Brand Maldives: the paradox

Brand Maldives: the paradox
December 09 19:00 2015

By Hassan Saeed

“Deep in brand Maldives lies a fundamental paradox. Travellers almost exclusively stay on their luxury islands. Barely encouraged or even educated that there is a world outside the postage stamp island the tourists call home during their stay.” ~ David Keen – CEO QUO Consulting.

Brand Maldives is up there with the best. MBA students at some of the finest business schools study and analyse brand Maldives along with the best – the Apples, Samsungs, Nikes and the Four Seasons of the world.

The unique geo-physical features of the Maldives have given the brand a competitive edge. Islands in the Maldives are small and beautiful, picture perfect! Over the past 40 years, tourism development has seen some of the finest hospitality brands set up properties on these islands. These properties offer the finest in luxury.

The latest statistics from the Ministry of Tourism reveal that only one out of every five guests who come to the Maldives visits a local island. While tourist resorts and the villas tourists stay on these island provide all the mod cons a guest would require, life in the local villages is very far removed from these picturesque settings. The villagers or the locals on some of the outlying islands still lack clean water and proper sewerage systems.

If fans of brand Nike are concerned with the working conditions at factories in Bangladesh, rich tourists who travel to the Maldives must surely ask themselves how ethical is it is for them to support an industry that siphons off the riches earned by exploiting the natural beauty of these of islands and takes it abroad with just a minute percentage of it trickling down to the average Maldivian… Surely, some tourists must grapple with this dilemma had they known the disparity between what is available for tourists and the conditions of the islanders.

People who study or write on human motivation and consumer behavior, like Dan Pink, suggest that the consumers, including tourists, will look for meaning in everything they do. Consumers would increasingly want to associate themselves with brands that are conscientious, who have hearts and mean the best for all their stakeholders. Brands must have symbiotic relationships with their stakeholders in reality. The important principles discussed in the book Firms of Endearment must become the compass via which brands set their strategic direction.

The tourism industry may very well be the goose that lays golden eggs for the economy but as some experts put it, if the same goose messes up its own nest, the long term survival of the goose could very well be in question. It will start to rot from within and could self destruct.

Experts cite many issues with the way the Maldives tourism industry operates – from the ownership models to employment and supply chains – the vast majority of the locals are disenfranchised. There is genuine discontent amongst the public and years of neglect, a will to maintain the status quo by successive policy makers have left gaping holes for politicians to exploit the situation and use the argument to take advantage momentarily only to be forgotten once in power.

Tourists and locals

Top: Tourists enjoying stand up paddling at a resort (Image from Waterwaystravel.com). Bottom: Children paddling in a flooded backyard, flooding is common in some islands and causes damage to crops and property (Image from Haveeru.com.mv)

If the tourism industry of Maldives is to become more equitable i.e. equal distribution of wealth, better pay and more opportunities for the locals, it must be transformed. Policies must be reformed and there must be re-regulation of employment, especially the local to foreign ratio. At brand or property level, more needs to be done in terms of corporate social responsibility.

Industry players must connect with the community and governments should encourage, facilitate or even coerce more investment in long term public sector commitments by resort operators. May be the adoption of two local islands’ social and economic infrastructure support by each of the 100 resorts is more feasible than promising shares in resort companies to local youth.

After all, brand maldives should be about Maldives. The brand should ‘belong’ to the locals and tourists should not only know what the best properties are, but also what it means to be Maldivian and how the rightful owners of these beautiful islands benefit from the thousands of dollars tourists spend.

Hassan Saeed is a blogger who writes the blog Hassanfushi. 

This article was first published on Hassanfushi. Republished with permission.

Cover photo by AJ Libuano.  

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