Destination branding and marketing is a key activity for tourist departments worldwide – and one country which might have a brand image truly nailed down in a way others can only envy is the Maldives. Clear turquoise water, white sand, honeymoons, overwater villas, 5-star luxury, and seaplanes. Nobody does it better. However, that’s only half the story, and significant changes are underway.
The Maldives might best be described as two very different overlapping countries. The map is unique already – 26 atolls arranged like a huge paperclip spanning 90,000 square kilometers and comprising over a thousand coral islands – but one set of islands is set aside for private international luxury resorts, while another set is home to the local Maldivian population. Until as recently as 2009, the local islands were off-limits for tourism. Visitors could enjoy their time in an expensive tropical island paradise, but would never have the chance to see the other Maldives – the one that provides their hotel staff, their fish, and their fruit. The one with the schools, hospitals, and banks. The one that’s connected by a network of slow boats rather than speedboats. Then the government changed the rules, allowing Maldivians to open guesthouses and welcome foreigners to the islands where real life goes on, away from the image we all know so well.
Today, it is possible to enjoy the Maldives at a fraction of the cost charged by the leading resorts. The alternative experience begins at the airport adjacent to the capital, Male, where most arriving passengers are greeted by resort staff and ushered to their seaplane or private speedboat transfers at considerable expense. The public boat to Male is a fifteen-minute crossing for less than a dollar. The city is the main hub for the network of ferries which connect the different atolls, but the journey times to the more distant corners of the archipelago can be very long, and it makes perfect sense that the local islands which currently see the most visitors are those within a few hours’ sailing time from Male. Maafushi is one prime example, as this island is close to Male with good ferry connections and has developed very rapidly with new guesthouses and tourism businesses constantly opening up.
The ferry is the visitor’s first encounter with the realities of local life in the Maldives, as the boats to any particular atoll may only operate three or four times per week, and there are no sailings at all on Fridays due to the Islamic culture of the islands. The boats themselves are comfortable, not at all crowded, and are often accompanied by dolphins as they take their passengers and cargo across the Indian Ocean. And at around four dollars for a four-hour journey the ferries certainly offer good value.
Islam is a constant factor in shaping daily life in the other Maldives. While the private resorts serve alcohol and allow guests the freedom and privacy to enjoy the beaches wearing as little as they please, the local islands are much more conservative. Alcohol is not available, and the locals appreciate modesty – although a compromise has been reached in many places with one beach area set aside and designated as a ‘bikini beach’ where foreigners can enjoy the water without offending the sensibilities of the local residents.
The level of development on the islands varies, with some boasting paved roads, or footpaths, while others consist of dirt tracks. Bear in mind that it is usually possible to walk from one end of a typical island to the other in ten minutes. Each atoll has an island which serves as the capital and enjoys a higher level of development and public services than its outlying neighbors. Nevertheless, one challenge facing guesthouse owners is that of ensuring that tourism brings about benefits to the whole community and not just profits for the guesthouse. Resentment on the part of the locals is unlikely to create a welcoming atmosphere in what are some very small communities.
One guesthouse owner explained that it is very important to ensure that visitors understand what is and is not acceptable on the islands because misunderstandings can occur. He told the story of some European guests who had picked some fruit from a tree on the beach, reasoning that since the tree was not in someone’s garden, there wouldn’t be a problem. Of course, the locals know exactly who owns which tree, and there is certainly no fruit which goes unaccounted for.
A further source of tension comes from the taxes which must be collected by local hoteliers and sent to the central government in Male to be redistributed. So the argument goes, the islands which bring in the tourist tax revenue should get a greater share of that revenue to clean up their islands and develop the infrastructure. This would help to create more jobs – many guesthouses also operate boats to take visitors to remote sandbanks and idyllic deserted islands, or to go diving and snorkeling – and in turn bring in more tax revenue.
CSR is also something that many guesthouses practice, out of necessity as much as trying to build a positive image for themselves. The beaches we imagine when we think of the Maldives are more a matter of potential than reality on the local islands. Littering is a problem so clean-up activities are essential if tourists are not to be disappointed. Plastic waste recycling projects do exist, and other waste is taken to Male for disposal – the infamous rubbish island of Thilafushi is clearly visible from Male with its rising cloud of smoke. Many guesthouses are also making attempts to educate the local youngsters to bring their attitudes into line with the clean and green demands of foreign visitors, many of whom are also keen to lend a hand to tidy up.
One thing that local hoteliers, restaurant owners, and low-cost airline representatives all agree on is that the Maldives may need to extend its marketing horizons to make people aware that the country is not just a once-in-a-lifetime paradise for honeymooners, but is a place anyone can come and explore. For now, the two overlapping yet separate Maldives are beginning to show signs of merging ever so slightly. Budget travelers often choose to pay for a day trip to a resort island to have that Maldives dream experience, while tourists in the resorts often now pay for a day trip to a local island to see something of life as it is lived by the Maldivians.
The country’s tourist industry is definitely undergoing a change, and while visitor numbers remain under 1.5 million annually, this figure is sure to rise when the world finds out that a trip to the Maldives needn’t break the bank.