We sat down with Thoyyib Mohamed, the MD of MMPRC, and had a chat about the corporation’s work over the past year and what it will focus on in 2020. We learned that roadshows are going to play a major part in MMPRC’s marketing efforts, as will increased digital and social media campaigns.

Infrastructure needs to keep up with the pace of tourism development and present challenges currently, as have concentrated tourism development in Male’ Atoll over the last few years. Meanwhile, the Maldives enjoys a popularity and presence like never before and with these come opportunities.

Hotel Insider: So, let’s start with the main focus of MMPRC for the coming year.

Thoyyib Mohamed: I think for now, we need to kickstart our marketing efforts. We did a performance audit when we took over last year and we found many areas that require improvement. We can’t address everything all at once, obviously, so we’ve prioritised and decided on conducting activities in different parts of the world. Marketing activities, that is – short term events that will produce results quickly. We’ve increased travel trade fairs, and, after a brief hiatus, we’ve resumed roadshows. We’ve planned to have more of them [roadshows] in markets that are showing potential. We’ve conducted a lot of online campaigns this year and we hope to do more in 2020, with the likes of Tripadvisor, Agoda – a significant number of guests book online so these platforms cannot be ignored. A great part of our budget will be devoted to effective online campaigning next year.

Hotel Insider: It’s a good time to increase marketing efforts because resorts are reporting drops in year-round occupancy rates. And more resorts are in the pipeline. What do you think is going to happen to occupancy rates then?

Thoyyib Mohamed: Every property has to put in the effort to market themselves, it’s very competitive now, and you have to do a lot more to stand out. There’s no scarcity any more. People all over the world are imitating the Maldives now, be it Dubai or the Caribbean. So, as the world changes, there’s a responsibility on behalf of individuals to put in the time and effort [in marketing their property]. As for us, we have an obligation to ramp-up our marketing efforts because we have a considerable budget. And the government puts a lot of emphasis in working with the private sector when promoting the destination. We’ve had two major brainstorming sessions with marketeers from the private sector, one of which was held last month [November]. And we’ve produced the marketing plan for next year based on our consultations with these marketeers.

And like you’ve said, we’ve seen a huge increase in bed capacity because we worked without a masterplan. And previously, we’ve seen developments far beyond Male’ Atoll, all under a plan to increase tourism presence in the outer atolls. This gave investors confidence to invest in these developments. But then we saw the islands and lagoons of Male’ Atoll being sold and developed without any consideration, and now the entire model has changed. These are challenges. We’re going to have to overcome them and we will. The Maldives, as a destination, as a brand, is enjoying a popularity the likes of which we haven’t seen. So, with that will come opportunity.

Hotel Insider: We also wanted to talk about the Chinese market. Chinese outbound tourism is on the rise globally with 166 million trips out of the country reported this year. And first quarter results from the tourism ministry look promising. What do you think is happening with the Chinese market?

Thoyyib Mohamed: I think we’re going to see even more Chinese tourists coming in, there’s interest in our destination but the issue is the bottleneck created by the airport. That’s a big challenge and that needs to be addressed quickly. Because there are so many airlines that want a slot at Velana International Airport. Like I’ve said, we’ve made huge gains in visibility and popularity abroad. People want to come but they have no means, connectivity-wise. And when they do get here, internal transport has so many issues, with seaplanes not being able to stick to schedules because of congestion. There are a lot of infrastructure issues – our infrastructure needs to keep up with the pace of tourism development.

When you consider a nearby destination like India, which is performing extraordinarily now, it’s greatly because of connectivity. There are several regular carriers from different cities, and they have a couple of budget airlines, so it’s easy for people to travel here. There are issues for long-haul carriers and for South East Asian carriers. They still don’t have the opportunity.

Let me get back to China again. There’s a billion people there and only a fraction of them visit the country. There is great potential still, and we still haven’t fully tapped into the very high-end Chinese travel market. But in addition to our infrastructural development, a lot depends on the stability of the political climate when it comes to Chinese guests. If the government issues a directive declaring the Maldives is unsafe, they won’t come here.

Hotel Insider: You’ve said one reason the Indian market is performing so well is because of connectivity.

Thoyyib Mohamed: Yes, but we’ve also increased our marketing efforts in India – you’d see the Maldives advertised in cinemas, in social media, and we’re working with different Indian airlines. It’s the same with China, we have teamed up with the Chinese in 11 major cities to promote the Maldives. And we’ve partnered with Singapore Airlines and Air Asia, with the former, we’re working in around nine markets. It’s not just connectivity, there’s a lot going on in terms of increasing presence and visibility of the brand Maldives.

Hotel Insider: I’d also like to talk about the US market, which is now in our top ten. They have similar sorts of destinations nearby with the Caribbean countries, but why do they take ultra-long-haul flights to come here?

Thoyyib Mohamed: It’s all about creating a demand and being visible. Once there’s demand for a place, people will do whatever it takes to get there. A twenty-four-hour flight is nothing when at the end of it, they arrive at their dream destination. We’ve worked with a lot of PR firms and travel magazines in America and it’s showing, we’re seeing results. Americans travel after making plans months beforehand. It’s the same with Europeans. And if they like the product, they’ll keep on coming.

Also, people’s travel habits have changed, they want experiences. It’s all about experiential travel now. They want to experience a mangrove or bicycle through a forest, they want to taste an authentic Maldivian meal, to mingle with the locals, see how toddy is made. They account for over 70 per cent of travellers. This is what research has revealed. They care about sustainability, they want to give back to the local economy, they want local arts and crafts. That’s how most Americans, Europeans and even those from Asian countries travel now.

Also, we’ve seen a rise in solo travellers, especially in the short-haul market. They want an escape from their environment for short periods, several times a year. The patterns are changing, like I’ve said.

Hotel Insider: All right. Before we part, what are your thoughts on the Middle Eastern market? We’ve heard that Israel is performing exceptionally well.

Thoyyib Mohamed: We’ve seen a year-on-year increase in the Israeli market, it’s a great place with a lot of potential, for both high-end and budget tourism options. And the Middle East, of course, is one of the high-yield markets. But it’s hard to tap into them because of visa restrictions [for Maldivians] but we’re making progress.

Hotel Insider: Thank you, Thoyyib, it’s been very insightful.