Hotel Insider sits with Abdulla Mausoom, Minister of Tourism, to talk about the Maldives’ stunning shift towards recovery, the minister’s expectations for the industry, important successes like the establishment of a travel bubble with a major source market, and when we can truly say we’re back in business.
Hotel Insider: Since reopening in July 2020, tourist arrivals have outperformed expectations. What do you think are the main factors behind this robust recovery?
Abdulla Mausoom: It has met our expectations, initially we projected 750,000, later we adjusted for one million and we reached this target ahead of time. So it became 1.3 million.
I think one of the main factors is our geographical advantage – the one island-one resort concept really helped.
We also had a very unified approach, with President’s office overseeing COVID-19 management and tourism management. Both public and private sectors were working together, and their contributions were key to our recovery too.
We also received the vaccine much earlier than anticipated and the government prioritised tourism sector employees for vaccination. That was an important contribution along with the good word-of-mouth from the tourists. Also, excellent foreign relations played a key role as well as establishing travel corridors with nearby mega-market India.
We have a very simple protocol – we wanted to ensure that we kept tourism going with the greatest possible levels of safety for the tourists, industry workers and the public. We were very transparent.
Plus, the commitment from the airlines in the early days and from tourist properties, who chose to operate on a loss. We worked with the notion ‘together we can’. All of these factors contributed greatly to our recovery.
Hotel Insider: How much of a gamble was reopening borders to visitors from all countries? Could you explain the decision-making process and do you think the Maldives benefited from a ‘first mover advantage’?
Abdulla Mausoom: Keeping the border closed was never an option, we had to find out how to operate during the crisis and re-open our borders to everyone. It was a hard, courageous decision taken by the President, taken after a lengthy consultation process with all relevant stakeholders. We had the blessings of international organisations, other nations and our geography played to our advantage. After we opened up, in the first two weeks we saw less than a thousand tourists. As the weeks went by though, we realised we were on the right track. Uncertainty remained of course, and we were very cautious – we wanted to make sure we had reasonable safety. The one island-one resort concept was our testing ground, it formed natural bubbles for controlling COVID. Having the country prepared for any medical eventuality, we opened with infrastructure in place for managing incidents should they occur.
The Maldives was also a forerunner in many campaigns, we conducted a lot of PR related activities to enhance and maintain the Maldives’ global presence. With collaboration from MACL, the department of immigration and our ministry, we started the first loyalty programme for a country. We were ahead of the pack in getting the WTO tourism and travel council’s safety stamp. We introduced a domestic COVID insurance scheme, and an inbound insurance scheme that was among the first of its kind. We got the world’s leading destination award in the wake of 3-V tourism and CNN dubbed us as the ‘international tourism success story of 2020’.
Hotel Insider: A key part of your job since assuming office last year must have been negotiating with governments that had issued travel advisories against visiting the Maldives. What challenges did you face in those talks? And what were some notable successes?
Abdulla Mausoom: I think the President’s foreign policy and the foreign minister Abdulla Shahid’s proactive engagement along with the engagement of our foreign missions and our desire to be part of the global arena helped overcome serious challenges, while we were ‘alienated’ from the global community some years back. Each country would have its own measures and protocols, of course. Nonetheless, as I’ve mentioned earlier, we managed to establish a travel bubble with India, which is now a major source market, and we were in negotiations with other countries to do the same. We have reasonable ease of travel with almost all nations. We were saddened that the UK had us on a red list after the South Asian ‘spike’. I think we encouraged confidence through our transparency and we took care of everybody who visited. And tourists real felt cared for, they spread the word that the Maldives was safe. And of course, the statistics of cases and vaccine rates helped immensely.
Hotel Insider: Both the World Bank and the Maldives Monetary Authority forecast 1.4 million tourist arrivals for 2022. The former does not expect the record 1.7 million arrivals of 2019 to be reached until 2023. But your forecast for next year is two million tourists. What are the reasons for your optimism?
Abdulla Mausoom: You have to consider that right now, we are here without China, which contributed 19 percent to the market, and also Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand. We don’t have these markets at the moment. Soon, though, we are going to have new air connections. Mongolian tourists, for instance, are going to start coming. We are hoping China will open at least by the last quarter of next year. As it is, we’re at the 2019 levels of monthly arrivals. In 2019, we saw 1.7 million tourists. And right now, we’ve almost reached that level without all of these key markets. I’d say two million is actually ‘easy peasy’.
Hotel Insider: The temporary closure of borders to South Asian countries and the impact of the Delta variant on traditional markets earlier this year caused significant setbacks. What external factors or risks that could threaten the recovery concern you the most?
Abdulla Mausoom: That was the time that I had a strong debate with the HPA and with some media. My argument was that our spike had nothing to do with South Asian tourists. It had more to do with the local council election at the time, and immediately after that we had Ramadan – it was again a time where families and friends drew close physically. Maldives figures also hit the ceiling at this time, but before we closed the border, the South Asian tourists who visited us had negative PCR tests. And those who left also had negative PCR tests.
Hotel Insider: What criteria should we use to judge whether the industry has fully recovered? Is it the rehiring of all laid off workers or the restoration of deducted pay and pre-pandemic levels of revenue for resorts? When do you expect this to happen?
Abdulla Mausoom: Those two factors you’ve mentioned are very important determinants. The government invested a lot in sustaining small and medium businesses through loan schemes. Right now, I’d say we’re almost there in terms of facilities in operation, but among the hardest hit areas is Addu City, whose two main resorts closed with COVID. I think they closed out of panic, they did not envision our recovery. But I’m happy that at least one resort is expected to open in the coming months. So, the resorts need to be open, and the small and medium industries around tourism need to be back to their pre-pandemic levels, as well as employment in this sector. But of course, though we’re very happy to have almost made it out of the wilderness, the industry recorded huge losses. And unlike other types of businesses, in tourism if a day is lost, it is lost. Those who had a healthy cashflow are back in business while others are having a harder time. But many high market resorts had the best December last year. I hope 2022 will be the golden year for us, and that we will be truly back in business.