Hotel Insider sits down with Abdulla Thamheed, a homegrown general manager who oversees The Sun Siyam Iru Fushi in Noonu Atoll. Thamheed speaks about his introduction to hospitality, the milestones of his career, what’s good about operating a resort in Noonu Atoll, and, as this issue celebrates working women, ways to increase women’s participation in tourism.

Hotel Insider: So how did you get started in hospitality?

Abdulla Thamheed: Well, I’m from Addu Atoll and back when I was young, in the 80s, we didn’t have many opportunities in the atoll. My father was working in tourism back then and once I’d finished school, he wanted me to join him at Villivaru and Biyaadhoo, two nearby resorts that was under the same management. I joined as a helper at the bar. I was fresh out of school, just 15 years of age. And after a year, I was promoted to a waiter. I kept on getting promotions, moving from one resort to the other. That’s how it all started really, it wasn’t ever intentional, but after a while, I thought that tourism was the only real industry in the Maldives, and that seemed an obvious fact. So I thought, you might as well do what you’re doing to
the best of your ability.

Hotel Insider: What do you consider your milestones, so far?

Abdulla Thamheed: I started very humbly, but today I’m group general manager of the Sun Siyam Resorts. I consider that my biggest success. And here at Iru Fushi, I’ve been able to win a number of awards for the Sun Siyam Group, including several World Travel Awards for Sun Siyam Iru Fushi.

Hotel Insider: What are three qualities that anyone who wants to succeed in hospitality needs today?

Abdulla Thamheed: Honesty and integrity are important, not just in hospitality but in any industry. You also need strong work ethics. If you’re a leader, you need fairness, that is a very important quality to have in anybody in a leadership position.

Hotel Insider: Let’s talk about the atoll. What do you think are the draws here, why should tourists come to Noonu?

Abdulla Thamheed: In the Maldives every atoll is essentially the same, made up of small islands, they all have beautiful sandy beaches and beautiful lagoons. But the real draw, I think, is the culture and the people. Here, in Noonu Atoll, the cultural component is very strong in my opinion. The atoll demonstrates a very authentic Maldives, more so than other atolls, at least ones that I have worked in. Noonu Atoll has stronger traditions, that’s one of its key unique selling points. It’s unlike central atolls, like Male Atoll or Ari Atoll where these traditions are vanishing. But the spirit is very much alive here, and resorts should take advantage of it.

Hotel Insider: How are you taking advantage of this?

Abdulla Thamheed: Well, we get guests involved in community development programmes that the resort undertakes. We have a programme, ‘Pack for Purpose’, where we have guests come with school accessories in their luggage and donate to the schools on the islands. We also empower local farmers by sourcing our produce from them, and we have a dedicated island for growing produce where we employ farmers from the atoll.

Hotel Insider: What is it like operating a hotel in Noonu Atoll? Is competition fierce? You’ve got some of the most upscale resorts up here.

Abdulla Thamheed: It’s true that Noonu Atoll has become a very high-end destination in the country. We’ve got some of the most luxurious brands here. But we don’t really compete with them, our market segment is different, we operate on a different level. Overall, having these luxury properties is really good for the atoll as a destination and also for us because we get exposure being in proximity to these places. It’s good for our brand to have these super-luxury properties nearby.

Hotel Insider: You talked about awards earlier, and one thing really struck me: your spa has received accolades for four consecutive years. Why do you think this is? Can we talk about that?

Abdulla Thamheed: Our spa is one of the largest and one of the most luxurious spas in the country. Of course, our affiliate brand is an outstanding spa brand, Thalgo, from France, and the branding of the spa itself has helped greatly in achieving those awards. I can confidently say that our spa has won these awards because it really deserves to win.

Hotel Insider: Let’s get back to you. As a Maldivian GM, do you feel there’s opportunity in the Maldives for locals to achieve your sort of success? To become GMs?

Abdulla Thamheed: I think there’s opportunity in the Maldives for Maldivians to manage hotels. It depends very much on the path you choose. Sometimes, some Maldivians would prefer to work for an international brand and stay in middle management for ten, fifteen years without having much personal growth. But there are a lot of local owners, like Mr Siyam, who’re extremely passionate and committed to developing Maldivians to management level. And I think if you stay with a Maldivian owned hotel, who subscribes to that idea of developing people to take charge, there’s more of a chance for you to climb through the ranks to the top. I’d say it would be easier for Maldivians to work for local owners and achieve success.

Hotel Insider: What would you say to someone who aspires to have a position like yours?

Abdulla Thamheed: My advice to them will be to stay focussed on their goals and to work hard to achieve them. If they’re capable of maintaining their focus, they could end up very successful.

Hotel Insider: Before we wind up; as this issue celebrates working women, what do you think is stopping women from engaging more robustly in tourism?

Abdulla Thamheed: It’s a complex issue, I think. We haven’t had tourism for very long here, the industry is relatively young, some forty years or so since it established itself here. For a long time, women worked at home, they did household chores, looked after children, that’s the kind of life they’d had till fairly recently. So it will take time for perceptions to change about the role of women. And there needs to be a change. We need all stakeholders, including the government and hotel management, to incentivise women to work in the industry. I believe we’re on the right path, the process could be speedier but things are changing. We’re already seeing women in high positions in hospitality. I remember when I started out, the standards we had then, and what we have now. Compared to those days it’s an immense achievement. We’ve made quite a bit of progress and I think things can only improve.