Maldives tourism contemplates Beckham effect after “hard days” of 2012

Senior tourism figures have welcomed unconfirmed reports that football superstar David Beckham is currently on vacation in the Maldives, claiming such a high profile figure creates significant publicity for the destination following well publicised unrest earlier this year.

UK-based newspaper “the Sun” reported that Beckham arrived in the Maldives earlier this week with his wife and children for a £250,000 (MVR 6.2 million) vacation at the One and Only Reethi Rah resort as part of an eleven day festive holiday.

“The hotel boasts 130 private villas, 12 beaches, 40 pools and its own SEAPLANE,” the newspaper reported. “The Beckhams’ suite is the priciest available, costing £8,600 (MVR 213,892) a night — or £6 (MVR 149) a minute. But they have booked three more, each costing £3,700 (MVR 92,015) a night, taking the room bill alone to £217,000 (MVR 5.3 million).”

When contacted by Minivan News this week, a spokesperson for One and Only Resorts told Minivan News that no guest under the name David Beckham was presently staying at the property, adding the company could not speculate on potential customers.

Very Very Important Persons

Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Ahmed Adheeb Ghafoor also refused to confirm news reports of the Beckhams’ holiday plans, but claimed that if they were true, such a visit would have a very strong impact on the Maldives’ international reputation as a luxury destination.

Amidst ongoing work to outline a fourth official tourism master plan detailing industry developments over the next few years, Adheeb stressed that it was important to remember that the Maldives was already considered something of a “celebrity destination”.

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 perceived impact of negative news headlines following the transfer of power.

This focus has included agreeing a US$250,000 (MVR 3.8million) 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.

Tourism Minister Adheeb explained to Minivan News that along with the signing of high-profile marketing contracts to advertise the destination, the arrival of major sporting and entertainment figures was an important means of garnering the world’s attention.

Contemplating the wider potential for boosting the Maldives’ reputation for secluded exclusivity at its island resorts, the tourism minister claimed that his ministry has been working with exclusive tour operators that worked with high-profile clients by supplying information on the destination.

“We have been briefing them with information about how exclusive and private the Maldives is, it is also free of paparazi,” he said, adding that a large number of high-profile guests had travelled to the Maldives over the last few year; from actors and screen stars, to the world’s biggest sporting names. “We want them to know how unique is it here. The exclusivity we give is unique, it cannot be matched.”

Adheeb claimed that efforts were also presently being undertaken to try and bring big name and ultimately lucrative Very Very Important Persons (VVIPs) to the country through efforts such as establishing exclusive lounges and other related services at the country’s airports.

“Right now we are formulating policies to encourage more VVIPs to the Maldives. They can add a lot of value to a destination solely on the grounds that so many people follow them,” the tourism minister claimed.

Adheeb added that the Maldives government had not sent invites or packages to high-profile guests directly as part of this focus, mainly owing to present budget limitations.  However, the minister stressed that efforts were being undertaken by his ministry to provide crucial information about the Maldives to exclusive travel groups.

“There is a lot of information out there on the Maldives. We have seen new reports this year about whether the Maldives is unsafe,” he said.  “We want to let the world know how unique a destination it is.  How safe it is.  How can we then give mores exclusivity to VVIPs? We offer privacy, the islands are free of paparazzi, that’s how we have made the Maldives unique. It is a celebrity destination.”

Adbeeb did not comment on whether the government had made any direct approach to try and bring superstars such as David Beckham to holiday to the Maldives, but he added that authorities were always willing to accommodate the needs of high-profile guests wishing to come to the country.

Minivan News has been informed by confidential sources that the Maldives Police Service had worked to asses safety for a member of the Saudi royal family ahead of a visit to the country this month along with an entourage to stay at a private island residence.

Police Spokesperson Sub-Inspector Haneef was not responding to calls at the time of press.

“Positive message”

From the perspective of the tourism industry, the general manager of one of Male’ Atolls larger resorts said that media coverage of David Beckham’s reported visit to the Maldives gave a very “positive message” to both key markets in the UK as well as the wider world.

“Here is someone who can go anywhere in the world, but has chosen to stay [in the Maldives]. It serves to highlight this is a premier place,” the manager said.

While the Maldives’ secluded tourism resort properties were sheltered from local political upheavals following February’s transfer of power, resulting media reports were perceived as having a negative impact on arrival numbers.

Considering this media coverage, the resort general manager said that coverage of a visit by someone as renowned globally as David Beckham “was a start” in shifting attention to the country’s potential strengths as a tourist getaway rather than on domestic strife.

“It is great publicity and helps brings attention for the right sort of reasons,” the GM added.

Similar sentiments were shared by Secretary General of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI), ‘Sim’ Mohamed Ibrahim, who claimed that the combining the Beckham brand with the Maldives was a positive development needing to be built up by those marketing the destination.

“Beckham belongs to the world and not only to soccer (football). Anything to do with him is absolutely high value PR. We can only hope the marketing people will handle this important event for the best interest of Maldives tourism,” he told Minivan News.

Sim added that it was also vital to the industry to ensure that such a high-profile potential visit was not used to politicise recent troubles and challenges affecting the industry.

“Hijacking the event for political mileage would be destructive. There is more than one side to any story and the online media can be used by almost anybody, for what purpose. Interesting times.”

“Interesting times”

Since the industry’s foundation 40 years ago, the vast majority of tourists coming to the Maldives have stayed at its secluded island resorts that are classed as uninhabited. This distinction makes the resorts exempt from local laws that outlaw the sale and consumption of alcohol and pork products, as well as openly practising any faith other than Sunni Islam.

This resort model also keeps most tourists away from the partisan politics of the country, as well as the  unrest that occurred in the capital of Male’ and other islands earlier this year.

Former President Mohamed Nasheed has previously called for a tourism boycott of the Maldives, as both himself and his supporters continue to question the legitimacy of the government of President Dr Mohamed Waheeed Hassan – his former vice president.

However, these calls were soon dropped by Nasheed and supporters of the now opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).  The party is still pressing for early elections despite a Commonwealth-backed Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) concluding the transfer of power in February was constitutional.

Despite wider fears about the impact of political uncertainty, Deputy Tourism Minister Mohamed Maleeh Jamal claimed back in September that “the hard days” were over for the Maldives tourism industry following the release of the CNI’s findings.

In terms of visitor numbers for the year so far, arrivals were found to have risen 2.4 percent between January and November when compared to the same period in 2011.
Official figures from the Tourism Ministry indicated that as of November 2012, 866,310 tourists have arrived in the country over the last 11 months. By contrast, 845,732 arrivals were recorded visiting the Maldives between January and November in 2011.

Earlier this year, the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) had set a target of attracting one million visitors to the country by the end of 2012.


Addu grows roots with SAARC preparations

“This is the foundation of Addu’s development,” said Addu’s mayor Abdullah Sodiq, referring to the city’s SAARC preparations during a press conference held in Hithadhoo yesterday. He said the projects had been supported by “99 percent” of Addu residents.

Maldivian media was flown to Addu yesterday to observe preparations for the upcoming 17th annual SAARC Summit, scheduled for November 10-12. Festivities will be held in the area starting on the first of the month, in conjunction with the Muslim holiday of Eid.

“We are expecting a lot of traffic through here, and are confident that everything will be ready in time,” Sodiq said. “But this is only the beginning, and we have many more plans for development.”

Addu’s SAARC projects have been underway for six months, officials report. As the deadline approaches, construction teams are working round the clock to finish two harbors, a VVIP lounge, roads and the country’s largest convention center.

Sodiq said the harbors will renovate Addu’s commercial prospects, while the convention center provides new opportunities for locals, officials and foreigners alike.

Construction of Feydhoo harbor continues as the first deadline passes and another approaches.

“The harbor is a central place for Addu, there is demand for it even after SAARC and we have plans to generate more industry and shipping using these new resources,” said Sodiq.

New roads constructed around the convention center have made future road development less expensive for the council’s budget, he added.

Addu’s council also plans to use the Rf115 million convention center, a two-story building of glass, wood and marble with a capacity of 3000, to transform the atoll from a quiet place to a hub of business and tourism.

“We have some representatives talking to businesses in Singapore and Malaysia about hosting events here,” Sodiq told Minivan News. “We will be soliciting bids to find the right event manager to look after the convention center as well. I think there are people interested in what Addu has to offer, and I’m sure we can get a market for it.”

Officials and locals interviewed also hinted at hopes for musical events, theatrical performances, art exhibitions and holiday celebrations.

Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture Assistant Director Ahmed Abeer Ismail said the centre’s origins were a sign of Addu’s potential. “That area began as a swamp, now it’s the biggest convention center in the country.” The swamp was heavily landscaped by MNDF and police forces, and now features a few scenic islands.

One of the Maldives’ most strategic atolls, Addu has been largely left to seed since the British withdrew its forces and influence in 1975. City councilor Ahmed Mirzad called SAARC the beginning of a new Addu.

“For 30 years we had Gayoom, and nothing was done in Addu. Then there was a new president, and unlike Gayoom he didn’t just look after Male’, he looked after the entire Maldives. For 30 years we didn’t even have one harbor that was working for Addu, but in the past six months, we have gotten everything,” said Mirzad.

Addu’s councilors were elected for the first time six months ago. Mirzad said the next three years will be a difficult but critical time for the council to prove itself to Addu’s people. Still, the timing is ideal.

“I don’t think, I know that this summit is the right starting point. Now, we will only keep going with our plans to grow,” he said.

Workers cross a newly-constructed road to continue landscaping across from the convention center.

One particular operation illustrates the grassroots motives behind the SAARC preparations. Selected from Maldives National University (MNU) Addu first-year students in hospitality, 24 Media Liaison Officers greeted Male’s press pack yesterday.

One young woman said the event was as much for the liaisons as for Male’ press.

“It’ll be challenging to handle foreigners and media personnel,” a group of students concurred. “But we are so happy to have this opportunity.”

“I was shocked to be asked to take part in SAARC, I never thought that I would get to work at something I’d heard so much about,” said another student. “And the certificate of reference that I’ll get afterwards will be really helpful for me when I’m looking for a job after graduation,” she added.

Liaisons have just completed a six-month management course and are attending seminars and briefings for SAARC. They will be divided into 11 teams of two to three officers and assigned to press pooles from different countries.

“The ministry was going to get people from Male’, but I suggested we use the local energy. They are good, they can do the job, and this is a key event, so why shouldn’t these students take part?” said Abeer.

Addu’s development isn’t only tailored to foreigners; Sodiq said part of the development plan is to bring Addu residents home.

“Unlike other islands, we have historical places to visit and our islands are connected, so tourists can actually see more than the sun, sand and sea. We will be constructing more lodgings as well, and our hospital and airport are going to be expanded. More business means more jobs, and part of the purpose of all this is to bring Addu citizens back after their migrations to Male’,” he said.

In Addu, infrastructure is a priority for community growth. Noting that education was key to development, Sodiq said that a Kangaroo school is scheduled to open next year, and a Billabong school is being considered.

For the moment, however, Addu’s mind is on SAARC.

With teams working around the clock to complete harbors in Gan and Feydhoo, and MNDF motorcades practicing their moves late into the night, Addu is a bustle of construction and security.

Both harbors were originally due for completion on October 25, yet concrete foundations have not yet been laid. However officials assure that they are 90 percent complete. When asked about setbacks, National Security Advisor Ameen Faisal said, “The weather. Due to heavy rains, many projects were delayed. It was unexpected and beyond our control, but we managed and we are on target.”

Inquiries of Addu’s appearance for SAARC yielded few details. “It’s a secret, we want it to be a surprise,” Faisal and Sodiq concurred.

Security, however, is highly detailed.

MNDF has delegated security teams to specific event components including media, medical, resort transport, and the airport. “Right now we are very confident in our security personnel and do not anticipate any problems during the SAARC summit,” said International Media Coordinator Ahmed Ibrahim.

Ibrahim added that “it will be helpful to have the extra security forces that other countries are providing because Addu is very big.” In addition to ground security, MNDF will be supported by the coast guard, which will establish multiple security layers around Addu’s marine perimeter, special task forces from Sri Lanka, and surveillance equipment from China, among others.

Summit guests include three of the world’s most controversial heads of state from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their reputations do not appear to cause anxiety to SAARC officials.

“They will not receive any special treatment, unless requested of course,” said MNDF Commander of SAARC Airport Security, Ahmed Shafeeq.

“There is no risk at all,” said Faisal. “We aren’t even bothered about it.”