After spending three years as a Maldivian political exile in the UK, Ali Waheed returned to his home country after the 2018 elections and was shortly thereafter appointed as the nation’s Minister of Tourism. “There’s no better way to return to my home country,” he said. “It’s a great honour to be the tourism minister of what I would say is the most beautiful country in the world.” Now, immersed in his role as minister of the sector that makes up around 70 percent of the Maldivian economy, he is working hard to diversify the Maldives’ offering, attract visitors from new markets, and reach the target of 2.5 million visitors within five years
What is your vision for the tourism sector?
Overall, our main mission is to diversify the Maldives’ tourism portfolio, and take it to another level. We want tourism to expand into different atolls; we want to diversify the product, and introduce new sectors like sports tourism, cultural tourism, or medical tourism, for instance. Maldives will be a more happening place in the next five years. God has blessed us with the most beautiful islands in the world, and we have a fantastic strategic location. We are blessed in the Indian Ocean, so we will be working towards peace and stability in our region. We also want the Maldives, like Dubai, to become even more of a connecting point between the West and the East. When we took over the government last November, we were on around 1.4 million annual visitors, and the president’s target is to reach 1.5 million this year. We are very confident we can achieve this. Within the next five years, we have a target of 2.5 million. In two years’ time, we will complete our airport, which will be able to cater to an additional 1.5 million people. This year alone, there will be 20 new resorts coming in as well. We have more than 100 islands where development has been stalled for years, so this year we are trying to find financing mechanisms to bring investment to these islands over the next two to three years. That means there will be huge revenue coming into the country. We are a top-end destination and have world-class products, but I also want to assure people with all kinds of budgets that they can also afford the Maldives. There are many ways to enjoy the country – from resorts to guesthouses and hotels. When I was in exile and showed people a picture of Maldives, they would often say: “wow, this is beautiful, paradise on earth, but I cannot afford it.” So I want to let the world know that if you really look into our product, it’s not the most expensive. Overall, sustainability is key to our success, and we are going to start working on our next sustainable tourism masterplan, in which the main two wings will be protecting our environment and cherishing our culture and heritage. Maldives is not just the beaches and the crystal-clear water. We have a lot of rich history – explorers came here from all over the world.
How will your tourism strategy differ from that of the previous administration?
Our marketing strategy will be undertaken by the Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation. They have a good plan for the year, which involves going to travel fairs around the world. But apart from that, we are looking to target new markets. For example, India is very close to us, but the statistics show that we have only got around 90,000 Indian tourists up to now. It’s just 45 minutes away. Malaysia also has huge untapped potential. It is a country a lot of Maldivians visit, and we have great connectivity but I don’t think we have done enough to attract them. If you look at the Middle East, there’s huge scope for Halal tourism in the Maldives and we want to expand this. Likewise, I don’t think we have tapped into the US market enough. We’ve added a new flight from Johannesburg, South Africa as well, which is another important advance in opening new markets. This administration really uses its ambassadors around the world, not just for diplomacy, but also as tourism ambassadors. The sector makes up 70 percent of our economy, so it’s very important. The introduction of Meetings, Incentives, Conferences/Conventions and Exhibitions (MICE) tourism is new as well, and part of the overall presentation of Maldives in a different light. People think that Maldives is a quiet place just for honeymoons. Yes, it is still the best destination for honeymoons, but it is so much more. Basically, we are working as hard as we can to let people know that it is within the realm of possibilities to come to Maldives, and that this is one of the most peaceful island nations in the world. Believe me, I was in exile in London for three years, and I tried to find something remotely similar, with crystal-clear blue waters. I went to beaches all around the UK and the closest I found was Cornwall, but it’s just not this.
In 2019 Dubai will be hosting the Arabian Travel Market. How will the Maldives be participating, and what message will you be promoting?
I plan to be there, along with the business community and our marketing company. I believe we have a good relationship with the Arab world. This government’s foreign policy is based on cooperating with everyone, and the signs are very positive from Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Saudi Arabia. We get a lot of support from these countries, and I think it’s time that we really worked and prospered together. At the same time, we need to follow the footsteps of Dubai and spur growth and excitement here. For instance, we recently opened the SME Bank, where people living in different parts of the country can get loans to build their own guesthouses. I think it’s key to the success of this country, and shows this government works for the many, not for the few. I think that after five years, people will see a real difference with this new strategy.
What makes the Maldives an ideal destination for UAE tourists?
This is the natural Maldives. I’m glad that they have created Maldives, but we are still here and it’s the most beautiful country in the world. I also think we have the best service industry. Our tourist resorts have been winning awards every year. Maldivians and our foreign workers have done a superb job in making visits memorable. For people in the UAE or the Middle East, it’s just four hours away. I would say book the ticket, come here and I’m sure you will come again. This can be your second home. Maldives has many repeat visitors because even though the images of Maldives are beautiful, they are nothing compared to the real experience. When you come with your family, with your loved ones, or even if you come alone, it’s indescribable. We have a unique natural beauty in this country. We are not artificial and we promote nature. We want to keep our islands as they are. People don’t come to Maldives to see Dubai; they want something different. So we work to keep these islands, the trees, the land and water protected. We are doing a lot to inform the public that we have to survive on our own. My view on the environment is that we have to start the change with each person who lives here. We have to get away from single-use plastic. We have to clean up the garbage. We are telling every citizen that he or she is personally responsible for everything they do and the consequences it has on the environment.
What are the main challenges the tourism sector in Maldives is facing, and how is your ministry trying to overcome them?
We are focused on coming up with new regulations and amending the old ones. We have taken the initiative to make the regulations more modern, so as to make life and business easier for everyone. Under the initiative of President Solih, we are devising a cabinet paper to make the industry environment more open for business so that we can be a more attractive place than before for local or foreign investors. Investments will be secure here. I’m glad that we have restored the confidence of the public in our government. We have good governance, transparency and openness, and you don’t have to have a certain political ideology, whether you’re local or a foreigner, to invest in this country. For me, there’s no obstacle that we can’t overcome. I believe we can do things differently, such as modernising regulations. I think of it all like the winds; if you feel the winds are good, then you’ll come and invest, or come here as a tourist. But if the wind is not light, you will know that something bad is going to come. I believe after November 17, 2018, there is just a nice, light breeze. You don’t see protests anymore. It’s a stable, calm country, and I’m sure that we will not be seeing things like the states of emergency of before. There’s nothing to be afraid of: it’s very safe.
Is there a final message you would like to send to readers of Gulf News?
I recently went to Dubai to participate in the Intercontinental Cup football tournament, which was organised by former Spanish international and Real Madrid captain Michel Salgado. We are now going to be platinum sponsors of the tournament. We were also invited to send our national under-13 team to the tournament next year so they can play against likes of Manchester United. Likewise, we could have the opportunity to host the tournament in the Maldives as well. I would like to thank the Dubai Council and Michel Salgado for the great opportunity. We believe, with the new policies of the president and the new rapport that we are building with the modern world, there are many ways that we can show the real Maldives to the outside world. Events are important, including sporting events or MICE. Companies need to know that they can host their events here while also taking a cool, tropical break on the islands. Maldives won’t be a quiet nation like before. We want to tell the world that this is a place they have to visit once in their lifetime to experience what paradise really is. We want to welcome everyone, and I think people living in the UAE can consider us as a neighbor. It’s just four hours and you can stay at any price point that suits you. You can stay at a resort, eat local cuisines, or integrate into the local community. Even on the same beach, you can relax, go diving, do water-sports, go on an underwater safari, count the stars, and enjoy nature. There are so many activities in just one place, it’s almost like a metaphor for the whole country. The Maldives has much to offer – every island is different and even Malé city centre offers a wide range of experiences and products. I would recommend that people plan their holidays in a way in which they can experience the whole premium package of Maldives.