Where Have All the Tourists Gone?

The Chi­nese visit the Mal­dives in much lesser num­bers these days, which is a cause for con­cern. The coun­try is com­ing to grips with the prob­lem but it needs to do much more.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - F.U.

The Mal­dives, a tourism-driven coun­try, of­fers its tourists and in­ter­na­tional visi­tors ho­tels, guest houses, sa­fari ves­sels and re­sorts. As per the 2014 sta­tis­tics is­sued by the Mal­dives Min­istry of Tourism, the num­ber of tourism fa­cil­i­ties has ex­po­nen­tially in­creased in the coun­try over the last few years.

As of 2014, ac­cord­ing to the min­istry, there were some 511 reg­is­tered ac­com­mo­da­tion out­lets with a to­tal bed ca­pac­ity of over 31,500. This was a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease from 14 per cent in 2013 to 19 per cent rise in 2014. A pos­i­tive devel­op­ment in a touris­mde­pen­dent econ­omy, the lead­ing fac­tor be­hind the rise was the in­ter­na­tion­al­stan­dard re­sorts and guest houses which are be­ing added ev­ery year to the tourism in­fras­truc­ture.

Built un­der the ‘one-is­land-one-re­sort’ con­cept, a re­sort in the Mal­dives is re­ferred to as a ‘re­sort is­land’ and tends to be quite a pop­u­lar tourist ac­com­mo­da­tion be­cause of its friendly en­vi­rons, gourmet cui­sine and other mod­ern fea­tures. In 2014, ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Tourism, there were some 111 re­sort is­lands in the ar­chi­pel­ago with more than 23,500 reg­is­tered beds. Kand­holhu Is­land and Loama Re­sort are the two new re­sorts while the Soneva Jani Re­sorts, the lat­est ad­di­tion to the high-end re­sort sec­tor of the coun­try, will start its op­er­a­tion in Jan­uary 2017.

De­rived from a San­skrit word

mean­ing ‘wis­dom,’ Soneva Jani con­sists of five is­lands and is a col­lec­tion of 33 is­land sanc­tu­ar­ies and 26 water vil­las with one and two bed­rooms. A five star re­sort, Soneva Jani is well-equipped with state-of-the-art fa­cil­i­ties and salient fea­tures, such as a cin­ema, health spa, an in­fin­ity pool, a wa­ter­slide from the up­per floor into the sea, club­house, a beach res­tau­rant, a re­tractable elec­tric roof for hor­i­zon­tal stargaz­ers and a div­ing school and water sports cen­tre.

Lo­cated in the Noonu Atoll, an ad­min­is­tra­tive divi­sion of the Mal­dives, the re­sort is sur­rounded by a 5.6 kilo­me­tre la­goon and is 40 min­utes away from Male In­ter­na­tional Air­port by sea­plane or a one-hour speed­boat drive from Soneva Fushi, an­other lux­ury fam­ily re­sort lo­cated in the Baa Atoll that is the World Bio­sphere Re­serve of UNESCO.

Be­ing hailed as a sym­bol of high-end is­land liv­ing in the Mal­dives, the Soneva Jani had its soft open­ing in Oc­to­ber last year. Cur­rently, hun­dreds of peo­ple are work­ing day and night to com­plete the pro­ject. How­ever, there is bad news for the Mal­di­vian tourism in­dus­try in gen­eral and for the Soneva Re­sorts in par­tic­u­lar.

Ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics of the Mal­dives Mone­tary Au­thor­ity (MMA) and the World Bank, Mal­dives ex­pe­ri­enced less than 2 per cent eco­nomic growth in 2015 be­cause of “lower tourism sec­tor growth due to lower ar­rivals from China and Rus­sia.” In the re­cent eco­nomic his­tory of the Mal­dives, this hap­pens to be the first oc­ca­sion when the coun­try has suf­fered from an eco­nomic down­turn since the in­ter­na­tional fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2008-09.

“As of Au­gust 2016, Chi­nese ar­rivals have fallen by -11.5 per­cent. Some 260,491 Chi­nese tourists vis­ited the Mal­dives from Jan­uary to Au­gust, down from 230,437 in 2015. How­ever, Chi­nese tourists still rep­re­sent a mar­ket share of 27.3 per­cent,” says Ahmed Naish, a Mal­di­vian travel and tourism jour­nal­ist.

Ac­cord­ing to him, af­ter grow­ing ex­po­nen­tially from 2010 on­wards to cap­ture a mar­ket share of 30 per­cent, Chi­nese ar­rivals peaked in 2014 with about 364,000 visi­tors and de­clined for the first time in 2015 by -1.1 per­cent.”

The main rea­son be­hind the de­cline per­tains to a 30-day state of emer­gency that was de­clared by the Mal­di­vian gov­ern­ment in Novem­ber, 2015. As ex­pected, the move, which led to a sig­nif­i­cant de­crease in the to­tal num­ber of for­eign tourists, was detri­men­tal for the coun­try’s tourism sec­tor.

In terms of tourist ar­rivals, says Ahmed Naish, “Af­ter China, the United King­dom has the high­est mar­ket share with 8.1 per cent, fol­lowed by Ger­many (7.9 per cent), Italy (5.7 per­cent), In­dia (4.6 per cent), Rus­sia (3.4 per cent), and France (3.3 per cent). How­ever, ar­rivals from France fell by -5.7 per cent and growth from Rus­sia flat­tened at 0.6 per cent. Ar­rivals from Rus­sia and France reg­is­tered sig­nif­i­cant de­clines in 2015, fall­ing 33.2 per cent and 17 per cent re­spec­tively,”

Moosa Zameer is the Min­is­ter of Tourism in the Mal­dives. He says the coun­try missed the tar­get of 1.5 mil­lion tourist ar­rivals in 2016, while the re­vised fore­cast is 1.4 mil­lion, which hap­pens to be the same tar­get that was missed in 2015.

In Sri Lanka, Chi­nese tourists have grown by 70 per cent (from 128,000 to 270,000). In Mau­ri­tius, Chi­nese visi­tors have in­creased by 41 per cent (from about 60,000 to 90,000). In Bali, In­done­sia, the num­ber of visi­tors from China in­creased to 17 per cent (from 586,000 to 688,000), but the to­tal num­ber of Chi­nese tourists trav­el­ling the Mal­dives have re­duced from 364,000 to 359,000 be­tween 2014 and 2015, says Mifzal Ahmed, Di­rec­tor of Strat­egy and Devel­op­ment, MEGA Global Air Ser­vices, Mal­dives.

The de­cline trend may lead to a mis­di­ag­no­sis of the prob­lem, says Mifzal Ahmed.

He says, “The de­cline im­plies that if the do­mes­tic economies of these coun­tries re­cover, then so will tourist num­bers to the Mal­dives. While this may be true of Rus­sia, what is go­ing on in China is cer­tainly not that straight­for­ward. How­ever, there is rel­a­tively lit­tle we in the Mal­dives can do to ad­dress this de­cline.”

On an av­er­age, one in three in­ter­na­tional visi­tors to the Mal­dives is from China. How­ever, af­ter the emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion in Novem­ber 2015, the num­ber of Chi­nese visi­tors dropped by one fifth over a brief 3-month pe­riod. In the first half of 2016, the drop was the steep­est for years, which, as a re­sult, neg­a­tively af­fected the rev­enues of Soneva Fushi, which is the Soneva Jani’s neigh­bour­ing re­sort owned by the Soneva Group, the in­ter­na­tional re­sort brand.

For the first time in its two-decade his­tory, the Group has sus­tained losses be­cause of the de­creas­ing in­ter­na­tional ar­rivals in the Mal­dives, thus putting both of its ex­ist­ing pro­jects and fu­ture in­vest­ments at risk.

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