The Maldives is ‘rebranding’. Why?

I read here that the Maldives is starting a major rebranding initiative. The republic of the Maldives is an island nation in the Indian Ocean and consists of about 26 atolls with about 1,200 islands spread over approximately 90,000 square kilometers. Of those islands, about 200 are inhabited.

Its area and population of 300,000 make it one of the smallest Asian countries. It is also the lowest country in the world and at 2.3 metres above sea level, it is also the country with the lowest highest point.

Fortunately for the Maldives, it has some of the most stunning beaches on the planet and an ideal climate, all year round sunshine and beautiful calm seas have helped make the republic a popular destination.

You may recall the horrific images of death and destruction caused by the Tsunami in 2004. Despite the harrowing scenes and negative publicity after the Tsunami in 2004, the country has seen a steady increase in arrivals and 2009 saw arrivals surpass the pre Tsunami total of 500,000 visitors in 2003. Indeed, arrivals for 2009 were an all time high of almost 700,000. The main countries of origin for tourists to the Maldives are the UK, Italy, China, France, Germany, and Japan.

And there has been little negative reaction to the recent public relations disaster when an European couple were humiliated by hotel staff who were asked to bless their marriage. Probably because an apology to the couple was almost immediate and other fallout was handled confidently and quickly by authorities.

With limited natural resources, tourism and fishing have become the two key industries although the country does have a thriving cottage industry consisting of activities such as handicrafts and lacquer work.

Currently tourists spend most of their time in private bungalows in self-contained tourist resort islands designed specifically for tourism. Only one resort can be constructed on an island and the maximum built-up area of any resort island is limited to 20% of the land area and the building heights is not allowed to be higher than vegetation levels. Only 68% of a beach length can be utilised for guestrooms, 20% of each resort island beach is reserved for public use and 12% is classed as open space areas.

With such a fragile ecosystem, efficient waste management is vitally important and new resorts must install their own wastewater treatment plants, bottle crushers, incinerators and compactors. Sewerage disposal through soak-pits into the aquifer is no longer allowed. New resorts are also required to install desalination plants and this has substantially reduced the stress on ground water supplies.

The Maldives are seen by many to be the role model for sustainable tourism and it is such planning, strict environmental controls and policies that have ensured the Maldives retain their mystique.

When not in the resorts, most tourists spend time relaxing on private beaches, swimming, snorkeling, diving, fishing and boating. Sightseeing and visits to markets and local artisans in Male the capital are also popular.

So it would appear the Maldives, so to speak, is in a good place. It is managed efficiently, it is a role model for many countries, it has a thriving tourism business that works because of the policies and systems and processes put into place to protect the industry, it handles crises effectively and is probably in the top ten of most people’s ‘must go to destinations’ so you could be forgiven for thinking, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

Thoyyib Mohamed, Minister of State for Tourism in the Maldives aims to “position the Maldives as the must-see destination of our time for all travelers.”

A recent press release goes on to state, “The (rebranding) initiative will focus on enhancing the positioning of the nation’s tourism product, strengthening its image in established key source markets while broadening its appeal to wider audiences and emerging niche markets.”

I’m not privy to just how many visitors the Maldives can take without breaking that fragile infrastructure and I don’t know what the targets are but I am fairly confident that broadening its appeal to wider audiences and niche markets may result in an increase in the number of arrivals. Even another 100,000 visitors, an increase of around 15% will put a tremendous strain on these beautiful islands and in addition to the added pressure on the environment and infrastructure these new arrivals will obviously bring, they may also cause social and cultural problems.

I would hazard a guess that the Maldives are known to most people who travel abroad for leisure. I also think it will be practically impossible to ‘enhance the image’ of what is for many an already perfectly enhanced image. And trying to position the country and creating awareness of the destination amongst those that don’t know the country will be a costly exercise that may do little more than waste valuable resources. Something no country can afford to do.

I recommend the Maldives focus on these 5 key areas

1) Retention. What does it need to do to get people to visit again?
2) Share of wallet. What does it need to do to get more out of visitors?
3) Instead of using outdated mass economy approaches like positioning, leverage the power of social media. There are numerous sites on Facebook about the Maldives but none seem to be managed.
4) If new markets are pursued, chose them carefully, only after extensive brand research. And go after them with a strategic plan that engages relevant communities in those countries and again, not via traditional media.
5) I just realised how good this point is so I have to keep it for a destination we’re working with, sorry!


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