Dubai: The first quarter of 2018 has been challenging for the tourism industry in the Maldives, or so people thought. With the state of emergency being declared, travel advisories being issued by the UK, US, China and India warning tourists from travelling to the Indian Ocean nation, flights suspended and hotel bookings being cancelled, things looked bleak.

But when the Maldives released their tourism figures in mid-April, it surprisingly revealed a 17 per cent rise in the number of arrivals in the first quarter of 2018. Tourist arrivals from Britain increased 12.2 per cent, from 29,088 to 32,633. During the same period, arrivals from India and Southeast Asian markets recorded double-digit growth. However, Chinese arrivals decreased from 73,135 in the first three months of 2017 to 72,539 this year, a small dip of 0.8 per cent but significant considering the unprecedented boom in Chinese outbound travel.

“In 2017, FTAs grew by 8.3 per cent compared to 2016 and in Q1 2018 we have seen double-digit growth compared to Q1 2017 in most key source markets,” said Haris Mohamed, Acting Managing Director, Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation (MMPRC)

One of the major bottlenecks facing tourism sector is getting addressed one step at a time. The existing airport can manage only 1.5 million arrivals a year. By August-September this year, a brand new Code F runway, which can accommodate the A380s and B787s, will become operational. The new terminal buildings, complete with fuel storage and hangers, will together manage 7.5 million tourists. It is set to open by the first or second quarter of 2019.

“Currently, a wide-body aircraft takes 15 minutes to vacate the runway after landing. We will bring it down to three minutes. The new runway and terminal buildings will ensure a five-fold increase in the current capacity,” clarified Mohamed. The country has around 44,000 beds across four categories – luxury hotels and resorts, city hotels, guest houses and liveaboard boats. This number is set to increase as the island is targeting 7.5 million visitors.

“When the President assumed office in 2013, he had announced the opening of 50 new resorts during his five-year term. We have opened 35-38 resorts so far and this year 12-13 new openings are being scheduled, all known international brands. We will have 50,000 beds by end of this year.” The hotel industry registered an average occupancy of 75 per cent in 2017 and the length of stay was a healthy 6-7 days.

Maldives’ unique ‘one island, one resort’ concept has been lauded and emulated the world over. This has ensured environmental sustainability while offering extreme privacy and privileges to tourists wanting premium hospitality.

In March, Jumeirah Vittaveli (part of Dubai-based hospitality chain Jumeirah) inaugurated the first ice rink in the Maldives with a celebrity performance by Evgeni Plushenko, a former Russian Olympic Gold medalist figure skater. The eco-friendly ice skating rink called ‘Ice Ice Maybe’ is a first for the Maldives and the 87 sq. m. offers plenty of space for pirouettes and ice hockey games.

Later this year, the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, a luxury resort which already operates the world’s first undersea restaurant, Ithaa, will open the first undersea residence complex. Constructed at a cost of $15 million, this will be a two-level suite that will feature a bedroom fully submerged in the Indian Ocean. The suite, called the Muraka (‘coral’ in the Maldives’ Dhivehi language), will have an area of 193 sq. ft. where the bedroom and bathroom floors sit 16 ft below sea level. The guests can enjoy a 360-degree view of the marine life and the coral reef through the aquarium-like windows.

The country is one of the most sought-after destinations for honeymoon and wedding segments. “Maldives is 1 per cent land and 99 per cent water. So we are trying to explore and offer luxurious and beautiful underwater experiences to the guests,” said Mohamed. “Night diving is becoming very popular of late. We are also planning to establish full-fledged underwater hotels and resorts”.

The GCC is not a big source market for the Maldives but from a yield perspective, it is a very critical region. “It also helps that being a Muslim country, the food served is 100 per cent Halal. However, liquor and pork are available in luxury hotels and resorts. Besides, the dress code is also fully relaxed within the confines of the resorts.”

From India, Maharashtra, New Delhi, Karnataka and Kerala send most number of tourists to the Maldives. High net worth travellers from India and the GCC prefer the country especially due to the presence of hotel chains like the Taj and Jumeirah. To drive sustainability efforts, the government has now introduced a green tax.

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