Shriharan Balan

7 mins read

Sriharan Balan (Shri) from Madura Travel Service Pvt Ltd, heads a 37-year-old company based in Chennai, India, specialising in handling VVIP clients. The business, founded by his father, grew from modest beginnings as a ticketing office in the 80’s and now has branches across Tamil Nadu. 

Madura Travel’s primary interest lies in MICE and VVIP travellers – they recently brought a Malaysian cabinet minister to the Maldives. Though very familiar with top-tier resorts in the Maldives, Shri believes there is enormous untapped potential for mid-market and budget travellers in the Maldives.   

Hotel Insider: Could you tell us what Indians look for when travelling to the Maldives? 

Shri: They are very different from European travellers. Indians won’t lie on the beach looking at the sky usually, that’s more a European thing. Indians want to have excitement and adventure, they want to do activities. If they sit still, they’ll be bored. And of course, they want those Instagrammable shots. If you give them things to do, sights to see, they’d be more than happy. Oh, and one more thing, they need their food and love a good deal.

Hotel Insider: What kind of market does the Maldives attract? 

Shri: It’s mostly the honeymoon market, at least from our experience and we have been doing business for the past thirty odd years. I’d say about sixty percent of those bookings are honeymooners. They like to be active but they are different from European honeymooners because they take shorter vacations. Four days is about average for an Indian holiday. 

As for celebrities and affluent travellers, they like places where they are unlikely to be mobbed and photographed, so properties like Soneva Fushi, Soneva Jani. Very private, posh, and discreet hotels.

The high-end resorts here attract a very elite and small pool of clients. But the middle-class is also fond of travelling, and their numbers have surged especially in the past decade. And recently, after COVID, Indians have come to believe the Maldives is a dream destination. But they are budget conscious, love new experiences, but maybe a little bit wary of the water because most of them haven’t grown up around the sea. They would be very keen on local island experiences, and I think there is great room for a more cost-sensitive segment to explore the Indian market.

Hotel Insider: So, COVID did help us out a bit with getting some attention from Indians.

Shri: Yes, prior to COVID, the Maldives was seen as inaccessible except to the very rich. Beaches don’t excite the normal Indian person, especially those from the South. But what happened during COVID was that the Maldives was the only place that was open for tourism. So, a lot of Indian travel agents started promoting the Maldives. 

Hotel Insider: I guess it also helps that we’re right next door.

Shri: That is a big help. You have flights from a number of key cities flying directly to the Maldives. So, we have about 500 million middle class Indians who’d love to explore the Maldives but not at typical resort rates. This gives the Maldives an opportunity to promote budget friendly stays and activities and change the perception among middle-class Indians.

There’s a dip in bookings to the Maldives again because the rest of the world is receiving tourists. But there is untapped potential here. Places like Singapore too are looking now at the young generation. The Gen Z’s – they are trying to capture more of that market. They are explorers and like millennials they also value experiences over possessions. They are always online and they book at a whim. So, if they see a great deal, they’ll snap it up just like that.

If Maldivian operators can put together great packages for Gen-Z, like combine a series of experiences, which of course you have a lot of, I’m certain you’d see results very soon.

Hotel Insider: How would you describe the role of influencers in the Indian market?

Shri: Influencers obviously attract a lot of attention, and I think it’s important to form alliances with them to promote new experiences especially. Most of the influencers though are showcasing very elite lifestyles and experiences and these wouldn’t be accessible to the middle class. But you could partner with influencers to show them a different kind of experience in the Maldives. You see, Switzerland was once very much concerned with having only the elite travellers. But now, they’re welcoming backpacker travellers and hostels are doing very well. Backpacking is making Europe much more accessible.

Hotel Insider: We’ve seen homestays become another accommodation option here. Do you think this might appeal to budget-conscious Indian travellers?

Shri: Definitely. They would love to have an authentic experience with a Maldivian family, maybe enjoy home-cooked meals. And the hosts could tell guests where to go and what to do, become guides to the island or city. If you could pack all this in a great, cost-friendly package there’d be a lot of potential.