Tourist arrivals in sharp decline

Monday, 23 March 2009 10:48

The weakening global economy has dealt a further blow to the Maldives’ tourism industry with the latest figures revealing a 14 per cent drop in tourist arrivals in February compared to the same time last year.

The number of tourists from the Maldives’ two biggest markets, Italy and UK, has plummeted with a 24 per cent decline in the number of British visitors this month, down four per cent from January, and a 15 per cent decline in the number of Italian visitors, up five per cent from last month.

Resorts say they are not yet feeling the effects of the credit crunch with continued high occupancy levels, but many predict a sharp downturn in coming months with very few reservations on the books.

A manager of a top-end resort, who wished to remain anonymous, said the number of bookings for the low season was half the usual amount, adding resorts were already offering special packages in the hope of breaking even.

“Everybody is concerned that it might turn into a price war,” he said.

Mohamed Sim Ibrahim, director general of Maldives Association Tourism Industry, said affordability was key to ensuring a steady influx of tourists, including offering five-star luxury at three-star prices.

But, if resorts are right and booking behaviour has changed, with many guests making last-minute reservations, such speculation may be premature.

“People aren’t very comfortable paying thousands of dollars well in advance,” said Akino Nagamine, PR officer at the five-start One and Only Reethi Rah resort. “They still get away but they get away at the last minute.”

In order to entice tourists to the coral-fringed archipelago, tourism minister Dr Ahmed Ali Sawaad left for Russia yesterday to attend his third tourism fair of the year.

The Russian market is viewed as an area of rapid expansion with a 20 per cent increase in tourist arrivals in January compared to 2008.

Although the Maldives is seeking to diversify its markets, said Ahmed Salih, permanent secretary of the tourism ministry, the government would continue to promote the Maldives in countries within its main market, Europe.

President Mohamed Nasheed travelled to Italy last month to encourage Italian holidaymakers to visit the Maldives. As the first tourists to the Maldives in the 1970s, Italy continues to be its biggest market.

But Salih added it will be difficult for the government to mitigate the consequences of the global slump and its effect on the tourism industry, especially in relation to countries such as the UK, which is among the hardest hit by the recession.

“Tourism is a fickle industry but it bounces back much quicker than other industries,” he said. “We have seen this after the tsunami. But this time we call it the financial tsunami. We don’t want it to continue, but it’s beyond our control.”

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