. It’s much easier to buy an existing company rather than build a new company in these emerging places. But we are absolutely watching the new potential for business.

JJ: What is unique about the Italian market?

MC: Italians like to have fun, and we try to create an atmosphere with our T-Club concept. The meaning comes from ‘tea’: the idea of it being an elegant moment in your day.

One friend brings another friend, friends bring families, and you spend time together in a group while not feeling you are in a group, doing activities that you cannot do alone.

We also try and add to the nature of a place, by bringing specialists such as astronomers, biologists – people who can really give the clients information about the environment. The aim is to have fun and to think.

JJ: The traditional image of Maldives tourism is that of a European in a beach hammock slipping a Pina Colada. Has this changed? Are tourists demanding more?

MC: I wonder. I hope. Everybody coming and lying down on the beach – that is the general mass identification. But everyone wants to be different to each other, and now people are looking for something new, a new experience, and new sensations. That’s why eco-concepts are important – thinking while travelling, and understanding where you are.

For example, you can say to someone: ‘Let’s watch a 50s movie.’ You might reply, ‘Nice, but it’s not my plan see a movie.’ But then I say ‘OK, if you do, the meeting point is at the jetty.’

So you jump on a boat, go to a real desert island with a sandy beach in middle of the sea, with a computer and a projector. All you see around you is water, and you are with 20-30 people sitting on the beach under the stars. This is a  movie you will never forget your entire life.

It’s not important what you do, but how you do it – people are looking for these types of emotions. We know people on holiday are looking for something like this, but how do you give them an experience with such strong emotions?

Think of how many hotels there are in the Maldives and all over the world. To be different you cannot just be different in style and service, because people take these things for granted – they paid for it.

JJ: What are the particular challenges of operating in the Maldives?

MC: The challenges are many. Today the major challenge is the people. We found in our suppliers a lot of good people we have worked with for 20-30 years, and helped upgrade them in terms of business know how. Over the last 20 years people have learned and studied a lot, and the quality and organisation is much better.

The challenge in the beginning was to be a pioneer. You were discovering and building a destination with all of the problems of building something in the middle of the sea.

We put in a lot of effort to help people here to be able to make all these places – how to be organised, providing know-how, information, instruments… and we found a lot of them very open to learn. This is something you don’t find in every country, especially when you start as pioneer. A lot of people don’t see the potential future.

JJ: Do you consider the Maldives a politically stable environment in which to operate?

MC: I have to say that since September 11 there are no more stable places. One of the major ways to get attention from the world is through [violent] actions, and stupid people are everywhere. That exposes any country to risk – also my own country.

JJ: The issues of labour rights and industrial disputes have surfaced recently at several resorts. Is this something you think guests are interested in? Do they want to know that resorts are treating staff fairly?

MC: What I can say is that it’s not easy to manage an international group of people from many different countries who speak different languages and have different religions, and to respect all of them. As I told you, countries must build and upgrade themselves when they face international markets, and this takes time.

On the other side, this orientation to look for money everywhere has to include respect for people and labour laws. This must be done. In our experience we have never felt this was a problem – the staff at Maafushivaru were perfect.

JJ: Do you have plans to further expand in the Maldives?

MC: We looking for new destinations and new islands. We are following new developments in the southern part of the country, and we are one of the two operators present in the Gan project. The Maldives is a target for us, and we would like to be friends with this country and follow the directions it takes. We feel the need to be present and to protect the culture of this place.

JJ: The resorts have historically been kept separate from the rest of the country – at least as far as tourism is concerned. Do you think this will continue?

MC: I think in this environment it is not easy to combine cultures – especially the beach holiday concept. But we are trying to combine these things.

JJ: Some in the industry claim that a declining demand for luxury properties is becoming offset by a lot of demand for lower star hotels. Does your experience reflect this?

MC: In winter time, you have good clients in terms of potential for five star. There is no problem with demand in Winter. But in the Summer season it is much more complicated because of the proximity of places like the Meditteranean, which are similar in terms culture and have better weather.

In Summer the European demand must be combined with demand from other markets to rebalance occupancy – such as opening the Chinese and Indian markets here. But if the [resorts] think only Europeans can afford to fill the occupancy of these hotels all year long, it’s not enough. The demand is not enough.


Mass arrests of Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta mafia in Italy

320 people have been arrested by Italian police in dawn raids across Italy.

“This was a huge operation involving some 3,000 carabinieri [police],” reports the BBC’s Duncan Kennedy. People were arrested “on suspicion of crimes including murder, money laundering and belonging to a criminal organisation.”

There have also been associated arrests in the US.

Read more


Maldives signs agreement with University of Milano-Bicocca for scientific and academic programs at Magoodhoo, Faafu atoll

The government has signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ (MoU) agreement with the University of Milano-Bicocca to implement scientific and
academic programs at an outpost of the university in Magoodhoo island, Faafu atoll.

With the agreement coming into effect the university will:
– Cover expenses related to research at the outpost;
– Provide all research equipment, instrumentation and other materials;
– Provide subsidised tuition fees for local students;
– Arrange two scholarships from various funding institutions.

For local students studying at the university:
– the university will organise Italian language classes for primary and secondary students at the island on a no fee basis.

At the agreement ceremony, President Nasheed and delegates from the university discussed how to make the outpost more effective, and how to implement the university programmes on the island as soon as possible.

The agreement was signed on behalf of the government by the minister of state for foreign affairs Ahmed Naseem, and on behalf of the university, rector Marcello Fontanesi.