This time around, Hotel Insider speaks with the minister of tourism Ali Waheed. Ali Waheed is arguably the youngest person to have made a successful career in politics though it is not a topic we touch upon in this interview. We talk instead of tapping into new markets, airport development and its impact on the industry, particularly occupancy, integrated tourism development projects, and the possibility of re-introducing helicopters, among others.

Hotel Insider: There’s a trend of declining occupancy among resorts but we’re seeing their numbers increase. What do you make of this?

Ali Waheed: Since our government took over last year, we’ve been concerned mainly with the drop in Chinese guests. In my view, a key issue was putting islands out there [to be developed as resorts] without a masterplan. The government’s plan now is to increase bed capacity but in a way that ties in with President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s pledges. There were several islands and lagoons that were earmarked for development in the government gazette when we took over but we removed them [from the gazette]. When we mark islands for development, we will do so after a thorough review process and we’ll ensure that it’s done in alignment with our manifesto, our five-year plan. Our development policy revolves around both economic and environmental sustainability. If you take Maafushi for an example, guesthouses there have to look at Vaavu Atoll for excursions because all the nearby islands and lagoons are under development. We don’t want that to be the case.

Hotel Insider: You mentioned that you’re concerned about the drop in the Chinese market. Could you tell us your plans to address that?

Ali Waheed: While we’re on the subject, let me also add India to this. It’s a huge market as well, even a fraction of travellers in a country with over a billion people is still very significant. And we’re right next door to each other. I don’t believe we’ve tapped into the potential of that market over the years. I’ll be visiting India and China as well, and we’re looking to work with the Chinese authorities and with the Maldives Association for Tourism Industry (MATI) and see how we can transform our marketing efforts.

Hotel Insider: How much of an impact do you think the [Velana International] airport development project will have on tourism? There are some who believe this will give great relief to occupancy issues in resorts.

Ali Waheed: It will take two to three years to complete the airport project. We need some temporary measures, though, to address congestion and we’ll work on having those in place in time for the high season this year. Once developed, the airport will be notable for its uniqueness and we aim to endow it with a distinctively Maldivian character. The main gateway to the country needs to emphasise its uniqueness and beauty because a tourist’s experience begins and ends there. I think, moreover, that other international and domestic airports need further development, including those in Addu and Fuvahmulah. Addu airport needs to be able to cater to the influx of travellers now that it has two carriers coming in. We also want those airports to highlight the specific beauty of the region, like the wetlands and tiger sharks in Fuvahmulah if you’re arriving there. Domestic travels should also be a more pleasant experience.

Hotel Insider: But do you think the [Velana] airport project will address occupancy issues?

Ali Waheed: Yes I believe it will. And to address occupancy, I think there are markets nearby that are worth exploiting. One of them, as I’ve said is India, with more than 80,000 visitors in 2017. And I don’t think that’s close to what we could potentially get from the country.

Hotel Insider: We’re in a very good position to market ourselves because we’ve got more beds than ever. You’ve mentioned India, where else should we be looking at?

Ali Waheed: My thinking is that we’ll work closely with the ministry of foreign affairs to ensure that all our ambassadors are also ambassadors for tourism. They will actively promote the country abroad. We also need to go beyond the European paradigm, think the Americas. We’re seeing increases in the number of visitors from those two continents. In addition to that, I feel we need to explore opportunities in regions that are much closer to us in comparison, like South East Asia. We haven’t really touched the Malaysian and Thai markets for instance.

Hotel Insider: I also wanted to ask you about the integrated tourism projects in Addu and Laamu Atolls. Are those still ongoing?

Ali Waheed: We’re actually thinking of developing five zones in the Maldives and that’s the ministry of planning’s vision as well. So, tourism development will follow that course. When I think of Addu and the southern atolls, I realise that there have to be special incentives. Expectations are very high down south. President Solih wants the atolls to be empowered and developed and to reap the benefits of tourism as he has pledged. A small thing we did recently was reducing domestic air fare, one of our pledges. They want tourists to be able to visit their atolls at a reasonable fare. We need to think from an entirely different perspective about southern atolls like Addu.

And on the matter of integrated tourism development projects, we need to urgently consider them (MITDC) on the policy level. If those models are to continue, we need to amend certain laws. And we will do this soon and see how we can manage such projects in those atolls.

Hotel Insider: There are a couple of flights coming in to Addu right now, thrice a week from Colombo and once a week from Johannesburg. These are good signs. The previous government talked of increasing bed supply down there by some 3000 beds as I recall. That will help lure flights and hopefully set up a domino effect.

Ali Waheed: I was fortunate to have met with South African Airlines representatives, and they envisage connecting Gan to Hong Kong, Perth and London. And there are other airlines that want to come in. So, yes, we need to increase bed capacity in Addu but at the same time, improve the connectivity between Addu, Fuvahmulah and Huvadhoo atolls. We’ll consider air connectivity, there is an air taxi base already. And why not explore helicopter options?

Hotel Insider: Because we haven’t had the best experience with them.

Ali Waheed: That was before. All in the past. Things are always improving. We need means to connect the islands, and we’re not a small nation. We are dispersed and this is a challenge. People in the atolls are very hopeful, they want to live in their home islands and be able to find work nearby, instead of having to come to the capital. My deepest wish is for tourism to be so pervasive that people really feel no need to come to Male for employment.

Hotel Insider: Thank you, Minister. It’s been a pleasure.