Hotel Insider sits down with Viraj Silva, the head of sales and marketing at Voyages Maldives to talk about the recent shifts in the major tourist arrival markets, seasonal changes in arrivals, and the factors that influence the numbers.
Hotel Insider: Let’s start with the Indian market. Indians are traveling more and the Maldives is becoming increasingly popular with them. They are now in our top five, and this wasn’t the case a few years ago. What do you think made us so popular with our big neighbour?
Viraj Silva: Yes, the numbers are growing. I can see the reason for that is the aggressive marketing and PR in the Indian market. A lot of resorts are targeting the Indian market as well. Ever since the introduction of direct flights from Mumbai and Delhi, you can see a lot of low-cost carriers operating such as GoAir and IndiGo. And from various cities as well. So, I think that’s the main reason for the boom. The holiday prices are more affordable for the Indian market. Previously it was just Indian Airlines and Srilankan Airlines, where they had to travel for a day, either via Colombo or Bangalore to reach Maldives. Now they can reach here within 3 to 4 hours. So that’s money well spent.
Hotel insider: Up until a few years ago, European markets used to be the top three. Now we are seeing a shift. What do you make of this?
Viraj Silva: I think it’s because of the uncertainty in the region, especially in the UK, because of Brexit. It’s one of the main markets for us. And It’s a very traditional market. An average holiday-maker will plan their holidays well in advance, sometimes it’s six months to one year in advance. But because of this uncertainty in the country, and the weaker pound, everyone is on the fence. Early bookings have changed. Everyone is on hold so we can see a drop there. It might pick up again after Brexit.
Also, external issues like security affect numbers. Incidents like the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka have a bit of an impact on us as well, because there are tour operators who promote twin holidays in Sri Lanka and Maldives. Following the bombings, the UK market completely dropped. And not only the UK but the whole European market as well. Also, a major tour operator, Thomas Cook, shutting down, and unrest in the region, like the strikes in France and Italy, create uncertainty as well. So, to give you a direct answer, I would say it’s because of Brexit and the uncertainty. And there are more last-minute enquiries from the European market than before.
Hotel Insider: Are more people going for online bookings and choosing to make their own travel plans rather than booking with a tour operators?
Viraj Silva: For traditional travellers, tour operators are still the safest way to travel. If you book a holiday with a tour operator, your holiday is secure, and you can get your money back so that security is a factor. But because of the issues that have risen with the tour operators recently, the trust is not that great for the average traveller. And the younger generations are more experience and adventure seekers so they really don’t want someone to plan their trip for them. They don’t want to stick to a particular package that you can buy off the shelf, so they like to design their own itineraries and travel their own way. That must be the reason why there’s more online traffic. If you look at booking.com, you’ll see they have aggressive marketing. Online bookings will increase but surely there’s a market for tour operators too, because of the price factor. That’s very important. And the middle age to older generations still want someone’s assistance with planning their holidays. Brand loyalty is another. For example, Kuoni are exploring different avenues to tap into different kinds of markets, not just the traditional high-end travellers. Although they are tour operators, they have become more flexible. They work more like travel designers than tour operators now. So, there is a huge market for tour operators too.
Hotel Insider: The US market is in our top ten. You would think that with the Caribbean so close, they wouldn’t go for the Maldives. What’s the allure for them? What makes them get on an ultra-long-haul flight to the Maldives?
Viraj Silva: We are seeing a lot of marketing and PR activities from various avenues, from MMPRC as well as individual resorts, which has not been there before. So, the awareness is building. Americans like to experience new destinations. They are willing to travel to faraway places as long as we make the destination attractive to them. That’s the reason why India attracts a lot of Americans. A lot of Americans travel to India just to experience the culture. When we met tour operators in the US, sometimes they didn’t even know where we are [geographically] located. So that awareness wasn’t there. For Maldives, the only other comparison would be French Polynesia. I think now they are getting fed up with the Caribbean and Tahiti so when they look for the next best destinations, Maldives is the next best. Again, the PR and the India-Maldives combination are factors.
And, a lot of international hotel chains have come here in the last few years. All those international brands are well-known in the US market and so they like to choose known brands like, St.Regis, Fairmont, W, Westin.
Millennials and budget-holidays makers, too, like to travel two to three times a year rather than spending on one long-haul holiday. Even from Europe, there are travellers who like to experience local culture, food, and others that a destination has to offer. I think that’s the trend. More millennials like to come to local islands and budget holidays.
Hotel Insider: Central and Eastern European markets are promising too. There was significant growth. What are your thoughts on them?
Viraj Silva: We have been seeing an increase there as well. Like Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. Again, for the guest house sector as well as high end resorts. For two reasons, again, air travel has become cheaper. And because of PR actives, there’s more awareness. Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria are the key countries that have shown an increase in arrivals.
Hotel Insider: The Middle Eastern market is also growing. I’ve heard from a senior industry expert that the Israeli market is particularly attractive with a lot of potential.
Viraj Silva: Of course. It has been there before as well. It’s just that very few travel agents have been concentrating on this market, for various reasons. We can see an increase in cruise-liner travel. There’s a huge cruise market. More cruise liners are coming into Maldives now and you can see a lot of Israeli groups coming in. Even if it’s for one night or excursions, and trips to the resorts. Plus, there are adventure seekers like surfers, so we can see a trend.
Hotel Insider: What are your top markets?
Viraj Silva: Our top markets are Italy, UK, Germany France and Switzerland. We represent lot of tour operators in those areas, and FIT bookings as well. Also, FIT bookings from Middle East and Asia.
Hotel Insider: Lastly, what kind of changes do you see seasonally in different markets?
Viraj Silva: Traditionally, the high season would be November to April while from May to October, we consider as low season. And in between, August is considered a high and shoulder season. But I’ve seen an increase in arrivals in May, when the weather is still nice. And it changes towards June and July, when the rainy season arrives. The rates are much lower in May than in the high season. So, because of that, I have seen an increase in that month. And then again, in October, just before the high season, with good rates and good weather, we have seen numbers increase as well. So, weather conditions are a factor. In December, we are supposed to see nice weather, but it’s raining. So environmental changes have an impact too. I hope it doesn’t change that much seasonally.
Hotel Insider: Thank you, Viraj, for your time. It was an interesting chat.