EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH HON. DR. ABDULLA MAUSOOM, MINISTER OF TOURISM
“In the Maldives, we take great pride in providing a service that reflects the traditions of our hospitality with warm, beautiful smiles, and that no other country can replicate.”
Strung like pearls across the Indian Ocean, the Maldives are acclaimed as a tropical paradise of pristine beaches and clear cobalt and turquoise waters. This singular country features some of the best sand, sun and surf to be found anywhere, with world-class diving, ultra-luxurious resorts, the most chilled-out guest houses and the exciting liveaboards. In an Exclusive Interview with The islandchief, the newly appointed Tourism Minister Hon. Dr. Abdulla Mausoom, expressed hopes that the number of days guests spend in the Maldives will increase although arrival numbers are low, resulting in a much better yield for the country. He hopes to find a collectively defined way forward to make the Maldives a globally competitive tourism destination.
1. The Maldives was the first South Asian destination to reopen for tourism since the global shutdown. What are the preparations and strategies that are being put in place to revive the country’s much-admired tourism industry?
It is very exciting for all of us to be listed as the first country to open the borders in this part of the world. For the opening, for the near future and even now - the prime aspect is safety. The second aspect is convenience. Safety and convenience are somewhat challenging to intertwine, because one compromises the other. Now, there are a few little extra procedures that are being required, and it may cause some inconvenience for travellers who have previously experienced the Maldives. However, all-in-all, our main strategy is to make sure that all the tourists who come to the Maldives, as well as the people who are working in the tourism industry are very safe. Now that the new initiatives of the Government involve more locals in the tourism sector; such as island-hopping, operating souvenir shops in local islands and all that, and once tourism is fully opened, safety of the public is also taken into consideration. With safety, comes a bit of inconvenience, but we want our guests to have a very beautiful experience of the Maldives with peace of mind.
2. Since the Maldivian borders reopened for tourism on July 15, 2020, most of the resorts have already opened their shores, with many more to follow. Going forward, what are the priorities for this industry, and where do you see the biggest opportunities and challenges?
The biggest opportunity for us, of course, is that we are part of only the few who have opened up the borders, and also the fact that the Maldives’ unique geographical characteristics enable us to conduct a very safe tourism experience. In our major sector – the resorts – tourists will be able to come from their country, get through the airport, head to the resort and have a very private and relaxing stay, very safely. And the second sector – safari vessels – will also be the same, totally safe. Now, the next sector is the guest house sector which will reopen on October 15th - once fully open, this will be completely safe as well. All-in-all, the biggest opportunity for the total industry is that we’ve got the geographical characteristics and commitment from all the stakeholders to safely manage tourism.
The challenge I see is in the numbers anticipated; due to border restrictions in source markets and flight availability, the volume of tourists we can generate in the coming months is not much. We are anticipating perhaps just over 100,000 in the upcoming three to four months – if it gets better, of course we will get a bigger number. When all the facilities are open, one of the biggest challenges would be to generate a good yield.
Another challenge is the investment climate which, from the investor’s perspective, we need to improve. Many new products have been initiated and are in various phases of development, but not complete yet. So, we have to make sure that the products on the drawing board, and those that have stalled after commencement, move forward – all the way to fruition.
With regard to the market, the key challenge we have is that Maldives is ideal for the seniors market. But this pandemic is not friendly to seniors. So, naturally a huge chunk of our market is forced to reduce their travel. Having said that, the Maldives is still the safest option available for the seniors market.
Due to travel restrictions, the average stay is also going to be long. Previously, we had as average stay of 7-8 days, and now we predict 14 days or more. So, that will also be an opportunity that the industry can capitalize on and benefit the whole country.
As there is no record of community spread of COVID-19 in the Maldives, except in the Greater Malé Area, compulsory on-arrival negative PCR test certificates for all tourists was introduced with effect from September 10th, which further reinforces safety and makes the Maldives one of the safest destinations in the whole world.
3. Numerous stakeholders and individuals in the industry bring forth varied opinions regarding which segments of the market should be targeted as the country works to revive its tourism industry. Do you think the Maldives should be marketed towards the luxury high-end consumers, mid-range consumers or budget travellers?
The beauty of Maldives is that we are ready for the world market. We have got a product that is so diversified that we can target all the markets. Of course, people would be happier when guests spend more money and when the staff get lots of tips and other benefits, but we should have a balance. Especially after this pandemic, we have to think of the global market and the spending power of the source markets. When we think about it, many of the people who would have joined the workforce and started earning this year, wouldn’t be getting that much; many who were in jobs already, have lost their jobs, so we have to really focus on those who will be travelling.
The beauty for us now, is the diversity of the Maldives tourism product – from the very high end to the very reasonable homestay-style guest houses, and down to earth safaris and other aspects. We maintain our traditional image of the Maldives’ natural beauty; Cultural Tourism and Ecotourism are becoming very strong, and I think Maldives is now geared to cater to all the markets. The government encourages product and service diversity, so that the Maldives would be the first choice, irrespective of the source market.
4. With the commencement of the new normal, in your opinion what are the top key markets that the Maldives should target?
The markets that have the spending power! Before the pandemic, if you look at the market comparison, we had a very high arrival of Chinese tourists - who have money and spend money. Then we have the Indian market – a strong upcoming market, which also has the spending power. I think these two are very good and equally important. India is particularly important as it’s very close and we should be able to utilize that market to manage demand fluctuations. Both countries, both markets, have got a huge volume.
We must maintain our traditional markets. The UK is an opinion leader and a trendsetter. The UK market is important especially for publicity and global trendsetting, which is essential. For diving, we particularly need the German market, they been our loyal partners, and the Italian market who were the very first tourists in the Maldives - they are very crucial. I think all-in-all, besides the mentioned five markets, we have to focus on the Arab market. They are high spenders and the Maldivian product is very ideal for them. Even the Russian market is very significant and are also big spenders. Far-flung markets like Latin America who come here for surfing, and the USA are also crucial.
Another segment that we should be focusing on, regardless of nationality, is the expats in the region. Those in the Emirates, Qatar, Singapore, Thailand – these are hubs where the international expat community is huge, plus they have disposable income and get short breaks. We should also concentrate on the Niche markets.
5. What are the opportunities available for the country’s youth – school-leavers, millennials – to join the tourism industry of the Maldives?
I believe that school-leavers should seek a professional career path in the tourism industry. There are loads of professions; if you want to be a nurse - become a nurse and join the industry; if you want to be an engineer - get an engineering qualification and join the industry. After leaving school, get into an institute, college or training center in a field of your choice, get a certificate, get qualified, in that area, and join the industry. This would be better for eventual career advancements.
Most millennials will now be above the age of twenty, so I believe they can play a crucial role in shaping the industry. They need to seek the jobs that they love to do, and the most important thing is ensuring that the job pays enough. Now, because of the way the tourism products are being developed, many will be able to live with their families. You just have to decide what you want to do in the industry, all the jobs are there. Tourism has jobs for all professions possible – anything and everything. The job must be something that you are passionate about, not what your parents or friends want you to do. It must be a job close to your heart, and it should generate enough income to meet your needs.
I really believe in internships. Applying for a job usually requires about two years’ experience, but if nobody gives you a job, you will never be able to tick that experience box. So, internships provide an entrance for experience and I hope that in the future, many resorts, guest houses, safari vessels, diving facilities, watersports centres and other tourism related businesses will provide even more opportunities for internships.
With regards to the ministry, after coming here, the first thing I did was open up for internship – it acts as a platform for the youth to get a sense of the ministry’s work. It will be useful to get a placement for certain courses, and when applying for jobs. We wanted to have only 10 interns, but due to the high number of applicants who met the entry requirements, we have now decided to take 25 interns. In the coming days and months, we will have even more opportunities for people to get a feel of working in the Tourism Ministry. Unless you come and have a feel of it - it can be difficult to commit yourself to a job.
We are also working with the Ministry of Higher Education. We want people to make their career decision based on some kind of experience. So, we will provide opportunities for youngsters to experience working in the industry before making big career decisions.
As someone who has worked in the industry and managed the biggest resort in the Maldives for four years, there is a myth I would like to debunk regarding the safety of women in the industry. The resort environment is one of the safest environments for anyone, especially for young females to work – it is even safer than working in Malé. I hope to see more women in tourism employment in the future. And as I mentioned earlier, now you don’t really have to be away from your family, because the industry has come closer to you.
6. What strategies should be prioritized by the guest house and boating industry stakeholders to provide reassurance for their guests?
I think this is a critical element that we need to focus on. The guest house and liveaboard products themselves allow guest-host interactions more than the resorts, the safety of guests, staff and community is of utmost importance for us. That means no shortcuts, no easy ways. It’s absolutely essential to follow the guidelines and SOPs to the max from the very bottom of their hearts, not because regulators mandated it, but because of their love for the industry, their love for the people. I have full confidence in them, because they are the ones taking the initiatives. So, the priority for the guest houses and the safari vessels is to ensure the safety of their guests and staff. Once we prioritize safety, everything else will fall into place very smoothly.
7. What are the key USPs we should focus on when promoting and marketing the Maldives as a destination?
I think many would ask “Why should we reinvent the wheel?”. The Maldives’ unique selling point has been successful through past decades, and those unique selling points are still there – they haven’t changed. So, the Maldives' natural beauty with its “one-island, one-resort” concept would be a very strong seller. There are other countries following us, but they can never be “The Maldives”.
The guest houses on the local islands are also a rather unique concept, especially with the interactions with local residents and the diversity of Maldivian culture. All inhabited islands are different from one another. There could be two islands very close to each other, but their cultures, food and even their dialect could be completely different. This cultural diversity is a very unique component.
Then we have the upcoming regional developments which will be key aspects we could utilise; For example, the Royal Air Force base in Addu City and its “story” will be a unique seller; and in the Northern region, the island of Utheemu in Haa Alif Atoll, is a treasure trove of rich Maldivian history - it is the birthplace of Sultan Mohamed Thakurufaanu, a national hero of the Maldives who drove away the Portuguese ruling over the country from 1558-1573. These are all historical and cultural links that make the Maldives unique. We have these elements to capitalize on. The product diversifications we are aiming at also include new shipwreck sites and surf points.
The millennial market is massive, and we have the products for a perfect match. We have to distinctively develop them and convey the right message. There will be many new USPs that we will acquire and market in the coming days. Small things like underwater restaurants, underwater spas or maybe underwater guest rooms that have already been here for a while, and more are in the pipeline. Similar products could be found elsewhere, but we are among the very few who offer them. So, we can rightfully claim that these are unique selling points. In the Maldives, we take great pride in providing a service that reflects the traditions of our hospitality with warm, beautiful smiles, and that no other country can replicate.
8. The country’s branding, “Maldives…the sunny side of life” was launched in 2003. Do you believe the Maldives should be marketed under various destinations brandings with regards to the different regions or atolls of the country, or do you think the country should be promoted under one single campaign?
The Maldives needs to do what’s best for the destination at any given time. I am happy about my involvement in the Maldives Tourism Promotion Board’s Team, and development of sub themes such as “the colorful side of life”, “the romantic side of life”, “the thrilling side of life” and “the spiritual side of life”. These slogans have been very effective to portray varied attractions of the Maldives. We should not completely revamp the brand, but with time and with new developments, it will be important that we review it. If the industry feels that we should change it, then we should change it. The industry should have a significant say on destination brand decisions.
Maldives is a brand in itself, whatever way we put it. As we open more international airports, such as Hanimaadhoo, Gan and others, each region, atoll, or island, would come up with their selling stories that they should use in their branding as well.
9. What initiatives have been put in place in terms of sustainable tourism in the Maldives?
Earlier we focused on environmental sustainability as well as cultural sustainability. These two are continuing and we have now acquired the third dimension, “economic sustainability” which is very much incorporated in tourism development now. We are safeguarding our assets for the future generations, and we are facilitating social happiness. Our development initiatives are in line with international sustainable goals. From the sustainability perspective, I believe we are very much on the right track.
10. Please tell us about your future plans for the industry and how you see the rebound of the leisure market post-pandemic?
We are heading in the right direction, but the Maldivian product has to be re-energized. New creative developments have to come up. There is a huge focus on rebuilding investor-confidence, and also in creating opportunities for product owners in terms of gaining access to investors. We need to focus on the ownership of tourism supply by Maldivians, as well as tourism employment for locals. Maldivians should concentrate on high-pay jobs across the tourism industry. There should be equal distribution of the industry across the country, so that the entire Maldives would benefit from it. Another important point is that we will take care of our people, because a country can come up with wonderful products, but without the people, the products would be meaningless. We need to emphasize on human capital and human resource development. We need to reach the markets across the globe and welcome them to Maldives.
I am passionate about tourism. I love tourism and all its dimensions.
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