THE BUSINESS - INTERVIEW
Dr. Abdulla Mausoom
Minister of Tourism, Republic of Maldives
Interview by Szilvia Szeszler
- Dear Excellency, let me congratulate first of all that the Maldives has received the World’s Leading Destination Award by World Travel Awards, for the first time in the history of the island nation. This is the greatest success in the profession that can be achieved. How was was this amazing news received?
- Everybody is very happy, it is an attribute for all the people, employees who work in this industry, resort owners, guest house owners, safari owners, even the transport sectors, like seaplane, everybody is very excited even the immigration, customs. It is a very nice moment and we are still in celebrating mood, we are very happy.
- My first question applies to the opening in the middle of July. We can say that the Maldives solved the present hard situation the most effectively. How do you evaluate: was it a good decision, was it in good time? Did everything happen as expected?
- The first three months were very tough in our economy. We are big importers and the borders were closed. H.E. President Solih decided to open the borders and we decided to do in in a very secure and safe way for the staff, for the tourists and for the local community. We have introduced the border PCR, the negative test, so that everybody who is coming must have a negative PCR test, it must be done 96 hours before they left their home country, they must have a booking and at the airport we are scanning everyone, people must practice social distancing at all times. Each resort, each facility we are giving a permit, they must meet the Health Protection Agency’s standards, we have a guideline, a standard operation procedure, the Ministry also has a guideline. When they have all these, they can operate. They have normal licence but special licence is necessary to operate this time. There is the traveller tourism safety stamp, our airport also has a safety stamp. Once we realize that people need support, insurance because their insurance is not normally covered, we have a very nice insurance package for this season with our insurance provider. All in all everything is moving well, It is a destination loyalty program to encourage repeat business.
Dr. Abdulla Mausoom, Minister of Tourism of the Republic of Maldives honored us that we could make this interview with him. In case of the Maldives islands there is always a reason any time from all aspects to enquire, as there is always something new and particular happening here. These times, however, there is something unique, that only the Maldives could carry out, namely opening its borders slowly and carefully from middle of July. The main reason was this question and the related experiences when one day before the interview arrived the the wonderful and extraordinary news that the Maldives islands won the World’s Leading Destination Award, the highest level award that can ever be won in international tourism.
- Regarding the tourist arrivals we know that in 2019 the arrivals achieved the targeted 1,5 millions. Foreign tourist arrivals have grown at a ten-year compound average annual growth rate of 8.1% from 2008 to 2018, which is a highly dinamic growth figure. By 2023 the planned target 2 millions of arriving tourists – by the year of 50th anniversary of the tourism industry. Tell us more, please, about these numbers this year – the planned and the realized ones, due to the situation?
- There is a target for every month, the arrival target for November we set is 3000 and we have achieved that, all together after border reopening we set a target of 100,000 total, with the unfortunate situation we are at this year, we set a target of 500 000 for this year and we have reaching it. We have now 16 airlines operating and 9 more to come, we are very well connected, so things are good, things are moving, I think we are on right way. The daily arrivals are 2 thousand plus on Saturdays and Sundays. Today we have a record, we have 3500 arrivals today, one single day.
- There was a plan to have direct flights? Where would you like to be connected directly, to the main sender countries?
- The best travel is from point to point, from airport to airport, without stops. Now we have British Airways from Heathrow, Sri Lankan Airlines, we got many flights from Moscow now, from Turkey, Istambul we have a direct, from India from many states we have direct flights, from the United Arab Emirates from Dubai and Abu Dhabi we also have, we are very well connected. We are waiting for Colombo to open we would have a better connection then too; from the Eastern part it is the less connected yet. We need flights from Singapore, China, this we expect to happen in the near future. The Eastern part is not so well connected yet.
- Yes, it would be necessry mainly because this time, as I know, besides Russia, China is one of the main sender country.
- Yes, very true. Earlier days China was the first market, last year we had a 280 000 and India was the second, but now India is still the second, we hope that next year 2021 China will also lead the market arrivals with Russia and India. Now Russia is growing very fast and there is a chance by the end of the year it will be close to their arrivals of 2019. It is amazing because many markets are down, by 70 % so if the Russian market is on the same level, that would be good.
- May I aks you about the planned development of aviation sector in the Maldives regarding the international connectivity diversification to the Southern and Northern airports instead of the central area, the Hoarafushi Airport investment, the domestic airport network development and the further developments of Velana International Airport.
- Thank you very much for this question. Coming to Maldives Velana International Airport is very good, in the South and in the North we also have two international airports but besides these former ones we want to make international more airports. There are two seaplane operators in the Maldives and we have so many domestic airports, but we plan to have four more and we are upgrading the existing ones to make them bigger, the airports need to be developed, however, we also need enough beds. In the North and in the South we have to develop minimum with 6000 beds. There is a very good system to have public transport by sea on the atolls. This is gonna happen in developing domestic airport system, so people can have more economical holiday in the future because the domestic flight system is very expensive usually but with the new capacity extension you have enough traffic movement to be able to offer better prices to domestic transport by sea and also by air.
- You mentioned the extra 6000 more beds. Connecting this I would like to ask how you plan to develop and support the guest house system because this is something very new and I myself visited one of them and can say only the best, brand new, excellent houses with super service. I think there is a demand for this and not only because of the cheaper price but because there is a chance for the travellers to experience the everydays of the local citizens and the nature untouched.
- Yes, developing this area of tourism is very much encouraged because of having benefits for the local communities. Tourists can have the experience of their life with the local people. This is a side we are to develop on the islands. People want to experience culture and eco tourism. On each island we have a different story, special cultural sites, folk stories there. The food is very different from one island to the other. That is an area that we wish to support, international support also for the investors and we will also the tourism to act with regulations. The small hotels in Maldives can only be owned by Maldivians. But we have introduced shares for foreigners. They can join with the Maldivian and develop tourism but the majority share will be the Maldivians’.
- As Head of Maldives Tourism Promotion Board, I think it was part of your job to develop other sectors of tourism, besides the holidays. I think that – as you mentioned in one of your interviews: the “socially conscious travelers” are very curious of the history, heritage, traditions, ecological features, cuisine of the country and would gladly get known of the everyday life of the people on the certain islands. By building the planned olympic stadium in Hulhumale there will be a possibility for diversifying the portfolio also with MICE, sports and concert tourism, as well. Would you tell us, please, more about the developing of these sectors?
- Near Male we have a hotel for MICE tourism, in Hulumale we have a large space for convention and exhibitions, the stadium is going to be very good and I think that in Hulumale development more facilities will come but we want other resorts also to have space for meetings on the maldives, conferences on the Maldives, business trips combining with such events. We must have enough beds when organise such events. Regarding sports tourism, we wish to develop mainly those ones that can be linked to the Maldives, aqua-bike, surfing, beach volley ball, windsurf, all that are more water related sport competitions we want to bring and this is a special area we want to focus on.
- Connecting to the afore mentioned categories of tourism, the main slogen, the famous „Sunny side of Life is a brand by now. There are also sub-slogans introduced representing other segments of tourism.
- The Sunny side of life is a very popular slogen, many years ago when I was the Head of the Tourism Promotion Board in 2004 we began to use it already and we introduced the other sub-slogans also like Colourful side of life for the underwater experience, Thrilling side of life for adventure and sports, Spiritual side of life for the wellness tourism and spa and the Romantic side of life for the honeymooners. MMPRC our marketing wing, they know the slogans that are going to come, involving the industry; we always work with the industry in the strategy of marketing. Some of the products needs re-branding, for instance the safari sector. It is a very big sector, we need live-boards about the new dive spots for instance. That live-boards give a view of our uniqueness of the Maldives, about the new hotels on the islands which are more boutique more unique, shows the islands’ lifestyle. In branding we are stronger now, I think. While once it was the sea, sand sun „only”, the one island one hotel system. The Maldives products are very rich, can be the best of the best in the world, we won this award, you can see. Some of our resorts are going to be super luxury, not only beach and the land and the water. Now we have underwater restaurant, underwater room we are having in it, it can be bigger in the future.
- Now that you won the best award that can be and we know that the destination sells itself what is the strategy of this marketing team for the future?
- Already the Maldives is very popular and this award is a strong statement that Maldives has a big choice of hotels and prices, but not only this. Our health system is very strong, the geography of the Maldives is very unique, the Maldives travel and tourism industry partners are getting moving. We have already started using it, because it is a very strong message we will use that award in our marketing.
- The product range on the Maldives is continuously evolving and diversifying. What are the planned new products of tourism?
- We will have new resorts on islands where people do not live. Instead of one resort-one island system you will find many resort there. It will be one island but with many facilities in it. Lounges, sports facilities, restaurants, more types of accomodations. It is a new system, comparing the old one island-one hotel. The other new thing coming is the luxury villas where people can build their own home. For that we have new residency visa introduced.
- Yes, connecting to this topic let me ask about the two additional visa options having been introduced for foreigners: the Corporate Resident Visa and the Meeting Visa. Why was it necessary?
- For people who want to return and want to spend more times in the Maldives, we are more flexible in this. To strengthen the economy, for those who are more interested in the Maldives we are going to lease some private islands. There is a new other concept also, when you can buy your own island. You can buy it for 99 years. You can rent a villa also or we introduce the time-share system. So we will have new products in near future coming. The one resort-one island system will stay as it is a good proven system. The island tours, heritage, eco tourism, diving, discover the whole Maldives also. In Real estate tourism you can have your own house also as new and for the very rich that they can have their own island.
- In one of your interviews you mentioned previously „Our aim is to enhance the Maldivian workforce. We have long-standing employees in resorts but they lack the formal qualification required for the higher positions. May we hear something about this, the education of the Maldivian workforce?
- Thank you for the question, yes sure,we do not have enough Maldivians in the jobs. I want them to work in higher position for better salaries. So we have many trainings. There are some people who have joined the industry fifteen years without qualifications who are now very good in their jobs but dont have the qualification so as to climb up the latter to a new job. We want help them get the qualification so that they will be able to get a better job with more pay so we want the tourism sector jobs to develop, we want higher paying jobs for the Maldivians. There are some jobs which are very attractive to certain people, just like IT jobs also very important area we want to focus on Human employment area, as well.
- When people have their own guest houses they have more benefit from the profession, from tourism.
- This sector is very important because it links to the islands community. The agriculture, the fisheries, souvenirs so we will link it up to the local communities. This is an area that we really want to work on.
- Is there a plan to help the industry to stand up to the former level, I mean special loans from the Government?
- Our economy is not so strong. But government want to support people in tourism sector, do not want to leave them alone. Sixty million rufiyaa has been spent as income support for the people in the tourism sector. Our banks give some support loans to the facilities but it was meant for three months. We thought that after three months everything will be ok. Now for the Maldives the situation is ok now, 70 % of our beds are in operation. About 500 guest houses need to open. With the industry coming back I think that the worst we are over but we have a lot of losses, many stuff are still not re-hired, many stuffs are cut, many on mother leave, but by mid of December we will have a reasonable occupancy and they will hire the Maldivians back and we should be able to celebrate by 2021.