The Maldives has been known as an exclusive resort destination since tourism was introduced in 1972. However, the Maldives brand has evolved, and although the destination has remained one of the most desired in the world for honeymooners, the broad profile of holidaymakers has changed over the decades. In the 1980s and the early 1990s visitors to Maldives were mostly avid divers and water sports enthusiasts. Luxury and the spa experience became significant in the early 2000s.
The biggest change to the product profile and consequently to the visitor profile occurred in 2008, when laws related to tourist accommodation were changed to facilitate guesthouse tourism in inhabited islands. In 2008, the segment started off with 24 guesthouse facilities with 400 beds in operation. Today the segment has expanded to offer over 8,000 beds in various inhabited islands along the length of the country.
What does the guesthouse experience offer and why are some visitors, be it a small percentage of the total, drawn to the option? While the room rate would certainly be a key factor there are other factors that contribute to the growth of the guesthouse sector.
According to Ruth Franklin, Director of Sales at Secret Paradise, who has been working closely with guesthouses since 2012, the introduction of guesthouses has widened the options for visitors and opened up the opportunity for visitors to experience the Maldives at a different level. Her customers often include holidaymakers who visit the Maldives as part of a regional tour combining the Maldives with Sri Lanka, India or Thailand and among them are many who choose homestays and prefer to spend their time in the Maldives in more than one guesthouse island.
This is a different breed of customers who are looking for something outside the conventional resort experience; a growing trend in the world today, especially among millennials, many of whom prefer a varied set of experiences as opposed to a stay in a traditional hotel or resort for the whole duration of their holidays.
Ruth says that we have just scratched the surface of this sector as far as the global market is concerned. She believes that with the right marketing effort, there is huge potential for the guesthouse sector to grow in the next few years.
Marketing is a key factor in the minds of many. However, for most in the guesthouse business, the first to mind, when it comes to challenges for the sector, is transport. One reason why Maafushi and the islands close to Malé are more successful than most others is that there is greater access to the islands around Malé.
Ahmed Karam, President of the Guesthouse Association of Maldives, says that transport is one the biggest challenges that inhibits the successful operation of the guesthouses. A reliable, affordable public transport service, according to Karam, is essential for the growth of the sector. The current rates to travel to atolls outside Malé Atoll and Ari Atoll, especially if the only means available is seaplane travel is prohibitive for visitors staying in guesthouses.
Islands that are relatively successful as guesthouse destinations outside Malé Atoll, in spite of the challenges in the area of transport, often have a USP that they can capitalise on. Dhigurah Island in Ari Atoll is one among them, drawing a regular flow of visitors due to its close proximity to seas in which whale sharks are frequently seen. The islands in Baa Atoll are relatively easy to access due to the domestic airport in Dharavandhoo Island, however, the real attraction is the mantas and whale sharks and the fantastic marine life in locations such as Hanifaru Bay in the atoll.
Karam believes that islands can become successful if guesthouse operators get together to market the island as destinations. He believes that Island Councils should take a more active role in managing roads, beaches and other public spaces in the islands, because the sector benefits island economies in providing opportunities for new and existing businesses and jobs for many in areas such as water sports, transport, cafés, restaurants and retail businesses.
Those who are promoting the local experience factor, such as Ruth, are concerned that the current growth of guesthouses, in terms of the number of rooms and the growing number of guesthouses in some island, could eventually destroy the fundamental characteristics that attract customers to these destinations in the first place; an island experience in the Maldives. And as Karam sees it, regulations are important in order to maintain standards. He points to the lack of regular inspection, lack of infrastructure in some islands and the lack of opportunities for training of guesthouse employees as important concerns.
For those in the business, the guesthouse sector has characteristics and standards that need to be established and upheld. This feeling is shared by Ahmed Nazeer, Secretary General of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) who is also a Founder and Director of Crown Company, one of the largest players in the tourism industry. Nazeer does not see the guesthouse sector affecting the Maldives’ brand per se.
However, he believes that, what happens in the guesthouse sector just like the resort sector, will affect how the Maldives is perceived in the global markets. Therefore, he emphasised on the importance of quality and safety standards that need to be maintained, in order not only to protect how the Maldives is perceived, but also to protect the guesthouse sector itself.
Nazeer stressed that as a nation our objective should to maximise revenue from the tourism sector, and that can only be achieved by some level of control on the level of expansion of the guesthouse sector, just like it is with the resort sector. He believes that regulators should decide on the composition of the industry in terms of the proportion of different types of accommodation that make up the industry. Nazeer says this will not only help the tourism industry as a whole but will help those who invest in the guesthouse sector, to forecast their returns and assess the profitability of their projects with greater certainty.
Maldives Travel Awards: The Guesthouse Edition 2018
Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO), celebrating the outstanding performances in the guesthouse sector, recently held the Maldives Travel Awards: The Guesthouse Edition 2018. This year, the award function was held in Hulhumalé, home to the largest collection of guesthouses. See the full list of the winners here (in no specific order):