2022 is a landmark year for the Maldivian tourism industry. This is the year which the country is celebrating 50 years of beach island tourism under the banner ‘Golden Jubilee Year 2022’. Many milestones have been reached and celebrated this year along with Ministry of Tourism, industry partners and stakeholder agencies. One such celebration has been the arrival of one millionth visitor of 2022 in August of this year.
As the industry stakeholders colorfully welcomed the Czech national Daniela Kilnarova at Velana Internaional Airport (VIA), the experience of many tourists arriving into the Maldives is very much different. Yes, the warm Maldivian hospitality is offered by the Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL), Immigration and resort staff based at VIA, but this welcoming experience many times become overshadowed by the challenges tourists feel at the airport.
Air Transport and Tourism Industry
Air transportation is a crucial link for the ever-expanding global tourism industry. Records estimate that over 50 percent of all international tourists travel by air, illustrating the intertwined and crucial dependency between the aviation sector and tourism industry for sustainable growth. In the Maldivian context, this is very true for the country’s tourism industry, which is almost entirely dependent on-air transportation for tourist arrivals and departures from different parts of the world.
According to a 2018 report by International Air Transport Association (IATA) titled ‘The importance of air transport to the Maldives’, air transport market in the Maldives is forecasted to grow by 154 percent in the next 20 years. Essentially, what this would mean is an additional 4.7 million passenger departures by 2038. If this forecast is met, it would also mean an increased demand would support approximately USD $8 billion of GDP and around 92,000 jobs.
The biggest gateway to Maldives is the Velana International Airport (VIA), operated MACL; a 100 percent government owned limited liability company incorporated under the Companies Act of the Republic of Maldives.
What is wrong with the Airport?
A key factor impacting tourist experience and satisfaction is the heat at the arrival gate areas. Due to the lack of adequate and well positioned cooling system, the area is like a boiling pot of heat and heated emotions. While this is the experience of all the tourists irrespective of geography, this is mostly true for tourists arriving from regions with predominantly cooler weather.
This is especially critical given the composition of the top 10 markets for Maldives as of 14th August 2022. The data published by Ministry of Tourism includes the countries UK, Russia, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, and Switzerland in this particular list. The discomfort and frustrations caused by this heat intensify other minor issues or discomfort that tourists feel, overall, negatively impacting the first experience in Maldives.
Due to both limited or lack of human and capacity issues at the airport, many times unforeseen circumstances play out. During these times, there is a high propensity to negatively impact overall tourist experience. Long and delayed immigration queues, busy runways causing flight delays, or unavailability of luggage belts due to back-to-back flights has meant that the time taken to do all clearance and exit the arrival gate gets delayed.
As a result, it has led to instances where tourists have missed their connecting domestic flights or speed boats. Unless the tourist has had specific travel insurance, in such unfortunate circumstances, they have to pay out of pocket to either book a private transfer, or stay the night at a hotel to join a speed boat, sea plane or a flight the following day.
This adds greatly to the expenses of the guest and most importantly, affect the experiences of the guests who have had arrived with an expectation to start their relaxed beach holiday without hiccups.
At the moment, the speed boat parking area is space utilized by speed boats which caters to tourists travelling to both resorts and to the guest houses in local islands. Due to the high traffic, many times this results in speed boats waiting in queue. Tourists on the other hand, who have been given an itinerary with specified timings - such as departure from the airport withing 30 to 45 minutes have to subsequently wait longer at the airport, adding on to the exasperation, and to the number of tourists at the airport.
During peak hours, the seating capacity outside the arrival terminal does not cater to the tourists arriving. While only a few resorts have the lounge services, the remaining resorts with counters have to seat their guests at different locations in the airport due to the seating challenges.
While some resorts send their guests to the area with food outlets, this area becomes packed quite quickly and thus, other resorts see that their guests struggle to get any seating at all, while waiting to be transported to their final destination. This is also identified as a major issue for resorts operating on scheduled transfers than on arrival-based transfers.
During rainy days, the water from the ceilings leak and flow on to some of the resort counters. This results in huge challenges to offer services to tourists. This also results in damages to the counters, which is visible, thus giving an overall unprofessional impression.
While Maldives is marketed as a premium tourist destination, there is also a flourishing market for the guests travelling to experience the local tourism. However, when it comes to merchandise, there are no price differences to cater to these different market segments at the airport.
Tourists who frequently travel and are aware of the average costs of products, express their dismay at how high some basic products are priced. Particular objections are laid out for items such as SIM cards or sunscreen, which has an extremely high mark up.
What is being done?
To meet the increasing international and domestic passengers, MACL has projects under way to develop and expand the airport. Plans are underway in the development of the new terminal. This is a USD 300 million project with an area of 78,000 square meters that can accommodate up to 7.5 million passengers annually. Along with aero boarding bridges and modern baggage handling systems, the new terminal will also host a wide range of F&B outlets, retail spaces, lounges, and other services.
The airport expansion projects are promising, however, there is consensus that this development is coming at the expense of the present arrival terminal and the services it provides. Unfortunately, these issues have negative repercussions on tourist impression and satisfaction. The luxury tourist destination image of Maldives spills over to the airport as well, thus the expectation of travelers is held at the same level as their holiday destination. Until the project completes, there is an urgent need to address the current issues faced by tourists arriving in Maldives.
NOTE: MFR had reached out to MACL to get an input from the Company. There has been no response till this article was published.