Chinese tourist arrivals dropped by 34.8 percent to 12,237 in February compared to the same point last year, according to Asian travel trade newspaper TTG. Around 6,500 fewer tourists arrived from China last month, largely due to the cancellation of charter flights, which are expected to resume in April.
Visitor numbers to the Maldives dropped by 4.7 percent year on year in February following the political crisis, the industry paper revealed. Arrivals fell from 87,392 to 83,252, after having grown by 13.4 percent when compared with the same period in 2010.
Arrivals from the UK also fell, while visitors from France and Germany rose by 4.9 percent and 25 percent, respectively.
Efforts including familiarisation trips arranged for the media and tour operators have been employed to reassure Chinese tour operators who appear to have been unnerved more than others by the upheavals following February 7.
The Chinese market makes up around a fifth of all tourist arrivals to the Maldives in a sector that indirectly contributes over 70 percent of the country’s GDP.
George Weinmann, Chief Executive of Mega Maldives Airlines, which charters flights between Male’ and multiple Chinese destinations, told the New York Times this week the full schedule of flights was to resume on April 4. He was confident that his business would continue to grow – its employee numbers have doubled in just over a year.
The Maldives sent a group of 200 to the recent ITB trade fair in Berlin, representing 65 companies, to reassure the international markets that the Maldives remained a safe travel destination.
The need for this public relations exercise was reflected by the words of Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Lord Howell, who felt the need to defend the country‘s image during discussion of the Maldives’ situation in the House of Lords on March 22.
“The Maldives, as my noble friend has said, remains the paradise and attractive tourist area that it has always been and continues to be, because at the moment we do not judge that there is any danger in the tourist areas,” said Howell.
The FCO lifted all travel restrictions to the UK on March, as did Germany, though it has been reported that tourists in resorts have been prevented from taking trips to the capital.
Politics in paradise
The alleged involvement of tourist resort magnates in February’s changeover of power has seen attempts to politicise the tourism industry, in particular to put pressure on tourists to avoid certain resorts.
In the UK, a Maldives Travel Advisory website has been established, grading a number of resorts on a traffic light system, ranging from ‘green’ sites which the advisory urges tourists to visit, ‘amber’ which are under consideration regarding their alleged involvement in the changeover, and ‘red’ which the advisory urges against travel to.
The selective nature of the boycott is indicative of the desire of all sides to shield the image of the tourist industry from long term damage. Of the 107 resorts currently listed on the website, only 12 are listed in the ‘red’ category, with another 12 in the ‘amber’ category.
The Friends of Maldives (FOM) group has attempted to publicise this travel advisory, for example by handing out leaflets outside of a meeting held by the Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb Abdul Gafoor in London earlier this month.
This attempt did receive some coverage in the British Media, with prominent columnist for the The Daily Telegraph, Oliver Smith, writing, “The moral implications of visiting the Maldives have been called into question following the downfall of Mr Nasheed.”
Adheeb had earlier expressed concerns that the message of the political and geographical separation of the resorts from wider Maldivian society was not being made clear enough: “That message is not going out. People don’t know that the resorts are separate [from the rest of the Maldives], and international headlines have made people panic.”
The Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) has employed the services of a professional PR company, Rooster Creative Public Relations Ltd to represent its interests in the UK, explaining, “The purpose of having a full time PR and Marketing agency is to overcome the image that is continuously spoiling in the UK market due to the current political turbulence.”
Despite the presence of some Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) supporters outside of the venue who distributed literature relating to police brutality, the party insists that politics should not impinge on tourism.
In a recent interview, the former Minister for Tourism Dr Mariyam Zulfa told Minivan News, “It has never been the MDPs intention or any other political party’s intention to harm the economy in any way.”
Concerns that politics will damage the image of the destination could be premature. In the days after the coup, a report on Reuters that tourists “barely put down their cocktails during the political crisis” appears emblematic of the attitude of those seeking relaxation in paradise.
In a February poll taken on the Chinese social networking site Weibo, only a third of over 8000 respondents said that the coup had affected them. Tourists at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) who were recently asked their opinion about the politics in Male’ did not show concern.
A couple from London said they were unaware of any issues, whilst a Swiss tourist stated his belief that the problem was one for the state to deal with and should not concern tourists.