Ahead of Maldives’ first international yacht rally to mark the 50th anniversary of the Maldivian tourism industry, we sat down for an exclusive interview with the man behind the ambitious project, Mohamed Raaidh, Managing Director of Maldives Integrated Tourism Development Corporation (MITDC). He’s also kindly provided a journey of a mix that encapsulates everything the “Savaadheetha Dhathuru” and MITDC is about.
“I would like to see a generation of youth growing up in their native islands, where they will work and earn through these integrated tourism facilities and achieve economic freedom.”
1) In January 2019, you were appointed as the Managing Director of MITDC, a 100% Maldivian Government SOE mandated to support and to foster the development and growth of the mid- market segment of the Tourism Industry. What are some defining moments or pivotal points from your career in the past three years that reflects on stepping into your current role?
Alhamdulillah. I am honored that I got this opportunity to serve the nation. I am very thankful to Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Ahmed Faris Maumoon, leaders of my party, Maldives Reform Movement (MRM), and His Excellency President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih for my appointment, after reviewing my track record.
The government gave me the opportunity to take part in discussions of tourism policy formulation, and key stakeholder meetings with the tourism industry from the very beginning of 2019 and has been a very enlightening experience for me.
What I noticed was the deficiency in developing tourism products for the mid-market segment. There is a huge demand for our luxury tourism. Private jets come to Maldives filled with VIPs & CIPs. However, it tells a different story when regular airlines fly to the Maldives with their first class and business class full, but with many empty seats in the economy class—the bulk of the carrier. And then, there is a significant income disparity gap within the Maldivian society too. These are reasons for fostering middle income earners, as well as mid-markets tourist facilities in Maldives. The government has a vision to close that gap, for which MITDC has a crucial role to play.
The past two years of the pandemic was challenging. But I was very inspired by the leadership of the government and the bold decision to open up our borders in July 2020. The government was able to strategically and effectively manage COVID-19. Simultaneously, we managed to keep in touch with investors, formulate new policies, and even execute many projects during the pandemic.
My defining moments were the visits and meetings with local councils of across the Maldives, and consulting them on planning the areas for integrated tourism in their islands. There’s a lot more than just moments. A revolutionary amendment was brought to the Tourism Act. The famous 10th Amendment is, what we believe, the redefinition of Maldives Tourism. Several new products were recognized by the law, including integrated tourism, private islands, real-estate tourism, a revision on tourism land rent, and many more. I, in my capacity as the Managing Director of Maldives Integrated Tourism Development Corporation, tirelessly advocated and lobbied to include a chapter on Integrated Tourism in the 10th Amendment. The 10th Amendment to the Tourism Act was gazetted in December 2020 with these revisions and new additions.
2) Some industry experts believe that Maldives has to go beyond its “Sunny side of Life” strategy to make it appealing as a contemporary, modern, 365-day destination. If you were to suggest a strategy, what would you propose to promote a newer and unique image of the Maldives?
Maldives’ “Sunny Side of Life” brand has been very successful, and millions of dollars have been invested to the brand over the years. Fifty years into tourism, and our brand’s value is, I can confidently say, over five billion dollars. Where else in the world is an island country that experiences tropical sunshine with temperatures between 27-32 degrees Celsius for the greatest number of days, and perfectly clear visibility other than the Maldives? Of course, there are people with opinions pushing for enhancing and modernizing the brand, or even advocating for a complete rebrand.
On this note, I believe the current leadership of MMPRC is doing it artfully, with a significant touch of local talent. They are doing a magnificent job across the globe in promoting the Maldives. We have won World’s Leading Destination award for two consecutive years, for the first time in our history. What more should we say about the success of our brand?
3) You have plans to hold Maldives’ First International Yacht Rally, “Savaadheetha Dhathuru” in February on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Maldivian Tourism industry. Please tell us a few words about your ambitious Sailing Event.
First of all, Maldives has 3,000 years of culture and history to showcase to the world. But so far, we have not been able to infuse our history and culture into the tourism industry properly. This idea is inspired by President Solih’s speech at the function to mark the 100th anniversary of Muleeaage, the official presidential residence. He very boldly said that culture has now become an important part of our economy as more and more travelers, especially millennials travel to explore and experience different cultures, heritages and to learn about their ways of living.
We at MITDC believed we must start work immediately to make this vision a success. We were in the midst of brainstorming when public offices closed due to the pandemic, forcing all of us to work remotely from home. Our small team took this as an advantage and collectively started researching. We all agreed that most of the heritage and historical locations are in inhabited islands, and these islands are widely inaccessible to tourists due to transportation reasons. Therefore, we incorporated sailing, or what we call “nautical tourism”. I mean, why not? Maldives is 99% sea, and we were famous seafarers. We have a long history of seafaring, and our ancestors were extremely skilled and clever at sailing these shallow waters and the great outer ocean without any maps.
On the other hand, we have our national heroes. Savaadheeththa Dhathuru is a tribute to one of our greatest monarchs, As-Sultan al-Ghaazee Muhammad Thakurufaanu al-Auzam, commonly known as Bodu Thakurufaanu. His regnal name was Sri Savaadheeththa Mahaaradhun, and it indicated his benignity and greatness Savaadheetha Dhathuru will retrace the maritime journey of Sultan Mohamed Thakurufaanu when he set off from his home island to defeat the colonial Portuguese and secure the freedom of Maldives.
This yacht rally is scheduled to begin its on February 2022 starting from the northernmost atoll of the country, Haa Alif Atoll and will be taking a course of 3 weeks to reach Baa Atoll. The expedition is arranged with stops at 10 inhabited islands, giving guests the chance to see local heritage sites and experience the island life. There will be six designated anchor points where yachtsmen can anchor their boats. Sea transfer will be arranged by the organizer to the remaining islands.
The aim of the organizers is to promote Maldivian culture & heritage, its rich history as well as nautical tourism and to exploit the benefits of strengthening these areas within the tourism industry of the country.
4) Speaking of Heritage Tourism, in 2019, the Maldives government asked World Monuments Fund (WMF) to assist in preparing a nomination file for submission to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre for listing of the coral stone mosques of Maldives as a World Heritage site. What is your take on the constant efforts from Maldives to enter the permanent list of UNESCO's World Heritage?
This is a very important effort. It is very important that our rich heritage is recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. It was said by some historians that coral stone mosques, especially the ones that can be dismantled and assembled are only seen in the Maldives.
Likewise, there is the UNESCO-recognized biosphere reserve in Baa atoll in Maldives. Just look at its unique geographical location! It is effortlessly positioned above an open channel on the edge of the deep ocean, and is a marine wonderland; home to no less than 250 species of vibrant coral and over 1,200 fish species. Promoting our tourist sites will help encourage a culture of preservation, raise awareness of the tourist attraction and encourage locals and visitors to be mindful about their impact on the natural and built environment. Cultural and heritage tourism is so vital to the visitor economy, and our country should seek to maximize the opportunities it brings.
5) Tell us about the ongoing investment projects/ infrastructure developments that will be crucial in boosting tourism and providing employment opportunities to the youth?
The ongoing infrastructure development of Velana International Airport and development of new regional airports will enable easy access for tourists, to even the most remote islands of Maldives.
The registered number of tourism beds will explode these two years with the introduction of homestay tourism in Maldives, and this will create demand for more air and sea transport modes to the islands.
These developments will create direct and indirect employment for youth across the sectors. Also, I believe the recent introduction of minimum wage will create more demand, and hopefully more opportunities for tourism jobs as well.
6) In May 2020, during an international webinar organized by Island Innovation USA, you emphasized the need in developing decent accommodation facilities for resort employees in nearby islands where they could reside with their families, instead of having to live in crowded staff quarters within the resort island. Do you see resorts taking adequate measures in ensuring their employees achieve a work-life balance?
During the pandemic we witnessed the struggles of resort workers who were stuck in their small resort accommodations and unable to go back to their families for months, due to travel restrictions. Even though workers are provided in-house accommodations of good condition at the resorts, it can be much healthier for the workers to live with their immediate families and kids. It is the government’s top priority to integrate tourism workers and their families, and enable a healthy work-life balance
7) Over the years working in the betterment of the tourism industry, what would you consider as your most impressive achievement?
I am fairly new to the tourism industry, and it has been a learning experience so far. In this short span of time, I have met and discussed tourism with a lot of local and international stakeholders. We are witnessing exciting times, and this year we are marking the industry’s golden jubilee. On the other hand, we are also witnessing the most challenging times in the history of modern tourism and hospitality, due to competition, and in also the coronavirus pandemic.
8) The Maldivian authorities through an amendment to the Airport Taxes and Fees Act, have begun implementing a new Departure Tax effective 1st January 2022. Do you believe the revenue generated via the newly introduced 'Departure tax' will be adequate to repay the loans borrowed to develop Velana International Airport (VIA)?
Maldives Airports Company Limited, operator of Velana International Airport is a revenue generating company itself. Bringing the new runway into operation this year will increase the airport’s air traffic, and this will bring in additional revenue to MACL. The new international terminal remains a crucial element in completing the airport and readying it to handle the increasing demand. Some decisions of the previous administration had contributed to some difficulties we are facing today in repaying debt, and obviously, the newly introduced departure tax will help in these avenues.
9) Tourism industry is mainly concerned with giving services to people who are going away from home, either on a business or leisure trip. According to your experience in this field, how can Maldives improve or expand our tourism product and operations to meet future market demands, and what is your message to talented locals working in this industry?
Getting to Maldives is a total getaway from the hectic city life. It is about immersing to a totally relaxed environment, in a very private destination, where there are no disturbances from paparazzi, or interruption from salesmen selling items while you are relaxing at the beach or your private villa.
Maldives can expand on medical tourism, MICE tourism, sea sports tourism such as Yacht racing, and many other aspects too. My advice to youth is to enhance their skills, talent and artists and align their talents towards the tourism industry as there is more than enough opportunities on this side.
10) If there is one thing that you would like to accomplish during your tenure. Your lasting legacy, what would that be?
I would like to assist and help formulate integrated tourism projects in these remote islands where there are very few economic opportunities, and eliminate the need to migrate to Malé or resorts for employment. The current reality is that they have to leave their home islands and live in small rented flats in the capital city, where they have to spend most of their income for rent.
The current government has plans to develop several locations as hotspots for community-based tourism. These projects will be designed with an emphasis on achieving sustainability for the growing industry. This is the vision of President Solih and his Jazeera Raajje manifesto. If I can be part of that long-lasting legacy, then it will be a great honor and satisfaction for myself.
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