This issue of Hotel Insider is dedicated to dive and water sports and in our cover story, we are going to take a look into this important segment of the Maldivian tourism industry.

Diving into numbers

According to the February 2018 Maldives Visitor Survey published by the Maldives’ ministry of tourism this March, relaxation and honeymoon are, unsurprisingly perhaps, the top two reasons why people visit our islands. Coming in third for the purpose of visit, though, is snorkelling and diving.

20 per cent of respondents stated diving as their main purpose of coming here. And when the data is observed by nationality; it’s the Germans and the Swiss that appear to be most interested in water-based activities. Around 40 per cent of the German tourists said they were in Maldives for snorkelling while 38 per cent of Swiss tourists also stated the same. On the other hand, nationalities that showed the least enthusiasm for snorkelling and diving were Indian, Arab and Russian.

Now we’ve already established the things people usually come here for. But can you guess what they most liked about the Maldives? A staggering 62 per cent of the visitor survey respondents stated the underwater life to be what they most liked about the country. And for one to experience Maldives’ underwater beauty, one must dive, snorkel or go down in a submarine.

Furthermore, while 91 per cent of the survey participants expressed their intentions of visiting the country again, diving, snorkelling and underwater life were among the top reasons why they wanted to come back.

97 per cent of the survey respondents said they’d recommend the Maldives too, and while the top reason for their recommendation was the country’s natural beauty, the second was snorkelling and diving.

The participants of the survey considered diving and water sports activities offered by the resorts here to be value for money. 3 per cent thought diving was cheap, 54 per cent thought it was value for money and 43 per cent considered it expensive; the numbers were the same for excursions. As for other sports activities, 4 per cent said it was cheap, 57 per cent said it was value for money and 39 per cent said it was expensive.

That’s it for the stats, and now we’ll move on to look at some of the changes that have taken place within the dive and water sports industry.

Changing gear

In the 70s when tourism started in the Maldives, most of the people who came here were sea enthusiasts. They were cruising on safari boats, with sails before the boats got motorised; they were surfing, diving, snorkelling, and fishing, living the Robinson Crusoe life. Now, years later, things have obviously taken on a more glamorous turn as the Maldives successfully branded itself as a luxury destination. However, water-based activities continue. CEO of Ocean Group, Hussein Zahid, says when the company got into the dive and water sports business back in the 90s, only non-motorised water sports like windsurfing and catamaran sailing were mainstream. That’s quite different to what we see today.

“Ocean Group introduced many innovative products to the water sports arena including adrenaline-pumping hydro-sports X-Jets Jetpack and X-Jets Jetblade. We’re also the first in the world to launch a three dome DeepFlight Super Falcon 3S submarine in the Maldives.” Zahid says.

Besides the introduction of hi-tech sports gear, what resorts expect from dive and water sports service providers seem to be changing too. The days when different operators deliver different components of water sports are slowly fading away. And taking their place are water sports companies that provide an all-encompassing service.

Speaking to us about this change is the general manager of Sea Gear Hussen Abdulla. Though Sea Gear is a relatively new company, their parent company Silver Sands is a long-time dive, water sports and excursions service provider who also pioneered the concept of providing a total water sports solution to tourist resorts.

“No one else was doing it so it became the benchmark for others,” Hussen said while recalling the time when Silver Sands got into the business in 2006. “They began with W Maldives, one of the trendiest brands to establish themselves here. Say a guest wanted a sunset cruise on a luxury yacht – well, Silver Sands could do that. So, this total solution concept really caught on.”

Hussen also believes it’s important for water sports services to be well integrated with the brands of individual resorts. “Like at W, you can’t tell that the dive centre is a third party, it’s called Down Under and is very much part of the resort.”

The many ways to dive

Now, let’s have a look at diving. It’s undeniably one major water-based activity, and one that’s begun to evolve during the last few years too.

Divers who come to the Maldives used to have two options. They could either stay at one of the many resorts and have their dives organised by the dive centres at those properties, or they could opt for a liveaboard and tour popular dive sites. But the last five years or so has seen the boom of a new option, diving from local islands.

A lot of these islands now have PADI five-star dive centres that can rival tourist resorts in terms of high-quality gear, safety and dive experience. For example, many of them now offer top-notch safety equipment and features such as Nitrox for reduced decompression risks and BAUER Pure Air Stations.

“Many of the dive centres on local islands are founded by those leaving the luxury industry,” says Ali Miuraj, owner of Fulidhoo Dive. Fulidhoo Dive, located in Vaavu Atoll’s Fulidhoo island is one of the dive centres leading this third option for diving. “This allows us to offer a high standard of service at an affordable price. Apart from that, local islands have so many other cultural experiences to offer, and this makes it a great option for divers who come with non-diving family members,” he says.

The future of diving though is in peril. The 2016 El Nino’s devastation swept through large swaths of our reefs, leaving them bleached and lifeless. Park Hyatt Hadahaa’s base leader for dive and activities Rilwan Mohamed believes there’s not much we can do. “But we remain positive and hope that we can find ways of mitigating the effects in the coming years. For the moment, we can be happy as the corals are recovering.”