A Talent for Hospitality
(with additional writing by Aminath Shiuleen)
Rapid growth and increase in arrivals over the past decade and more has challenged Maldivian hoteliers in recruiting the manpower required to effectively run their properties. Recent studies confirm this and present a scenario where we will have a total of 86,519 workers employed in the tourism sector (compared to the current figure of 49,129) if all anticipated projects are completed on time. We look at this issue in the cover story for Issue 56.
Maldives opened its door to international tourists in 1972 with the opening of the first resort in the country, Kurumba Village. At the time, this remote archipelago was only inhabited by fisher folk and was unknown to the outside world and with no foreign investment to speak of. There was only a small airstrip on Hulhule’ Island (the present international airport), developed with the labour of volunteering men and women from the country, with no regular flights.
Twenty-five years later, in 1997, the island nation welcomed the first internationally branded resort in the Maldives, Hilton Maldives Resort and Spa. The entrance of international hotel brands had challenged the country’s talent pool to meet exacting and demanding standards to meet new performance benchmarks.
Maldives’ solid reputation for luxury tourism and the ongoing expansion of tourist infrastructure bodes well for medium-term growth. Nonetheless, high dependence on tourism and limited near-term prospects for diversification mean that the economy remains highly vulnerable to external shocks. Addressing skills mismatches in the labour market can enable more Maldivians to reap the benefits from growth.
Tourism and its Impact on Employment
Over the past fifty years, the tourism and hospitality industry has brought tremendous prosperity and progress to the country. It is the largest sector of Maldives’ economy providing for more than 22.3 per cent of the country’s GDP and more than one-third of the government revenue (source: Tourism Yearbook 2021, Ministry of Tourism).
Consumption expenditures of tourists provide direct or indirect employment opportunities in the tourism industry. The rapid growth of international tourism has led to numerous job creations within the country. Tourism can create employment directly through resorts, hotels, restaurants, and souvenir sales and indirectly through the supply of commodities needed by tourism-related businesses.
From 2009 until 2019, the Maldives benefited from a steady growth in tourist arrivals. In fact, the number of arrivals almost tripled over the period from 2000 to 2019. The year 2020 began with the same momentum, with January recording a 14 per cent increase in arrivals compared to January 2019. However, due to the pandemic, total arrivals plunged to its lowest in fifteen years, affecting thousands of jobs.
The Resort Employee Survey conducted by National Bureau of Statistics in 2019 revealed that an estimated 44,954 employees were working in the 147 tourist resorts. The Survey conducted in 2020 showed that there were 48,664 employees employed in the 155 resorts at the beginning of the year. This is an 8 percent increase between the nine-month period from April 2019 to January 2020. During the lockdown from March to July 2020, the number of employees mid-year (June) 2020 stood at 4,713, based on the operational staff active at 46 resorts. At the end of 2020, there were 35,887 employees employed in 140 resorts.
A recent report by the Ministry of Economic Development states that out of the 181,144 total employed population in the Maldives, the service sector represents almost 74 per cent. The report goes on to mention that a total of 3,769 individuals reported to have been terminated from their jobs, of which approximately 50 per cent took place in tourist resorts.
After 2021 concluded with over 1.3 million arrivals, the year 2022 looked optimistic for the industry. As of January 2022, the Maldives had 162 resorts, 10 hotels, 146 liveaboards and 623 guesthouses across the country representing the broad nature of the industry in this small island nation where the local population is only 540,000. Monthly arrivals exceeded 109,000 tourists in January.
However, as per research conducted by the government and other agencies, there is a massive shortfall of local manpower for tourism services compared with the increasing number of tourists. The key to sustained and sustainable growth of Maldives tourism sector is internationally competitive and flexible enterprises built on the quality of their products and services, and delivered by a workforce that is trained to a high standard and able to develop and grow within the workplace.
The Challenges in Developing Talent
A variety of factors create challenges in developing the local talent pool. The geography of the Maldives, the gender imbalance and the education system are some of the main factors.
The bed capacity of the Maldives has increased from 18,730 in 2000 to 51,827 in 2020. From this, over 70 per cent of the beds are from resorts. However, the problem is noticeable when we look at the distribution of these resorts by atolls. Over 32 per cent of the beds are in Male’ Atoll, followed by Alifu Dhaalu with 11 per cent and Raa with 8.9 per cent. These changes are mainly present due to lack of accessibility and poor domestic transportation in certain areas. As a result, many young talents in local islands are unable to receive the opportunities that those in more developed areas in the Maldives receive.
The Resort Employee Survey of 2020 confirms that tourist resorts have remained and continue to be a male dominant sector where 88 per cent are men, with only 12 per cent of the employees as women. Among males only 40 per cent were locals and among female employees only 3 per cent were locals.
There are cultural and social taboos against female employment in the tourism and hospitality sector in Maldives. The accommodation and tourism sector occupations have a negative connotation that prompts parents to discourage their daughters from seeking employment in this sector. Travel to resort islands, double shifts, necessary in accommodation operation, are another major obstacle disrupting family life for married women, as is the necessity of providing official transportation from and to the island workplace so that women can commute to work instead of staying at the resort island.
However, it seems that this issue has improved greatly compared to the past. In a Women in Hospitality (published in Hotelier Maldives) interview with Farsa Saeed, Sales Manager at St Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort, said, “Initially there were a lot of raised eyebrows and judgment from society for leaving family behind and living among strangers on a remote island. I believe we have come very far from mere five years ago. There are more and more women joining the industry and defying gender stereotyping – proving that women can make a difference here too. In terms of opportunities, I have received many in the past few years which have helped me grow in my role.”
The tourism and hospitality industry can only be fully exploited when the local workforce, including women, participates in it.
Many industry professionals would agree with Hussain Shahid, Executive Assistant Manager, Holiday Inn Resort Kandooma; when he said in a recent interview with Hotelier Maldives that the Maldives is quite behind in education when compared to many countries. “You cannot change some people’s paradigms once they are sixteen or eighteen years old. You need to start from the bottom of the educational level.” Shahid stated that schools in Maldives need to provide students at a young age the chance to experience and learn what working at a resort is like. He also said that educational institutions should focus more on integrating education and work experience.
Furthermore, there are many courses that are not available here in the Maldives or offer poor quality of education. There are also cases where many young locals are not well aware of the courses and institutions in the country.
Artworks by Ali Riyaz for Hotelier Maldives