Etihad, Hainan start service to Maldives

Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) welcomed the maiden flights of Etihad Airways and Hainan Airlines yesterday, making Male’ Etihad’s 67th destination.

Etihad flight EY278 from Abu Dhabi touched down at approximately 2:17 pm and was welcomed with a water cannon salute, bodu-beru dancers, coconuts and a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The Hainan flight from Beijing that touched down approximately 20 minutes later was similarly received.

Passengers who disembarked from both flights appeared curious, surprised, exhausted and delighted at the festivities. Etihad Executive Vice President Halid Al Marhedi was invited to cut a golden ribbon with GMR CEO Andrew Harrison and Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation (MMPRC) Managing Director, Simon Hawkins.

The new partnerships reflect the travel and tourism industry’s changing patterns.

While Etihad, the official airline of the United Arab Emirates, is projected to expand arrivals to the Maldives significantly, Hainan signifies China’s growing demand.

“It’s a good sign that these two airlines are having their maiden voyages today,” said Mahika Chandrasena, GMR Head of Corporate Communications. “Etihad shows that we are interested in expanding and working with these larger, well-known airlines. Hainan shows that we are interested in working with the Chinese market, which is growing dramatically.”

Hainan is the third Chinese airline to open operations in the Maldives.

Etihad is making the rounds in the region: today, it makes its maiden voyage to the Republic of Seychelles. Although Etihad will celebrate its 8th anniversary in the next few days, as one of the youngest premier airlines it has seen astonishing growth.

“Forward booking indicates that the Maldives has become one of the most popular destinations for leisure travelers and honeymooners,” said al Marhedi at a reception held at Naladhu resort last evening. Al Marhedi said Etihad was “very pleased to invest in the Maldives and support its economic growth.”

Speaking at the ceremony, Hawkins said the Maldives tourism industry could only benefit from the higher connectivity offered by Etihad. “It’s interesting to learn why people don’t come to the Maldives,” he said. “The number one reason is, people simply don’t know where we are. So when a major airline like Etihad opens services here, we know we can expect better connectivity to new markets and a fundamental boost to the country’s economy.”

Hawkins concluded that team work between airlines, travel agents, resorts and other sectors were essential to the growth and maintenance of the national economy.

Etihad has taken steps to offer customers a complete travel experience. Special travel packages are tailored to a range of budgets and travel purposes; airline guest members who book early and fly in the next 30 days will have their mileage points doubled.

INIA currently receives approximately two million arrivals each year from 29 different airlines. GMR aims to raise that to three million in the next year, and to 5.2 million by 2014, Chandrasena said.

“Alitalia will be joining us in December, bringing our airline numbers to 30,” she added. “We don’t want to say ‘no’ to anyone.”


Introducing ‘Dhonisaurus’: Minivan’s new independent travel review and ratings site

Minivan News is proud to introduce our new subsidiary travel site, offering the first independent, comprehensive, reader reviews and ratings for the Maldives tourism industry.

A ‘dhoni’ is a traditional Maldivian vessel with a distinctly curved prow, while a thesaurus helps you choose exactly the right word for the occasion. Stick the words together: Dhonisaurus. The dinosaur is just a bonus.

The Maldives is world famous for its beaches and clear blue waters.

But what really makes one resort different from another? It’s surprisingly hard to tell from a glossy tourism brochure, or an article written by a well-pampered travel journalist.

Opinion sites such as TripAdvisor powerfully influence the decision of tourists to visit a destination, but these large, international travel review sites do not have the luxury of detail as they must be able to objectively measure a rented château in Paris alongside a backpacker hostel in Yemen.

Moreover, rather than staying a few nights, the average visitor to the Maldives spends US$10,000-12,000 and stays on a single island for several weeks, so we figure they could use a bit more detail before making the big decision.

We pick up where TripAdvisor leaves off, asking visitors to rate resorts for Rooms, Service, Beach, Activities, Dining, Bar Experience, House Reef, Environmental Responsibility, Value and ‘Look and Feel’. We average these scores and all submitted reviews to automatically generate an overall rating out of 100. This way the more ratings submitted the more accurate the reviews become.

The ratings on Dhonisaurus reflect readers’ opinions, not our own, and the site pays its way through banner advertising rather than being sponsored by a consortium of resorts and tour operators, or by taking a cut from bookings. We have a vested interest in giving useful, impartial information, as this makes readers come back, review their experience and help make us even more accurate and credible.

Because we take an average from 10 categories, our ratings may seem harsher than those of other Maldives review websites, but the advantage of doing things this way is that you can get an honest, overall picture of what a resort is really like behind the brochures and press junkets. It’s also the first time resorts in the Maldives have been reviewed and contrasted for qualities such as their environmental responsibility.

The in-house reviews on Dhonisaurus are written by Maldives experts, including guidebook author Adrian Neville, who has reviewed almost every resort in the country over 20 years writing about the Maldives.

Adrian and the Dhonisaurus team will also be answering questions posted by travellers in the new site’s Advice Forum, on topics as diverse as diving, expat living and marine biology.

As Dhonisaurus grows we intend to add local guest houses on inhabited islands, include useful tools and forum posts for independent travellers in the Maldives, develop a separate rating system for safari boats, and hold award ceremonies for the winners of each category.

We’re very excited about the launch of Dhonisaurus as it greatly expands Minivan News’ presence in the travel sector and the advertising opportunities we can offer, and gives us an additional revenue stream to reinvest in growing independent journalism in the Maldives.

For a limited time only we are offering discounted introductory rates on for businesses keen to capture a high-conversion audience right in the act of planning their trip to the Maldives.

We want Dhonisaurus to be comprehensive. If a resort is not listed or has just opened (or closed!), contact us and we will ensure it is amended. Listed resorts must be open and receiving guests.


Atmospheric flights will revolutionise ecological impact of air travel: Branson

New forms of air travel have the potential to revolutionise the sector’s ecological impact, said UK entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire.

Speaking at the Slow Life Symposium held at the Maldives’ Soneva Fushi resort, Branson said engineers currently working on his carbon composite Virgin Galactic spacecraft were itching to get started on a high-speed passenger aircraft that would fly out of the atmosphere, fire its rockets harmlessly into space, and re-enter the atmosphere angled at the destination.

“Intercontinental flights that leave Earth atmosphere and pop back down won’t damage the atmosphere while they are outside it,” Branson said. “It will only work if it is economic, but I hope to see it in my lifetime. Once we’ve got Virgin Galactic ticked off, we’ll look at carbon-fibre intercontinental planes. They’ll effectively be spaceships.”

The Virgin Galactic spacecraft already created less carbon output per passenger than a return ticket from New York to London, he noted.

“That compares with two weeks of New York’s electricity supply to send up a space shuttle. We’ve realised that we could put satellites into space for a fraction of the existing cost and carbon output. Schools and universities would be able to afford their own satellites.”

Virgin Galactic would be up and running in 12 months, Branson predicted, offering acceleration of “0-3000 miles an hour in eight seconds. It will be the ride of a lifetime.”

A significant breakthrough, he noted, had been avoiding the need for a precisely-angled re-entry.

“Our spaceship turns into a giant shuttlecock which slows it down and avoids much of the G-force. The pilot can be asleep as you re-enter.”

On the podium with Branson was Jose Mariano, a former Boeing aerospace engineer and founder of zero2infinity, which is currently developing a commercially-viable near-orbital balloon for scientific purposes.

Mariano’s balloon and uniquely-shaped pressurised capsule reaches 36 kilometres, high enough for passengers to see the curvature of the Earth. Virgin Galactic reaches 100 kilometres – the definition of space according to the US Air Force – while the International Space Station is located at 400 kilometres.

“There is no physical boundary or line to define ‘space’,” says Mariano. “What matters is planetary awareness, and what matters to scientists is having a vantage point from where they can clearly see the planet as an island amidst the cold, vast emptiness.

“If it is useful to have a scientist in a space station at 400km, I think it is useful to have a scientist in-between. NASA is realising this and asking companies like ours what we can do there – this region above controlled airspace has not really been explored.”

Mariano recalled a series of interviews with astronauts who had reached the boundries of space where the shape of the planet was clearly visible.

“The writer gave an overview of how each felt before and after the trip – they became much more aware of global problems, specifically ecological ones. Imagine flying a balloon high enough that the sky turns completely black and sun brighter and lighter than ever before, where the line of the horizon bends to a perfect curve and the Earth is blue below you. Up there it is obvious everything is interconnected – a powerful thing for a human to experience.”

Mariano expressed frustration with the slow pace of aviation over the last 50 years, and the lack of support for entrepreneurial companies with unconventional ideas, at least for machines “other than predator drones.”

“Our project is a large scientific balloon that carries a pressurised pod to 36 kilometres, stays up for two hours and comes back with parachutes. There is no rocket or high speed re-entry, making it a lot less attractive for high acceleration thrill seekers. But the whole operation has zero carbon emissions – there is no engine, just helium and stored electricity. Parachutes improve the landing tremendously, and our test flight landed where we expected. People can be waiting for you there with a coconut.”

That unmanned test flight successfully reached 33km, while a manned flight was forthcoming, Mariano said.

Branson outlined his own ballooning career, in which he funded and flew a balloon with the goal of reaching 35,000 feet and crossing the Atlantic. At the time the ballooning record was 600 miles at 8000 feet.

“I was initially quite sceptical, but I find in life it is more fun to say yes rather than no,” he said. “So I went off to Spain to get my ballooning license, and two weeks later I not only had my license but was trying to fly the balloon in a jet stream with 140 mile and hour winds, on my own, with three or four hours of lessons. “The highest we reached has 44,000 feet. It was a great adventure, and the first of six times I was pulled out of the sea by helicopters while trying to break ballooning records.”

A week after the Slow Life Symposium, Branson will open the world’s first commercial spaceport in New Mexico.

“We’re also working on underwater – building a manned submarine that can go to the bottom of the ocean at 37,000 feet and come back up. 80 percent of the species on Earth have yet to be discovered because we can’t explore the oceans properly.”

The submarine is due for its pressure test next year, Branson said, in which it would have to contend with 16,000 times the pressure a plane has to cope with.

“You can do it in a solid block of metal, but that doesn’t give you a good view. We are going to try using carbon fibre, and the plan is to go to the five deepest places in the world. Nobody has been more than 20,000-30,000 feet – I will take it down the Porto Rican trench, which goes to 28,000 feet, deeper than Everest is high. Someone else will take it down the Mariana trench, which is 38,000 feet.

Mariano meanwhile observed that most of the world’s technology, from telecoms to medicine and aerospace, had been “a product of war”.

“Hopefully we are now a more aware species we can move on and create things not out of fear and war. Many good ideas have become casualties for lack of funding – for instance a type of hybrid airship that mixes aerodynamic lift with lifting gases. This kind of airship is very slow and can be used for cargo, but if you have a nice room and can be productive and comfortable on board then I’m sure that has its market.”

Branson had a last word for the skeptics: “People say such things will never happen. Dream – and then make your dreams a reality.”