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Reopening Maldives Tourism on a Wing and a Prayer

12 May 2021
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Armilla Maldives

Reopening a resort in the Maldives after four months of lockdown has not been without some serious challenges.

I was in two minds about whether to write and publish this or not. But due to my obsessive-compulsive nature when it comes to guest satisfaction, I felt it necessary to shed some light on a situation from a hotelier’s perspective. What inspired me to do this? This year I’ve observed more negative reviews for a number of previously well-reviewed Maldives resorts than I’ve seen in my entire eight years of working in the Maldives.

Let me start by saying this isn’t an attempt to defend any poor service. But I do want to share my experience on a highly abnormal festive season that took place during a pandemic – the likes of which we’ve never seen before since tourism began in the Maldives in the late 1970s.

The Maldives reopened in mid-July 2020, initially with very few arrivals. Only 11 flights per day were landing, compared to the 60-plus we normally see. This impacted our procurement channels too. Almost all the fresh food in the Maldives arrives by air freight. That’s because the Maldives doesn’t have enough landmass for big-scale agriculture and farming, so we can’t create enough produce here to meet demand from guests. (Also, the humid tropical climate isn’t suited to growing every kind of fruit and vegetable).

So, we created new organic gardens, a banana plantation, mushroom hut, and even experimented with aquaponics to get the best out of our soil. (Luckily, Amilla had quite fertile soil to start with and lots of wild areas that were perfect for converting into fruit and vegetable gardens). We even built ‘Cluckingham Palace’ chicken coop to ensure we always have fresh eggs. Pretty soon, we were harvesting our own potatoes, sweet potatoes, moringa, rocket, bananas, and all manner of herbs.

When the borders reopened, it was hard to say what made our team happiest – seeing guests again, or finally getting more seasonal vegetables from overseas on our plates again! For the first few months, we focused on creating the best possible experience for our guests. They seemed quite content and relieved to be shielded from the grim realities of the pandemic.

From a business perspective, we averaged a cancellation rate of over 50 percent during the first three months following reopening. Most of the cancellations were only three to seven days before their arrival date. Due to the fluctuating global situation, it’s now essential for every resort and hotel around the world to offer guests unprecedented levels of booking flexibility. But this severely impacts their ability to effectively plan ahead. Food orders in the Maldives are placed 10 to 12 days in advance. Last-minute cancellations make the ordering process very risky. Especially since everyone was still walking a delicate financial tightrope after having no income for five months.

Then came the first major change. Russia reopened its borders. With so many Russians keen to travel, the booking patterns and cancellation rate changed again dramatically. All of a sudden, we had a lot of guests arriving – mostly within just a few days of making their booking. The cancellation rate fell to fifteen percent, and again we had to make some very quick purchasing and staffing decisions in response.

Suddenly, every resort here required a lot more staff. But most of our neighbouring ASEAN countries were still closed and flights from other locations severely limited. Despite all resorts being required by law to have at least 50 percent Maldivian staff, at the moment, unfortunately, there simply isn’t a large enough hospitality workforce in the Maldives to serve its 143-plus resorts.

As a result, we had to get creative. Every member of our team that had stayed on the island stepped up to help us, jumping into new roles. My wife became part of the Food and Beverage team overnight; organising the rosters, planning food orders, creating menus, and even getting hands-on in the kitchen. The spa therapists turned their hands to gardening and butlers turned into the maintenance team and housekeepers to get the rooms back to guest-ready. It was actually a really fun time, and we involved some of our guests, who loved the story and became a treasured part of this journey.

Many other resorts in the Maldives started to reopen again too. But many of our usual supply chain markets (such as Thailand and Australia) were still closed. That meant every resort was fighting for supplies coming out of Dubai and Sri Lanka.

Only six weeks before the festive season, we were anticipating a twenty-five to thirty-five percent occupancy rate for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. We (correctly) predicted that the UK would lockdown again, so our entertainment and guests wouldn’t be able to travel from there. And we still couldn’t get all the food items we required. Payments for staging, entertainment, decorations, and many other things were due. The question was, should we push ahead and do the festive season or not?

So, as most resorts did, we designed special offers with flexible booking to see if it would entice guests wanting to escape to somewhere secluded and safe. Suddenly, festive bookings went sky-high. Demand was incredible – but there was also an incredibly high need from guests, after an extraordinarily tough year, for personal satisfaction and family reconnection.

Behind the scenes, resorts were still fighting to get premium produce for their guests. They were also still struggling to get old and new team members into the country. This was a festive season like no other in the Maldives. And there were some complaints. Talking with other general managers, this seems to be the same story across most resorts, including Amilla, where we’d purposefully kept a number of rooms vacant so as to not overstretch the team.

From the guests’ perspective, they were in desperate need of some normality. A bit of luxury and an enriching time; some respite from the pandemic with their families. This natural human need unintentionally created even more pressure on resorts to deliver an above-normal Maldives resort experience in less-than-optimal conditions.

At Amilla, all our team members pitched in with zeal. But the new training and restrictions (such as compulsory 14-day quarantine for all returning staff) and having to recover from months of shutdown meant it was extremely challenging to deliver a ‘normal’ Maldives resort experience. Some resort team, like us, worked their backsides off, and this went ok. For our team, I was so grateful for their commitment.

We’re happy we stuck to our guns on continuing PCR testing for all staff and guests on arrival, for an extra layer of protection. This gives our guests and team a sense of ‘normality’ not found often in the world right now.

Back to the purpose of this article. While the intention of every resort in the Maldives is still to exceed expectations, all I can ask for is (during these unprecedented and totally unpredictable times) to please allow for some understanding of the conditions each resort has weathered in this topsy turvy ‘new’ world.

The Maldives is still the best destination on the planet. I do believe that every resort is really trying to deliver the experience, atmosphere, and special connection that guests have always experienced here. On behalf of our fellow resorts, I’m asking you, the reader, to please not let a bad review or two put you off at the moment. The writer may not have been fully cognizant of that resort’s circumstances, or may not realise that no destination is operating completely ‘normally’ right now. Their teams have overcome so much – against the odds – to bring back the world-famous Maldives magic. If you have any doubts, call the resorts, speak to their leadership, and ask them what they’ve learned. I’m sure you’ll be surprised at what you discover.

In the meantime, every resort in the Maldives is continuing to work extremely hard behind the scenes. Finding ways to work around roadblocks. Getting creative with solutions. Inventing new ways of pampering and surprising guests. Overcoming obstacles to work towards bringing guests the world-class Maldives experience they deserve.

About the author
Jason KruseWith a strong focus on crafting innovative guest journeys and a guest centric team, Jason Kruse has been working in global hospitality for 17 years. Since 2019 he has been general manager of Amilla Maldives, where he has repositioned and rebranded the property, implemented sustainability goals and successfully guided the team through the logistical (and psychological) challenges of the pandemic. Having previously held the accolade of the Maldives’ longest-serving expat general manager, he brings unparalleled expertise to Amilla; improving its TripAdvisor ranking by 40 places in his first 12 months. Jason is also an avid cyclist, having cycled much of Spain, and recently enhanced the unique fitness options and cycling trails on the spacious island resort.