In a special interview to MFR to mark World Tourism Day on 27 September 2021, Minister of Tourism, Dr. Abdulla Mausoom, said that he anticipates a steep recovery in the last quarter of 2021, after the negative impacts felt with the COVID-19 pandemic. He further stated that growth is expected to continue in 2022, when the Maldives will mark 50 years to tourism, and will reach new heights.
Almost 115,000 tourists has arrived in the Maldives in September 2021, which is 12 times more than the number of arrivals over the same period last year. This is almost at the same level as pre-pandemic levels — when arrivals were 118,000 in September 2019. Arrivals in September followed a strong growth of 3 percent in August 2021, compared to pre-COVID 2019 levels and a total of over 870,000 tourists has arrive by the end of September 2021.
As such, despite the setback in April/June when arrivals dropped by 20 percent on a monthly basis when the country temporarily closed its borders to South Asian countries due to Delta variants of COVID-19, the country is now projected to surpass the initial estimate of 1 million arrivals and to reach a total of 1.3 million tourists by the end of 2021. With over 90 percent of the total 55,000 beds now in operation in resorts, hotels and guesthouses, and live-aboards and safaris, Dr. Mausoom believes the Maldives is doing much better now in terms of bed nights. He expects bed nights to reach 10 million by the end of 2021, which is almost the same as levesl in 2019, since the average stay has increased from six in 2019 to nine days in 2021.
India and Russia leading the way
As per source markets, after a record level of arrivals of over 54,000 from India in August 2021, largely due to transit Indian tourists, the minister believes that the Indian market will continue to grow and will be the number one market in 2021 with a market share of about 22 percent. He stressed the importance of the Indian market for the sector's recovery due to its large size and since it has the advantage of being close to the Maldives, which has enabled the industry to fill up shortages in the demand gap quickly.
The second major market which is driving recovery is the Russian market, which has a share of about 20 percent as of end-September 2021. Dr. Mausoom is very confident it may increase further if there are more flights from Russia to the Maldives. As to why the Russian market is doing so well, the minister explained that “in Russia, there is no travel restriction and Russian tourists have confidence in the Maldives.” As such, he thinks the key to recovery is "our loyal tourist base who have visited the Maldives repeatedly and who give a strong message that the Maldives is safe and that they are very comfortable to be in the Maldives."
As for the traditional markets in Europe, Germany has a six percent market share and is also expected to improve in the last quarter. In addition, since the Maldives has been removed from the UK’s red list on 22 September, a strong growth from this traditional market is also expected in the last quarter of the year. Last year, after the Maldives re-opened its border, there was an average 3,300 tourists visiting the Maldives from the UK per month. However, this year the average has dropped to about 2,100, especially in May when it dropped to 580 while the Maldives languished on the UK's red list. The minister is positive that this removal would also help with more travellers from other European countries.
One of the key measures which has enabled this positive result was the success in the Maldives’ vaccine rollouts, especially in the tourist industry. Almost 99 percent of industry staff have received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 93 percent are fully vaccinated — 85 percent of all eligible residents in the Maldives are also vaccinated.
“Maldives is much safer now than before and there is no reason to put in us in any restricted list.”
As such, in additional to over 450,000 tourists from European markets, the Minister expects to see growth from France and Italy in the last quarter of 2021 as well. Further, he is hopeful numbers from important markets such as China, Japan, Australia, Korea and New Zealand will also show strong recovery in 2022.
Expectations and risks for 2022
In 2022, the Maldives will be marking its 50th anniversary since the beginning of tourism in the country, with the opening of its first resort in 1972. From 1987 to 2019, the tourism sector registered an average growth of 9.4 percent and during this period, the Maldives experienced an annual negative growth only in three occasions prior — in 2001, following the September 11 terror attacks in the United States, in 2005 on the heels of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and in 2009 during the Global Recession — however the industy decline, at 67 percent in annual growth, was largest during the current COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
The most recent arrivals forecast prepared by the Ministry of Finance in July 2021 estimates tourists arrivals to reach 1.6 million in the best case scenario, and 1.4 million in the worst. The Maldives Monetary Authority projects a much lower best case scenario, at 1.4 million arrivals and 10 million bed nights in 2022. However, with new products such as 'home stay' and ‘real estate’ tourism to be introduced in 2022, the Minister expects tourist arrivals to recover to pre-pandemic levels in 2022, with estimates putting the number close to 1.7 million. According to Dr. Mausoom, the key to realising this growth will be marketing.
Dr. Mausoom is pleased with the joint marketing effort by the industry and the government’s marketing company, Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) — they are using multiple platforms to market the Maldives brand with a limited budget of USD10 million. According to the Minister, the Maldives has a very good product and has something for everyone from “lifestyle, honeymooners, divers, ultra-luxurious and mid-range” tourists. As such the Maldives is well positioned as the global market leader.
The biggest challenge faced by the industry will be the physical constraints in the main Velana International Airport (VIA) due to COVID-19 safety measures and renovation, and development, of the new terminal development. In August 2021, there were 24 scheduled and two chartered flights operating to the Maldives and there were over 7,500 flight movements by the end of the month, compared to a total of about 5,800 flights in 2020. More than 3,000 flight movements are expected in the last quarter of 2021.
With increased frequency of flights and the commencement of new flights, the international airport will be over-stretched during the peak season in December 2021 — Maldives Immigration and Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL) are working to make arrangements to ensure speedier service delivery during the coming peak festive season. In addition, the government is also in dialogue with some airlines to explore the possibility of landing at Gan International Airport and Maafaru Airport during the peak period to manage the additional workload.
Nevertheless, Dr. Mausoom is optimistic these constraints will be handled with the development of additional domestic airports such as Hanimaadhoo, and with the completion of the new terminal in VIA and that 2022 to be a memorable year. According to Dr. Mausoom, “2022 will be celebrated as a year which brings happiness for the whole country” by expanding tourism to every corner of the Maldives and by promoting ‘Tourism for Inclusive Growth,’ in line with this year’s World Tourism Day theme.