Ep 56: 7 Months Since Reopening in the Maldives, with Ruth Franklin

About This Episode

17 Feb 2021 • 32m00s

It’s 7 months since the Maldives reopened for visitors in July 2020.

The Indian island archipelago nation is being considered as a successful case study for COVID-era tourism – but how has it adapted to a changed world, and what lessons has it learned? This week, Gary and Hannah chat with Ruth Franklin, Co-founder of Secret Paradise Maldives, which focuses on local island experiences beyond the luxury resorts.

In a candid and insightful interview, Ruth discusses the pre-COVID opportunities and the processes and protocols implemented to reopen for inbound travel. We discuss the future of sustainable tourism, tailor-made island experiences and guest house stays, plus the growing appeal of long-vacation travel.

We also talk about the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, the potential for vaccine tourism – and what needs to happen for the Maldives to achieve its goal of attracting 1.5 million visitors in 2021.

Show Notes

00:00:00 Hannah

Hello, it’s Wednesday 17th of February, I’m Hannah Pearson from Pear Anderson. On this week’s show, we’ll be talking all things travel and tourism in the Maldives with Ruth Franklin Co-founder of Secret Paradise Maldives.

00:00:12 Gary

Yes, seven months after the Maldives reopened its borders, how has this stunning archipelago nation readjusted to inbound tourism? And what valuable lessons have been learned? Let’s find out over the next 30 minutes. This is the South East Asia Travel Show.

00:00:34 Hannah

Hello, where you are in the world, and thanks for listening in. So today it’s a great pleasure to welcome Ruth Franklin who joins us from the beautiful Maldives. Hi Ruth, and welcome to the South East Asia Travel Show. How are you today, and what’s the view from your window?

00:00:49 Ruth

Hi guys, I’m very, well thank you. You’ll actually be very disappointed to hear that I look out over one of the main roads in Hulhumale, which is part of the capital. But if I actually lean to the right and tilt my head, I can just about see the beach and the ocean.

00:01:12 Hannah

Well that’s OK then, that doesn’t make us too jealous. So Ruth, let’s hear a little bit about you. You went from a store manager in the UK, to co-founder of Secret Paradise Maldives, living in the Maldives. How did that happen?

00:01:30 Ruth

I think I was in the right place at the right time if I’m very honest. I’ve been visiting the Maldives for many years. I’d been introduced to scuba diving, and then my dive buddy, Romney, introduced me to the Maldives and I kept coming back maybe twice, three times a year. Practically, I was just spending my earnings on traveling to and from the Maldives and I came out for a period of time to do my divemaster. I was fortunate in that I joined my retail career at a time where it said in my contract after 25 years service you get one year with 12 weeks paid holiday. So I took that opportunity to spend most of that time in the Maldives and a chance meeting over coffee on the beach with a local businessman in 2012 led to a conversation about why tourists would want to stay and travel around local islands in the Maldives, because up until 2011, apart from a very small period of time, tourists, if they visited, would be staying on resort islands or traveling around on what we term live-aboards, boat safari vessels.

And so we debated this on two separate occasions over coffee. I thought nothing more of the conversation. I headed back to the UK, went back to my job and then about six weeks later, I had a call asking me if I would be interested in starting a business. So I guess I thought, “What’s the worst case scenario?” I either go out to the Maldives, it doesn’t turn out well and I end up coming back to the UK and probably slipping back into retail, or I’d be sat in my rocking chair in years to come going, “What if?. What if I had gone to the Maldives, what would have happened?”

00:03:27 Gary

So tell us a little bit about Secret Paradise Maldives. You focus on local island tourism, which to a lot of our listeners may not be that that apparent that this is something that can be done in the Maldives. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you’ve developed that concept?

00:03:42 Ruth

Yep, sure. In a nutshell, Secret Paradise is about exploring the Maldives beyond the beach or the well-known vision as you’ve just said there, Gary, in terms of white sands, blue water, luxury resorts, water villas over the water - it’s about discovering off the beaten path locations. It’s about connecting with local communities, with the culture and with the environment.

And so when we started back in 2012, the opportunity, as I’ve previously mentioned, for tourists to stay on local islands, had only recently come into being, so the challenge for us was not just about promoting a new brand and your business and your product. It was also about educating the consumer, as well as the travel industry.

People were were definitely not aware then that there was this alternative style of Maldives holiday, and whilst that awareness has certainly grown over the last 10 years, as you mentioned, there’s still a very wide number of people that don’t appreciate that there’s this option to stay on a locally inhabited island in a guesthouse property and experience everything that the Maldives has to offer, but perhaps at a more affordable price.

So when we started our journey, there were only 23 registered guest houses in the Maldives and now there are 349 approved properties across 50 two islands. But prior to COVID-19, there were actually over 500 registered properties and they accounted for 20% of the bed capacity here in the Maldives.

So initially properties were small, 6 to 8 bedrooms probably converted from local homes into we would perhaps envisage as a bed and breakfast style property, but now guest houses are purpose built and they include boutique style properties. And what probably can also be considered as island hotels equipped with seaview balconies, swimming pools, spas and restaurants. But there are some compromises to staying local, and those need to be taken into consideration.

So the first of those is that on local islands, because the Maldives is a Muslim country, no alcohol is available. Secondly, there are dedicated tourist beaches and when we first started business, not every single local island had a dedicated tourist beach, and now it’s very much par for the course.

And thirdly, it’s about dressing appropriately, so tourists need to be aware that it’s not as relaxed on local islands in terms of standard of dress and as long as you are dressed appropriately and you’re covered appropriately, then still T shirts and shorts go, but bikinis are for the bikini tourist beaches or for when you’re out on a boat in the ocean, but certainly local tourism opened up the Maldives from a more affordable point of view, and it’s also opened up the Maldives to people who, when they travel, want to experience a country, they want to get under the skin of a country and learn about its history, meet people, get an understanding of traditions and culture.

And staying on a local island and certainly traveling with Secret Paradise allows people to be able to do that.

00:07:21 Gary

So a bit of background for listeners, I mean I’m lucky enough to have been to the Maldives, but it’s about 10 years ago, so I thought I’d refresh with a few statistics.

Actually, the Maldives is spread across 1,192 islands in the Indian Ocean. It’s a total area of 90,000 square kilometers, but only 298 square kilometres is actually dry land. Now these islands are a double chain of 26 atolls, and they span the equator.

00:07:48 Hannah

So Ruth, who are Secret Paradise Maldives customers, are they from the UK, are they from other countries? Are they Muslim tourists, maybe because it’s easier for them to stay there? Who are your customers or who were they pre-COVID?

00:08:05 Ruth

We’re quite fortunate in that we do have a wide destination and customer profile, so we have customers or guests that are coming long haul and they’ll be from Scandinavia, the UK, US, Australia, Canada. And then we have those that will be coming short-haul, three or four nights/ days of which 30% of our business would be from Southeast Asia. So particularly the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia, and in 2019 South East Asia arrivals accounted for 5% of the arrivals into the Maldives. So even though it’s a hop, skip and a jump, it’s still not a large proportion of travelers that are entering.

And then when you dive a bit deeper into our numbers, we also have a very broad age range, so we have students who are traveling either in their gap year or traveling as a group and then we have those that are traveling before they settle down and start a family, and then we have the other end of the spectrum where we have people who have retired and now having their travel moment

I think we benefit from the fact that we are the Maldives, so it’s a bucket list destination, it’s a destination that people aspire to travel to, and nowadays if you’re traveling around Asia and you’re in Sri Lanka or you’re in India, for example, it was very easy, pre-COVID, to have jumped onto a flight and come over to the Maldives, but for two or three nights - it might not be a long stay.

Certainly if you’re traveling around this particular location of the world, the Maldives would be generally on peoples tick lists of “we need to get there”.

00:10:01 Gary

Now we hear a lot across the industry about sustainability, but sustainability is incredibly important in the Maldives because of the nature of its geography, and it is pretty vulnerable to climate change and your company is very aware and actually actively promotes sustainability. Can you tell us a bit more about what you do and is that a driving factor when you’re attracting your clients?

00:10:25 Ruth

Yes, sustainability is really important to us, Gary. So when we started, it was about employing local. It was about staying local. It was about using local services and as we have grown, that has developed into education. So whether that’s education of our team, of our guests, or local communities.

It’s been about working with local NGOs to protect the environment and support local initiatives, and in turn that has been given us the opportunity to ensure our guests have the opportunity to give back, which may be getting involved in a beach clean. It may be about working on a coral nursery in terms of checking it, reporting data, or even planting coral. It could be about understanding why seagrass and mangroves are important to island nations such as the Maldives.

00:11:25 Hannah

So do you see it post covid becoming more of a driving factor now? Are you seeing more customers taking sustainability more seriously? That that’s one of the driving factors behind them booking with you to the Maldives, as opposed to booking a big resort.

00:11:42 Ruth

I do believe the events of 2020, together with the focus on the climate crisis, will have made many people stop and think about their travel choices. But I also feel there is still an educational requirement. People may consider how they travel in relation to protecting the environment, but not everyone actually understands the wider meaning of sustainability, where actually, sustainable tourism is driven by the stakeholders of the destination. And as you mentioned at the beginning of this question, Gary, you know the Maldives really does have to rely on sustainability or actions of sustainability to ensure that it has a future.

So I think sustainable tourism has gathered momentum over the past year, and I think that there’s been far more media coverage. There’s been a lot of prediction articles that have mentioned sustainable tourism and a lot of travel publications that are focused on responsible tourism, ecotourism sustainable touring. And so, therefore, on that basis, I think the demand can only grow further.

But I also think that destinations worldwide, not just necessarily the Maldives, have got to start to think long and hard about the actions that they are taking and the actions that they are promoting to encourage guests to travel with an understanding that they are traveling to a sustainable environment and their staying in a property that upholds a sustainable values, for example.

So people booking with Secret Paradise are two fold. We do have the traveler who seeks us out because of what we provide, and we perhaps further tailor-make itineraries to ensure that they are ticking all the boxes that they want to achieve when they’re in the Maldives, as well as being able to have completed a sustainable holiday.

But we also have the traveler that contacts us because they want a cultural experience, they want to see another side of the Maldives and that may be about combining a resorts stay with a Secret Paradise tour, and I think some of those type of travelers don’t actually understand that they are being a responsible or a sustainable traveler, it’s just that they want to experience something different. They want to experience a culture they want to be in an environment that’s slightly different to the norm for them, perhaps. So I think this is where it comes back to that educational piece.

In those travelers don’t know that they want to be responsible and sustainable, but actually are being responsible and sustainable, but don’t actually understand that the choices they’re making are putting them in that category.

00:14:48 Gary

Now we’ll come to the reopening in a few moments, because the Maldives is being sort of held up as a bit of a case study of a country that can reopen quite successfully. But let’s go back to 2020 and before the reopening, so it was a year in three parts: you have the first part of the year where you are open, I’m presuming you the business is quite good and then obviously had the closure. At the beginning of 2020, was business growing quite fast? Were you looking forward to a positive year?

00:15:15 Ruth

Yes, we were, and the Maldives in general had a very successful 2019 and was looking to have a super boosted 2020 and we were in exactly the same position, so in 2019 we had hit a big 7-digit revenue business and so for us 2020 was going to be absolutely awesome and in terms of January, February, we were getting a good level of business. We still had bookings on the books for March and April, and then at the end of February beginning of March, that’s when the change happened, and I think for a lot of people sat talking about, “OK, so we’re not going to get this market, and this may be changed,” not initially expecting the borders to be fully closed. And also certainly not expecting that 12 months on, we would still be in a very similar position in terms of the situation as far as travel is concerned.

00:16:29 Hannah

Yeah, absolutely. I think everybody, no one back then thought that we would still be sat here in February 2021, still talking about COVID. So the Maldives’ first phase of reopening was the 15th of July, right?

00:16:46 Ruth

That’s right, yes.

00:16:47 Hannah

So was that something that was welcomed by locals?

00:16:51 Ruth

In a country reliant on tourism to survive, and with a large proportion of the population impacted by tourism, directly or indirectly, I think for the vast majority of Maldivians it was, it was welcomed. It was something that needed to be done in order to survive, I guess. And was it all the hotels or just selected hotels? How did the opening first work?

00:17:16 Ruth

So I think this is where the government and the tourism bodies that were all involved in the strategy for reopening played the right parts, in that it was a phased reopening. So initially, resorts were allowed to open. And then live-aboards were able to operate, and then it wasn’t until much later on down the line that guest houses on local islands could operate.

So we were well into quarter four by the time that local islands were opened to tourists, and during that period of time there have been changes made, so the original plan hasn’t been stuck to. So if changes have needed to be made, there’s been flexibility within that strategy to take into account changes with COVID and what’s happening in a more worldwide perspective.

00:18:20 Gary

So the situation when Maldives reopened in July, there was no requirement for a for a COVID test. Is that correct? But that was added later. Is that one of the health and safety precautions which, as you’ve said, they’ve been a bit flexible and they’ve adapted, as the country has gone along?

00:18:38 Ruth

Yes, that’s correct. So when we reopened, RT-PCR tests were not a mandatory requirement prior to arrival. However, this decision was changed in August, and it was definitely the right decision to make. It was probably a hard decision, I think. Any decisions that any government or tourism body is having to make are difficult decisions at this moment in time, and I’m sure many of us would not like to be in those seats. But certainly in terms of the PCR test, it needed to happen.

I think also because the Maldives was the first tourism destination to open, there was an aspect of do we have PCR? Don’t we have PCR? And now following that, it’s normal to expect to have a PCR test before you travel, before you even get on your flight, so I think that’s where the turning point perhaps came in terms of it being an acceptance as opposed to it being detrimental to people arriving into the Maldives.

00:19:49 Gary

And are people tested during their stay? Or is it just before they arrive?

00:19:54 Ruth

If you’re staying on a resort, some resorts have implemented their own PCR testing scheme, so you may arrive with a negative PCR test, but the resort will also expect you to PCR test on arrival at the resort, and once you get a negative test result at the resort then in within 24 hours, you’re then allowed to roam freely around there.

And then there are also resorts that may ask for a test partway through a stay, particularly if you’re doing a long stay, and even test upon departure.

From a mandatory point of view, guests that stay on local islands are required to have a PCR test prior to departure, and that’s about protecting the local communities and also minimizing the risk of spread.

00:20:48 Hannah

And have you seen many cases that have been transmitted from tourists to locals? Or has the Maldives not experienced so much of that, do you know?

00:20:59 Ruth

The statistics are broken down so that we can see the level of cases within greater Maldives, and the level of cases in resorts, inhabited islands, and in islands that are under construction. But as I say, we can’t, on a general level, see if there’s an impact in terms of tourism.

00:21:23 Gary

So if we look back, as we mentioned at the beginning of the of the show, it’s seven months now since the Maldives has reopened. If you look back across that period, what do you think would be some of the key learnings that the Maldives gained from this, and the other destinations could perhaps adopt in future?

00:21:40 Ruth

I think there are three key learnings and we’ve probably touched on each of those in the conversation so far. From my point of view, it is about not being afraid to make changes. So we talked about the PCR not being mandatory on arrival and those changes being made. Likewise, restrictions in Greater Male have changed over a period of time, and I think it’s important that destinations, governments, tourism authorities shouldn’t be afraid of making those changes, providing they are either being proactive as they are being, or they’re responding to something that has happened that needs to be addressed appropriately, I think.

Secondly, it’s about testing. For the Maldives, it’s obviously far more simpler logistically to be able to do that in terms of people coming into the country from an arrival point and then when they go to their designated resort island or local island. But I think in terms of testing, it’s definitely key to minimizing the risk and having an awareness that if there’s a positive case, that it can be reacted to and the appropriate actions can be taken in order to limit the risk of everybody else on that particular island or in that particular hotel.

And then I think the third thing was the phased opening, so properties had to have approval before they could gain, operate and accept tourists, and then, as I mentioned there was this phased opening of resorts, then local islands, which again was another change that the government took the decision to make. So there was a date set for local islands to reopen and welcome tourists and that was put back on more than one occasion to ensure that the time was right, and the challenges and the processes were in place in order to be able to welcome tourists in a safe way, and to ensure that communities were also in a safe position.

00:24:16 Hannah

That’s great, and so what’s happening in terms of vaccinations in the Maldives, as from here it looks like they’re advancing pretty quickly? Where did tourism workers fall in this program?

00:24:28 Ruth

Vaccination started on the 1st of February and they were led by the president and other members of the administration. And as with other countries, the focus was on frontline workers and high-risk categories, but really pleased to say that tourism fell into frontline workers. And on the 4th of February, the Tourism Employee Program was launched with an aim of vaccinating 10,000 tourism employees.

So currently there are 56 centers across the Maldives implementing vaccination, 8 of those are in Male, just over 50,000 individuals up until last night had been vaccinated, and out of that 50,000 78% of those had been individuals that have been vaccinated here in Male, which is definitely the right focus given the dense population here in Greater Male.

I’m really pleased to say that a couple of our guides have had their vaccinations because they’re working at the airport and receiving guests.

00:25:39 Gary

Now, one of the things that the Maldives has promoted itself as since it reopened is this kind of safe haven. As you mentioned, all these protocols have been put in place, so do you think that vaccine tourism might become a thing? Is it something that the Maldives might promote?

00:25:54 Ruth

The tourism minister has highlighted that vaccine tourism would be explored, but for the moment the priority was getting 100% of the population vaccinated so you know, potentially, for the future it could be in an avenue.

00:26:12 Hannah

We’ve just talked a lot about what happened in 2020. Obviously, we’re halfway through the second month of 2021 already. What do you think is in store for the Maldives this year, Ruth? It set this target of 1.5 million pax. Do you think that’s achievable?

00:26:27 Ruth

I don’t think it’s impossible, especially with vaccinations starting worldwide.

00:26:34 Ruth

There are however, key markets that will need to be free to travel again, such as UK and Europe because they definitely impact the arrival numbers.

I also think that seasonal patterns are very likely to change, and I would envisage that months that would usually be deemed as low season, so May-July, could potentially see increases dependent on when people around the world have the opportunity to travel.

But having said that, there’s quite a lot in store for the Maldives in general. There’s 18 new resorts planned to open, a mix of local and international brands. Earlier this year, the Maldives Virtual Tour was launched, which provides 360 degree tours of 150 islands, which, while people are at home, gives them the opportunity to explore the Maldives in a completely new, digital way.

I think the Maldives will also see increased duration of stay, whether that’s through workcations or through general holidays. Currently, the average number of nights is standing at 9.1, previous to COVID it was at 6.3, so definitely longer stays already in place.

Something that interestingly, is coming to the Maldives, is skydiving and so perfect for thrill seekers out there. So Skydive Maldives, in partnership with Kandima Resort, have literally just launched a new skydiving program. So having done skydiving myself, I think it’s a certain category of traveler that that will most definitely appeal to.

And then also laws have been changed recently which allow resorts to lease rooms or villas to other parties for extended periods. So resorts are offering almost a residence ownership program, which again I think ties into the extended stays. So plenty on the agenda and 2022 is the Golden Jubilee year for the Maldives so I’m sure there’s a lot more that some travelers can look forward to here.

00:28:52 Gary

Well, it’s been fascinating talking to Ruth there have been some great insights and it’s been really interesting to learn more and more about the experiences that you’ve had since COVID-19 hit and the reopening. So we’ve gotta ask you, a lot of our listeners will be pretty envious of you living and working in the Maldives, but you personally, where do you crave to visit next?

00:29:10 Ruth

I have to be honest and say that since arriving in the Maldives, I do travel hardly anywhere outside of the Maldives, because for me there’s so much still to explore here. But if I were able to travel anywhere in the world, I do have a desire to get to Cuba. It’s somewhere that was on my list that I have never got to as yet, so Cuba, but I would also love to get back to Kathmandu and also New York. Those are my top three destinations, I guess.

00:29:45 Hannah

Nice pick of destinations! That brings us to the end of this week’s Maldives edition of the show.

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