Rude Travel by Vir Sanghvi: The Maldives returns to luxury
Last January, just before the pandemic changed our lives, I wrote about Goa and the Maldives. I had seen both destinations develop before my eyes, I said. I went to Goa in 1976 when the Aguada Resort was the only game in town. But Goa grew and became, for much of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the trendy place to go for New Year, till the smart set moved on. Now, it is a middling destination with some good hotels but hardly any property that is world-class.
In the early 1990s when I went to the Maldives, it was almost a secret destination. It was one hour from Trivandrum by plane and stunningly beautiful. The hotels were basic and the clientele tended to consist of Eastern European tour groups. I went again and again because it was so breathtaking: thousands of little coral islands and the clearest water I had ever seen. And, yes, it may have helped that it was cheaper than Goa.
Over the years, the Maldives transformed beyond recognition. Deluxe hotels opened and the big chains arrived. Now everyone is here: Waldorf Astoria from the Hilton group whose Rangali Hilton was an early entrant; the Ritz Carlton, The St. Regis, Hyatt, Shangri La and of course, the Four Seasons.
By last year, before the pandemic struck, the Maldives had the highest room rates in the world, more than any resort property in Bora Bora or the French Riviera.
The pandemic changed all that. As Western countries imposed restrictions on travel and people stopped travelling anyway out of fear, the Maldives shut down all tourism. But then, as Covid cases spread far less quickly than expected, authorities came to the conclusion that the nature of the country — thousands of separate islands — meant that transmission rates would stay low. So the Maldives re-opened again but insisted that anyone who came was first tested. Resort staff were regularly tested, were masked and, if they left the resort for any reason, they were put into quarantine when they returned.
But would this be enough to get guests to come? Because if they did not, then the Maldivian economy was in trouble. Tourism is the country’s largest employer.
To persuade tourists to visit, the Maldivian authorities invited Western social media influencers to, as the New York Times put it, “stay at resorts and gush about them on social media. Which they did.”
Except that this wasn’t enough because Western countries had imposed restrictions that made travel to the Maldives difficult. This lack of tourists hit the country’s three and four-star resorts particularly hard. These are relatively modest resorts (on par with Goa’s five-star hotels) that survived on group tourism from Europe. When the groups stopped coming, they panicked.
For years, the Maldives had not bothered too much about the Indian market. Now, in desperation they turned to middle class Indian tourists offering astounding deals — two people can travel to a Maldivian resort for four nights, eat all they want, get free flights from Delhi and pay a little over a lakh. This made a holiday in the Maldives nearly as cheap as Goa.
Then, the old influencer strategy that had been tried in the West was aimed at India and hundreds of bloggers, models, and starlets were invited for free holidays. It created a buzz among people who would not normally have dreamt of going to the Maldives. More than a lakh Indians have since visited the Maldives, usually staying at resorts that few people other than tour operators had heard of.
Bizarrely, the Maldives is now in competition with Goa again. It has become, as I wrote, the new Goa.
There are two caveats to this boom. What happens this autumn when the season begins and the Western package tourists return? Will the resorts still offer those rock-bottom packages to Indians? It seems unlikely. But who knows?
The other caveat is the damage to the destination’s image. It billed itself as an exclusive, high-end holiday spot. That image is dying. Can the destination recover its old status?
Last week, in the Maldives, I spoke to hotel industry veterans. They pointed out that there had always been two Maldives. There was the Maldives of the group tour. But there was also a super-exclusive Maldives with such resorts, as Velaa Private Island, Cheval Blanc, Soneva Jani and a few others. Most of these hotels did not play the influencer game. They held their rates steady and some like the Four Seasons, did not host a single guest for free.
I stayed this time at Nautilus, a relatively new resort (two years) that is the latest entrant in the top end resort space. The problem with opening a super luxury resort in the Maldives is that so many others have done the same thing and all the Maldives experiences are easily duplicated: beach dining, sandbank dining, a state-of-the-art spa, yoga and healing therapies, fine wines, great chefs, water sports, dolphin cruises, private yachts, movies shown on the beach, etc.
So what could Nautilus do that had not been done before? Its solution has been to emphasise the residential nature of its kind of luxury. It is located on a small island and has only 26 large houses. These are not hotel villas. They may have all the usual stuff: private pools, private beaches etc. But they are built like houses not hotel rooms.
The idea is to promise timeless and stress-free luxury. You are met on the tarmac as you land and whisked away to a lounge. The hotel staff clear immigration for you, collect your bags and put them in a limo that takes you to your seaplane. If you have a private plane, you can skip Male airport entirely and land on a small airport near the resort.
Everything is available around the clock. There are four restaurants and 145 staff for only 26 houses and the chefs will give you what you want, night or day. If you find at 2 am that you are unable to sleep and want caviar and champagne, they will send that right away. If you wake up early – as we did one morning—and ask for idlis and sambhar, they will soon be served at your poolside.
The sense of “anything at any time” is complemented by an attention to detail. Before I arrived, my House Master (what they call a butler here, though anyone who has been to a boarding school will find this odd) kept in regular touch to check what size my feet were so they could order resort footwear. What did I want in my minibar? (Very boringly, I said Coke Zero.) Which of the seven pillows offered by the hotel did I like? What should the temperature in my pool be? (I said warmish, like a tepid bath, and indeed it was!)
The chefs treated the menu only as a starting point and each day they cooked bespoke meals. We ate many of our dinners on a table for two that was suspended over the lagoon, leading the fish to come and have a look. One night, we saw a shark hovering in the water below.
Too many Maldives resorts are now not about the Maldives. They could be in the Caribbean or the South of France. Nautilus was built by Dr Ibrahim Umar Maniku, an icon of Maldivian hospitality who owned many other resorts and wanted to create the top luxury hotel in his country. (He died young last year.) So it has a very clear sense of place.
This is not the resort you go to if you want an action-packed glamorous time with lots and lots of other people. This is a resort for tranquil luxury, and for a stress-free time.
Will it manage to take on the Chevals and the Velaas?
I think it will. But first the luxury market has to get its mojo back!
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, March 14, 2021
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