By Neil Merrett
Article originally published November 8 2011 on A Luxury Travel Blog
The Maldives. It’s a name perhaps synonymous with desert-island appeal, a paradise consisting of a seemingly endless number of island destinations that some believe are at the forefront of endangerment from climate change. For some travellers, the country represents a picture postcard ideal of palm trees, seclusion and flamboyant cocktails and that maybe is all there is to know about this archipelago of over 1,000 islands.
Since the tourism industry rose up in the Maldives from the 1970’s onwards, the country – a nation that prides itself upon being strictly Islamic, having outlawed any other forms of worship – has garnered a reputation as a high-end tourist destination with visitors separated from the everyday public on exclusive island resorts.
It is perhaps this one island-one resort concept that has helped create a certain mystique regarding the destination around the world. Yet under the current government, the country’s Ministry of Tourism, Art and Culture has vowed to push ahead in developing mid-market tourism, trying to entice middle-income visitors from Europe and Asia with the prospect of more independent travel. But what could such a change mean to perceptions of the country as an exclusive holiday option?
Tourism heads in the country have stressed in recent years that any market diversification should not come at the expense of the high-end luxury the country is often associated with. Yet it remains to be seen how viable diversification in the Maldives may be in reality.
Privately, a travel writer with years of experience in the Maldives and associated with one of the world’s most popular guide book publishers recently told me that he believed encouraging more independent travel outside of resorts was a doomed enterprise and unlikely to pay off. Yet despite this pessimism, major groups like Radisson have pledged to establish sizeable city hotels on inhabited islands such as Hulhumale’, which is situated near to the national capital of Male’. A number of more traditional guest houses have also sprung up.
In such a socially conservative country, where the seemingly trivial matters of alcohol, pork or even a bikini are strictly outlawed on inhabited islands, will tourist demand be sufficient to merit establishing a meaningful hotel industry outside of the prosperous resort model?
Diversification in the country may ultimately take many forms, with local and foreign developers submitting various proposals to garner wider tourist appeal. These plans include an entirely man-made floating golf complex, along with more modest attempts to pioneer true eco-resort experiences. The country has also garnered international headlines of late regarding a so-called “Island of Blondes” concept that is actively being pursued by Lithuanian enterprise Olialia.
The blonde island, presented this year at the Marché International des Professionnels d’Immobilier (MIPIM) real estate trade show in Cannes, is intended to be staffed by platinum haired workers – with the possible assistance of head scarves and wigs. Promising to serve as a entertainment and holiday destination where even former blondes like Rod Stewart could potentially be invited to perform, the island’s business plan has principally been approved by tourism authorities in the country and is awaiting development. But do such developments threaten or in fact boost the Maldives reputation as an exclusive destination?
With many resorts offering ’six-star’ service – an unofficial grading often set by hospitality companies themselves – defining luxury in the Maldives has always been something of a personal preference. In reality, resorts of various quality, budget and activities, some for families, some for couples and some a little more club 18–30 in their appeal, are all there to be discovered.
So while various services such as safari boats and guests houses aim to provide a more everyday Maldives experience, perhaps for many people, it is the notion of secluded mystery that remains central to the country’s tourism appeal.