“One day, while looking at a world map, my eyes fell upon a teeny tiny group of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean by the name of Maldive Islands. This was the first time I ever saw it on a map and let me tell you, I had this wonderful curiosity and feeling that I needed to go there – and soon!” - George Corbin
In an exclusive interview with the Islandchief, George Corbin reveals how the Italian travel agent took a chance heralding tourism across the Indian Ocean, forty-nine years ago. His story tells us about his passionate efforts to promote the Maldives as a destination to shape the very foundations of tourism in the then little-known stretch of islands.
1. George, as an Italian travel enthusiast, how did you come to know about the Maldives and what inspired you to explore tourism in this country?
In the late 1960s, I was the only tour operator in Italy that organised diving holidays. I was constantly looking for new and exotic diving destinations as I would always receive a lot of requests for diving from my clients, and also because I simply love new adventures. One day, while looking at a world map, my eyes fell upon a teeny tiny group of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean by the name of Maldive Islands. This was the first time I ever saw it on a map and let me tell you, I had this wonderful curiosity and feeling that I needed to go there – and soon!
2. So, back in the early 70’s, how did you meet the key stakeholders from the Maldives, and what was the framework behind kickstarting the now-thriving tourism industry of this small island nation?
Well, the next thing I knew, I was on a flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka – back then, Ceylon – because it was so close to those islands. Once in Colombo, I immediately visited the Maldivian Embassy where I was introduced to a gentleman by the name of Ahmed Naseem. He, too, was just as enthusiastic and of great help. Before we knew it, the both of us were on a cargo ship heading towards Malé.
Crossing the atoll pass, and entering the Malé waters, I was breathless and full of joy, and I could only say, I was in paradise; beautiful islands surrounded and protected by coral reefs; superb white sandy beaches; hundreds of coconut trees… WOW. Once we reached Malé, I was immediately touched by the kind, gentle and humble local people.
Naseem turned out to be a great friend, a gentleman, and most of all an amazing host. During my entire stay in the Maldives, I was well taken care of. Naseem and I spent days visiting the islands. What a beautiful experience, plus the underwater world was at its top! It was so clear with an abundance of life and colours. So, we had some discussions and meetings, and decided to join forces to open up the Maldives to tourism. We built the first resort, Kurumba Village – now, Kurumba Maldives – in early 1972, and brought in the first group of tourists to ever visit these islands.
3. What were some of the biggest challenges you and your team faced back then when making the arrangements to bring tourists to the Maldives?
Unbelievable but true; the flight, landing arrangements, food, accommodation, transportation, diving and so on – everything went very smoothly. We surprised ourselves with the fantastic job we had done, Naseem on his side in the Maldives, me on my side. We had no problems whatsoever. Everything went great, and considering it was the first flight, the first tourist group, and the first resort, it was a huge success – the beginning of it all. The first flight was a focal flight; we rented out a forty-five-seater. The tourists were super happy. They all had the feeling of being Captain Cook. Let’s not forget, we were in paradise.
4. What activities did the first group of tourists who arrived in the Maldives partake in?
Those days things were so simple. And we, as human beings, found joy in the simple, beautiful things that life had to present. Trips to destinations like the Maldives, Mauritius and all these places were more about adventure and experiencing the natural beauty that surrounds us. That first trip to the Maldives was a holiday of pure pleasure, relaxing, the amazing beach, and mostly, of course, diving. During that time, the Maldives’ waters were so virgin that the fish weren’t even scared of the people swimming underwater. It was unbelievable. I would say most of the people in this first group – about seventy percent – were divers, the other thirty percent were accompanying spouses and children who had the pleasure of going to the Maldives to have a beautiful tropical holiday.
5. Having been in the travel industry for decades, please tell us your views on the changing traveller trends and expectations throughout the world?
Something we know for sure is that change is constant, especially in the tourism industry – particularly with the evolution of technology. Nowadays, tourists want lots of activities, beautiful hotels and to travel to the most popular destinations. However, there will always be a good number of tourists looking for pure adventure, virgin waters, eco-tourism and most of all, just to relax under a coconut tree with beautiful sandy beaches, and unbelievable dives. I believe the Maldives has what it takes to cater to all of them.
6. Please share with us your thoughts on the current state of tourism in the Maldives.
During my last visit to the Maldives approximately two years ago, I was pleased to see great improvements such as many beautiful resorts, exciting activities and fantastic service. Now, one thing I always say is that Maldivians are extremely nice, lovely people, and amazing hosts. I’ve visited half the world and let me tell you, the Maldives provides great service. It is always a very pleasant experience and gives a good feeling for the visitors.
Although it is a rough patch for tourism all over the globe, I believe and hope that by the end of 2021, COVID-19 will be almost completely under control, especially with the vaccines having rolled out, and the Maldive Islands will go back to thriving in tourism. Even today, during this pandemic, it’s one of the most sought-after destinations.
7. What is your philosophy on sustainability? Do you think that Maldives is on the right track in terms of sustainable tourism?
Sustainability is crucial for all destinations. Our naturally beautiful environment and the livelihoods of local communities must come first. I feel that the Maldives is getting on the right track. I was very happy to hear that the government of Maldives recently passed a bill to phase-out all single-use plastic materials by 2023. Of course, it will be hard work to change this habit for any country, but it will definitely be worth it.
I would also suggest to reduce or completely abolish jet skis. Something I saw happen in many places like Sharm El-Sheikh, the Red Sea and so on, is that certain areas which were full of fish and teeming with life, now have no fish at all. They’re gone because of the noise and vibrations from all the jet skis. They get scared, they move, and the reefs start suffering too.
Something else I’d like to point out is the increased number of vehicles in Malé, especially the motorcycles. You don’t need all that. Reducing these numbers or putting limits on them would give more space and tranquillity, mainly for the local people. In the long run, it would be greatly beneficial for future generations. I remember the first time I went to Malé so clearly – I still have those scenes in front of my eyes. Firstly, there were only bicycles – very few. There were no roads, it was just white sand, and every single day, early morning, people would come out and clean the peaceful streets, it was just beautiful! I will never ever forget those scenes.
8. What does post-COVID-19-tourism look like to you? Many speak about a “new normal”. Has the perception of travel and tourism changed – if in any way?
I feel that it will change, and I’m sure it will be for the better. People will be very health-conscious, they’ll be careful and cleaner. Even tourism facilities will take extra precaution. Many are developing measures to build a more resilient tourism economy post COVID-19. They are learning and preparing for more sustainable recovery of tourism, promoting the digital transition and moving to a greener tourism system. People have started rethinking tourism for the future. This will help with the recovery of the travel business. I see a bright future. I would say this year would have its ups and downs. But from next year, which is also going to be a great year for the Maldives as it is the 50th anniversary – or the Gold Jubilee – of the Maldives’ tourism industry, we will see great improvements.
9. What are some of the key milestone you have achieved in this industry, that are close to your heart?
You know, I am someone who has opened up many destinations for tourism. The last destination was Saudi Arabia. I brought the first group to ever visit Saudi Arabia as tourists. Sudan, Egypt, Eretria and more, are all destinations I have initiated tourism in since the late sixties – so you can imagine. I’ve been in this business all my life. I consider myself sort of like Captain Cook – I have always loved his books; you know, travelling and discovering beautifully unique, virgin destinations. But the one place that is carved into my heart one-hundred percent, is the Maldives. Everything about it. Especially its people. I can’t say this enough; the people, the hosts, they count a lot. You can go to countries where everything is beautiful, but sometimes, people’s attitudes are not very welcoming and not pro tourism, which doesn’t give you a good impression or feeling about your holiday. But the Maldives has it all. My dream, since a very early age, was to discover a place like the Maldive islands, and that’s why I call the Maldives ‘paradise’. Yes, I have opened many destinations for tourism, but I never got that inner pleasure and happiness as I did with my Maldive Islands.
10. After having successfully positioned the Maldives on the tourism world map, what advice would you offer to the current travel, tourism and hospitality industry stakeholders in this country?
The resorts, guesthouses, boats, they’re all doing a great job. Such beautiful places – you’ve got it all – and the service, which is extremely important, is excellent in the Maldives.
I believe that there is still a large portion of the global market to be explored; North and South America for instance. The Maldivian government and tourism board could have a representative to cover those markets. I’ve talked with people from Chile, Mexico and so on, and it is very rare to meet people who have actually been there. In the United States, the potential of tourism to the Maldives – especially in diving – is huge! Visit diving clubs in those regions and spread the word about the wonderful diving spots in the Maldives. Much of my success in the past was because I visited many dive centres on a monthly basis to give them information on new destinations to explore. Also, why not start some international deep sea fishing tournaments? Deep sea fishing a great sport, and one that brings in people with a lot of money. The Maldives is the perfect place for this and having such tournaments would promote the country substantially. Also, be grateful for your natural environment, there are not many places like the Maldives. One thing that I cannot emphasize enough though, is the humbleness of the Maldivian people.
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