On a Thursday evening, fishermen from the local market push buckets of fish guts to the low-lying seawall north-west of the capital, tipping the remains into the sea. Around a dozen whiptail stingrays, lured by the easy meal, scamper to the surface of the ocean for the feast.
Ming Yang Hi and his wife follow a local tour guide to the seawall to witness this moment, as they explore the capital in the hours leading up to their flight back to China.
“Maldives is very beautiful. We come here for the cuisine, for the colours, for the white sandy beaches.” Ming Yang Hi speaks slowly and carefully, easing in and out of Mandarin as he searches for the right words with his wife.
Ming is among the thousands of Chinese tourists that visited the Maldives during China’s “super Golden Week” – a bumper eight-day period combining two public holidays. More than 750 million trips were taken by the Chinese during this vacation bonanza, according to the China National Tourism Association.
But this year’s ‘golden week’ has been anything but for the Maldives, say tour operators.
Chinese visitors to the Maldives had been increasing since 2010. In 2014 they made up 30 percent of all tourists, but that number has been steadily declining. China remains the single highest supplier of tourists to the country, but dwindling figures have heightened fears that the market has peaked.
Tucked away in a narrow two-storey building, “Antique & Style Souvenir Mart” advertises its name in English and Chinese. A billboard advertises sarong dresses, chocolates, coral necklaces, T-shirts, keychains and WiFi to Chinese travellers. Up the dingy red staircase, an animated LED display welcomes shoppers in two languages. Despite being far from the usual tourist areas, the shop attracts a steady flow of Chinese customers through its connections to resorts and tour operators.
“Our business is surviving because of Chinese travellers,” says Ahmed Amir, the owner. In 2014, with the dip in Russian and Japanese markets, he started targeting the Chinese.
“The Chinese travel to Maldives as groups – just like Maldivians travel to India. They come with their parents and grandparents. If they’re travelling as a couple, they will come with a shopping list to buy souvenirs for their siblings, uncles, mothers,” he explains.
Abdulla Mausoom, general manager of Sun Island Resort, downplays the image of the badly behaved Chinese tourist.
“People say Chinese tourists are very noisy, that they bring cases of noodles, but this is like how Maldivians take rihaakuru (burnt fish paste) everywhere,” he says.
Resorts, traditionally geared towards the European visitor, have had to adapt to Chinese tastes. For many resorts, balancing both has become a way to be resilient to shocks in the global market and to keep occupancy rates up during the “off season”.
“For our resorts, we enjoy having Chinese visitors. They don’t drink so much, they carry their own flask and drink green tea. They don’t spend so much on food, but they spend a lot on excursions, activities, diving and such,” says Mausoom.
Sun Island Resort & Spa receive large groups of Chinese visitors every year, even conducting special training to prevent Chinese holidaymakers from drowning. There is even a name for it: Special Security Operation for Chinese New Year, better known among resort staff as “SSOCHNY”.
It employs Mandarin speakers who brief the Chinese before they go on dives. The extra preparation has prevented fatalities in several “near death cases”, says Mausoom.
“Very recently, we got a group of 700 Chinese. For the period they were here, they made up 70 percent of the resort’s occupants. Chinese President Xi Jinping actually stayed in one of our sister resorts when he visited the Maldives — Paradise Island Resort.”
However the Chinese are criticised for not understanding the Maldives service industry, which is similar to the European one.
“The Chinese are not used to giving tips, and unless a tour operator or travel agent tells them to, they will not know that it is the culture of Maldives tourism industry, ” says shop worker Didi who, after living in China, speaks Mandarin fluently.
“The Chinese market and the European market are treated differently in the Maldives. The European market gets lower rates, the Chinese are expected to pay higher.”
The shop Didi works in is on the busiest ‘souvenir street’ in the capital, with businesses crammed into rundown buildings.
“No Chinese, no business. This whole block wouldn’t survive without them,” says Didi.
The decline of Chinese tourists could send shockwaves through the Maldivian economy. It is widely believed the Chinese market softened the blow of the global financial crisis to the Maldives in 2009.
“The government should spend more on advertising now,” Mausoom says.