When a new government was elected in September 2018, reducing the price of domestic flights became one of the key pledges of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. This was achieved within a short space of time, and now authorities are focusing on improving the lives of Maldivians through better island connectivity and expanded transport infrastructures, including a new airport at Hoarafushi. Here, Transport and Civil Aviation Minister Aishath Nahula discusses upcoming projects and the opportunities for investment
You were sworn into office in November. What are your vision and goals for this portfolio?
This ministry itself did not exist previously. When a new government came in, the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation was formed. Now, regional airports, Maldives transport authority and Maldives civil aviation authority are the immediate responsibilities of the minister. Our oversight now extends to companies like the Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC), Maldives Port Limited (MPL). Transport in the Maldives is really difficult due to the geography, and also to the fact that there is no infrastructure and no real planning. Things were just built. At this point, we can’t bring much change to Malé, so we just want to make small changes to help people move around more easily. One of the things we need is a competent public transport system, and we have plans for environmentally friendly buses for Malé because the city is so congested with vehicles that it is difficult for us to go out with our children because of the air pollution. Whatever solution we adopt will always aim to be environmentally friendly.
What about transport by sea?
That’s the next big issue. We have a ferry system that used to be good in 2008, but in the last few years it has not been working how it was designed, and we are going to monitor areas where we can improve services in order to connect places quickly and efficiently. It is a big challenge to connect so many islands but we are doing our best. We are also building more domestic airports because it is difficult to travel by water when the sea is rough.
A third domestic airline, Manta Air, launched operations in February. What is the state of air travel in the Maldives right now?
We depend mostly on tourism and we need airspace to accommodate the sector. Right now, we have three international airports and I hope that in future we will have more. We are expanding Velana International Airport to accommodate the expected rise in tourism; in around two years the new runway and terminal will open to the public. And work has begun on a new airport in Hoarafushi.
Tourism is the backbone of the economy, so good transportation is key. What new projects will boost tourism and bring opportunities for investors?
We are working on attracting more international flights to the Maldives. South African Airways has just launched additional non-stop charter flights to the Maldives landing at Gan International Airport, and we are hoping that more long-haul airlines will start operating there as well. And many resorts are being built to match the growing tourist numbers.
In December, you guaranteed a reduction in the price of domestic airline tickets. What are the details of the plan?
It is not right to have high prices for domestic air fare; these fares should be low. We were aiming for 25 to 30 percent price reductions, and we did this during my first month in office. We worked hard on subsidizing this service, which we do not view as a for-profit basis. With a small population of around 400,000 and a high frequency of flights, the demand is not high enough to expect significant profits. Rather, we view this as a service that the government has to provide to the people, and therefore the government has to subsidize the businesses that provide the service.
Direct flights are available from Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Is there an opportunity to increase direct flights from the UAE?
Direct four-hour flights are already available from these departure points, and this means that travellers from other countries can easily access the Maldives through those connecting hubs. These flights may also be preferable to many people than very long direct flights from their own points of origin.
The Maldives is a global leader in the environment. How does the transport sector work within a green framework?
The new government wants to implement a fast transport system based on environmentally friendly minibuses. The public transport system will change step by step, reaching all the way to the vehicles that operate near airports. We are offering duty-free import of environmentally friendly vehicles and offering them free parking areas as incentives for consumers.
Is there an opportunity for PPPs or for international investors to get involved in projects?
Definitely. In air transportation, for instance, we are in talks with Abu Dhabi for a helicopter project. Investors just need to come here and look for the opportunities – we are here to help. You have heard about the Maldives, now come and see it for yourself.