A Fair Game
As shock waves from the pandemic started being felt all over the globe, just as any other country in the world we weren’t spared from the devastation caused by this modern-day pestilence. As the entire tourism industry shut down almost overnight, state intervention was a necessity to safeguard our local economy. Countries have deployed a wide range of social, economic and public health measures to respond to the situation. Some of the first responses include access to credit and finances with low-interest rates to maintain operations and sustain labor costs to loan repayment moratoria. The key question now is, what are the next steps we can take in supporting the revival of this sector and setting up a stronger foundation for local entities?
Equal Opportunities & Harmony
As we make our first steps into recovery, it is important for us to recognize that all businesses, big, small, local or foreign were heavily affected during this crisis. Whoever survived through this ordeal are still in an extremely weakened state. The priority right now should be to enable and facilitate a healthy recovery for these entities alongside opening up opportunities for new entries into the market. If there is to be a governmental intervention, all its citizens and businesses must be treated equally. You give something to get something in return. You cannot destroy one to save another. We must ensure that whatever framework we establish creates harmony amongst all and safeguards all businesses in the process.
Access to Financial Aid
One of the first things we need to do is ensure we have easy access to financial aid to boost business recovery. Institutions should ensure that this support reaches all entities in a simple and effective manner. It should not exclude vulnerable groups and should account for all. We are talking about business from all categories; individual suppliers (F&B or services), travel agencies, hotels, guesthouses and the top tier groups such as the resorts.
Invest in Human Capital
The transformation of the country’s revenue system over the past decade with the introduction of a broader and more diverse tax system had shown significant improvements to government revenue. Now, as we start taking our first steps into economic recovery, it will be crucial for the government to once again reprioritize the allocation of its resources and public expenditure for greater investment in human capital and upskilling the existing labor force. This is a measure we can take to ensure their resilience to future shocks as well as instil adaptability to the new world we are navigating through. These include digital skills, advanced health and safety protocols etc.
Furthermore, this is also a great opportunity to establish a robust system where institutions can assess the capacity of new entrants to the market during their start-up stage, and provide them access to education, crash courses or necessary resources in case there are any potential knowledge gaps that could possibly hinder a successful entry into the market scape. The same provision of resources should be made accessible to existing businesses for further training and development of their workers as well. Many smaller operations often find themselves lacking the capacity or manpower to fully explore and analyze market intelligence, trend reports and statistics. Giving these businesses the opportunity to develop an in-depth understanding of the industry and arming them with the resources and tools will be the way to go in developing a potentially competitive home team to challenge foreign players in the industry.
Protecting our Own
Tourism is a key driver in the globalization process and is a crucial catalyst in enabling rapid expansion of developing economies. Over the past five decades, with a liberal stand in economic policies allowing the penetration of foreign trade and investments, the Maldivian tourism industry has taken huge strides in becoming a globally iconic destination for luxury beach holidays. As a key holiday destination in the world, this is an industry where we find some of the biggest international players present in the mix, where local entities have been fighting tooth and nail to make their mark in the market.
This is a reality within which tourism has to operate. However, it does not mean that we should not find ways to level the playing field to enhance competitiveness for the local stakeholders. It is encouraging to see governments addressing the matter of aligning governmental policies to create a legislative framework that supports local communities and its businesses, and it’s certainly not wrong to develop a framework to influence private sector behavior. However, we must also have a clear understanding of how the industry works for us to make meaningful decisions, and even propose realistic and actionable policies. Today, there is a lot of chatter in the industry in pushing the government to take legislative measures which would force hotels and resorts in providing better deals for local agencies to gain a competitive advantage over foreign operators. This can be done, but not without something being offered to the hotels and resorts in return. Instead of strongly arming any party that will have negative ripple effects, the government will need to incentivize these businesses to support local entities. Which means providing tax breaks and other benefits which will make financial sense to them. Other levers include awards, certifications and investment deals to encourage greater inclusion of local businesses.
Like the spores of a mushroom, there was a time when agencies were popping up all over the country, uncontrolled, and unhindered by any policies or by law. It is common for us to see ex-employees of travel agencies, hotels and resorts starting up operations of their own, right after leaving or ending their previous employment. Often enough, they would have taken with them the entire client list they had brought in for their employers during their employment. For those businesses that have spent years developing their networks, fostering relationships for long term strategic goals, it becomes a grave concern when one of their own can simply walk out their door and open a shop next door to theirs. This is the very reason why we should have enforceable non-compete clauses established in business operations. This is basically a contract where the employee agrees not to work with a rival company or start a business of the same trade for a specific time period after leaving his or her employer. This is by no means a mechanism to oppress any opportunities for any individual. It is a means by which existing businesses are given a sense of security and protection of business secrets at least for a reasonable period of time and would not prevent a person from starting off his or her own business after the agreed period of non-compete passes.
The tourism business itself consists of an intricately woven network of partners, vendors and suppliers carefully bonded by patiently nurtured relationships over years and sometimes decades. Therefore, a business’s database and all of its intellectual property such as its brand components defines its strength and positioning in the marketplace and is an integral part of that business operation. Sadly, although we may have a legal framework that allows businesses to place confidentiality clauses in their employment agreements, it is often difficult to enforce this since the source of data is neither easy nor cheap to be proven in a court.
Blood, Sweat & Tears
Over the years, we have had numerous local entities rise to the ranks and fall into the abyss of failure. However, it is important to remember that for those who have made it, it is through blood, sweat and tears and by overcoming numerous obstacles along the way. There has always been a tendency to look at all successful business people with such prejudice and suspicion, that their success could not have happened without fair play. It is, unfortunately, a tendency for a lot of us to feel that we “deserve” better, which is not necessarily a bad thing. If we use this to fight for what we dream to achieve in full determination, there is nothing that would hold us back. However, a mindset that claims the right to be “served on a silver platter” for being local is a toxic mentality to have. It is important for business entities to understand that success requires hard work and strategic thinking. Once all basic foundations are set by governmental institutions, and a fair playing field is laid out, it is up to that business entity to gain a competitive edge over international players in the market. Today, we have numerous precedents to bring to the picture as examples to show successful business operations in the travel and tourism sector that are competing heavily against bigger global titans, and still taking a lion’s share in the marketplace. So, if you really take a closer look at the local landscape, you are the one who can determine how far you go, nobody else. It all comes down to your own determination and how hard you are willing to fight to get ahead of the game.