Tourism Minister Moosa Zameer has conceded that the government’s target of 1.5 million tourist arrivals in 2016 will not be met, blaming the opposition’s alleged scaremongering about religious extremism in the Maldives.
“There are challenges in tourist arrivals. Growth hasn’t been what we anticipated,” he told reporters on Wednesday, adding that the revised target is now 1.4 million arrivals.
“More dangerous than the Al Jazeera [corruption exposé Stealing Paradise] is the damage from talk of Maldives as a terrorist nation.”
The opposition’s claim that the Maldives is the highest per capita supplier of jihadis to militant groups in Syria has been widely reported since late 2014. But the government maintains that the figure has been inflated to lobby for international support.
After missing its target of 1.4 million visitors in 2015, the government had launched a ‘Visit Maldives Year 2016′ campaign with a goal of welcoming 1.5 million tourists this year.
As of July, arrivals have increased by 2.3 percent compared to the previous year. But moderate growth from traditional European markets has been offset by falling resort occupancy rates and a 12 percent decline in Chinese visitors, who account for a third of annual arrivals.
Zameer said the government has been increasing marketing expenditure to counter the opposition’s claims by hiring public relations firms and consultants.
“Until recently Maldives’ tourism was promoted only by going to fairs. But now we respond to what’s done against us by keeping consultants,” he said.
The opposition was previously accused of conducting a tourism boycott campaign at the ITB Berlin travel fair in March. But opposition MPs strongly denied the allegation at the time, contending that tourist arrivals slowed down last year due to the widely-condemned imprisonment of opposition leaders and the declaration of a state of emergency in November.
At the ITB convention – the world’s largest travel and trade exhibition where the Maldives was this year’s official partner country – Zameer had also lambasted “scare stories of religious extremists threatening tourists”.
But European tour operators who spoke to the Maldives Independent after the six-day state of emergency suggested that years of bad press about political turmoil coupled with the dearth of mid-range hotels was undermining the Maldives’ attractiveness as a destination.
Zameer was speaking to the press yesterday during a one-day conference on destination marketing and promotion, which the tourism ministry said was the largest to date in the Maldives.
“The main focus of the conference is to present and discuss key findings and analysis on the destination and relevant competitor markets derived from data-intelligence research by the Ministry of Tourism and the LexisNexis Group of Consultants,” the ministry said.
The discussions “targeted strategic planning, creating an intelligence hub, events and exhibitions, aviation infrastructure and zooms into a key target market that is China.”
The conference was part of events held to mark World Tourism Day on September 28, which kicked off with a high-level tourism industry forum at the convention centre in Malé.
On Tuesday morning, guests from the morning flights of Korean Air and Emirates, the day’s first arrivals, were welcomed with a small gift by tourism ministry and airport company staff amid a backdrop of cultural dances.
In his address on the occasion, President Abdulla Yameen meanwhile noted that nine new resorts are scheduled to open before the end of the year, adding to the four that began operations this year.
The administration’s ambitious airport expansion project “to cater to the increasing demand of the industry would further open the gates towards catering to 7.5 million visitors per year – increasing the gains from the sector several fold,” the president’s office said.
He also pledged support for “encouraging more medium sized ventures within the industry,” referring to setting up the Maldives Integrated Tourism Development Corporation last month.
Zameer meanwhile told the press after launching the forum yesterday that it will prove beneficial for “choosing tourism development policies” and formulating a tourism master plan.
“Other than the international airport, we are also developing more domestic airports to make travelling easier for tourists,” he said, identifying poor transport infrastructure as a major challenge to expanding tourism beyond the central atolls in the ‘seaplane zone,’ where the vast majority of tourist resorts were developed.
Other events planned to mark World Tourism Day meanwhile include land and reef cleaning exercises, a gala dinner, and a road show as well as exposure trips to resorts for school students.
The trips are due to begin Saturday with 23 resorts welcoming students from 29 schools in 10 atolls. A total of 363 students, 49 teachers and 39 parents are expected to participate.
Additional reporting by Shafaa Hameed.