The Taste With Vir: India tourism's relationship with Maldives
How the relation ship between Maldives and Indian tourism as changed over the years. Vir Sanghvi shares his opinion.
Indian tourism has a funny relationship with the Maldives. Throughout the 1990s, when hotels in the Maldives were cheap and the islands were only a short flight away from Trivandrum or Chennai, Indians ignored them. It was not as if they were relatively inaccessible. Indian Airlines had daily flights and the Taj group ran mid-market resorts.
That was when, more out of curiously than anything else, I first went there and immediately fell in love with the Maldives, with the tiny coral islands (each one just big enough for a single hotel) and with the shallow lagoons near each island, with water so clear that you could see right to the bottom. In those days, it was cheaper to go to the Taj resorts in the Maldives than it was to go to say, Fort Aguada in Goa (the rates were full board so there were no hidden extras).
But though I sang the praise of the Maldives to anyone who would listen, very few people were tempted to go.
Then, the world discovered the Maldives. Sonu Shivdasani opened Soneva Fushi. The Four Seasons became the first luxury chain to arrive in the country. One and Only followed with Reethi Rah, which attracted wealthy Brits. One by one, in the early part of the 20th century, the world’s big hotel companies headed for the islands, and took the hotel scene upmarket. Even the Taj, recognising that it should have focussed more on the Maldives earlier, upgraded one of its properties and renamed it Taj Exotica.
That drew some Indians, but the Maldives still passed most of us by. In 2011, when I shot an entire episode of my show Custom Made in the Maldives (basing myself at the Taj Exotica), everyone I know who watched it was surprised. They had no idea that the islands were so beautiful and that they were so near to us.
By then, the Maldives had begun to change. As the luxury hotels arrived, so did the well-heeled tourists. Room rates shot up till they were astronomically expensive. At many of luxury hotels, room rates of ₹2 lakh per night during the season are not unusual. And there are resorts where the rates are even higher.
At around the same sort of time, India’s very rich grew even richer, so Indians finally began heading for the Maldives. Even so, it remained an expensive destination, out of reach for everyone except the wealthy. And, to be fair, the Maldives did very little to attract Indian tourists.
The pandemic changed all that. China closed down. Americans were reluctant to travel too far from home. Europeans were frightened of going to Asian destinations. The mid-market resorts were badly hit. They survived on group business from Europe and as the package tours were cancelled, their rooms remained empty.
That’s when the Maldives reached out to India, trying to attract the sort of tourists who might normally have regarded the Maldives as beyond their financial reach. Hundreds of starlets and influencers were invited to the lesser known resorts for free on the condition that they posted pictures (ideally in swimsuits) of themselves by the lagoon. Travel agents were allowed to sell holidays in the Maldives at low rates. After all, they had to fill up the hotel rooms somehow.
Inevitably, the consequences went beyond expectations. What the Maldives hotels did not realise at first was that rich Indians also felt trapped in our country. Much of East Asia and Europe had shut down. Because flights to the Maldives were operating and because we have never needed visas to go there, there was a sudden rush of Indians even to the more upmarket resorts.
That rush has yet to abate. In the revenge tourism boom of the post- pandemic era, the Maldives has become a destination that everyone knows about and one that most tourists aspire to go to. As Goa has gone steadily downmarket, the Maldives has become an upmarket alternative.
Of course, it has not been smooth sailing. Many of the mid-priced resorts cut back on the offers to Indians tourists as soon as Europeans started coming back. Many of the cheap deals that were available in the pandemic years disappeared. But as China (which the Maldives had counted on as a source of tourists) remains closed, Maldives hotels are rethinking their long-term approach to Indian tourists. Could it be, they ask themselves, that they have ignored India for too long?
Their concern is not so much with the peak period, with Christmas-New Year and with the times when there are school holidays in the West. The problem is with the off-peak periods, especially the summer when westerners stay away. Could Indians fill the hotels during these months?
Most hotels I know have revised their attitudes to Indian tourists and are thinking of ways to attract them. Even at the top end of the market, they believe, Indians who are willing to spend several lakhs on holidays to Europe will want to consider the Maldives which is much nearer and where there are no hassles with visas.
It is a good strategy and one which will, I think, finally cement the new romance between Indian tourists and the Maldives. And while the hotels are treating the winter as high season, I think their view may need refinement. I was in the Maldives last week and judging by relative peace and quiet at the airport and the fact that most hotels were not full, November is not quite the high season: The westerners only start coming in December or so.
November is also a good time to go to the Maldives. In the summer months, there is now a new problem. Perhaps because of global warming, it rains much more than it used to. I was there for five days in May and it rained every single day. On the other hand, at the cutting edge Four Seasons LG where I was last week it was bright and sunny every day. Perhaps because of the resort’s location, a cool breeze wafted in from the sea making air-conditioning unnecessary for much of the day.
The rain and stormy weather are bigger problems than you may think. Most Maldives resorts are some distance away from the airport and the normal way to reach there is by seaplane. And seaplanes cannot take off if there is stormy weather.
I have spent hours at the airport waiting for the weather to clear so that the seaplanes can finally operate. It is a little easier now because the Maldives has developed a network of domestic flights that can take you to small airports around the country. You can then take boats from there to your resorts. But it is not ideal.
And nobody likes spending lakhs on a holiday only to discover that entire days are ruined because of heavy rain. Nor are most Maldivian resorts designed for indoor activities. Nearly everything is out in the open. If there is a storm or if it rains, you end up being confined to your room.
I may have been unlucky at the other resorts. At the Four Seasons, they assured me that the rain is rarely a problem for them. They manage to transport guests quite easily. And on only two occasions in the last several years has there been a weather problem. But ‘problem’ is relative. There is another Four Seasons resort a short (30 minutes) boat ride away from the airport so guests just begin their holidays at one Four Seasons before being flown to his next one when the seaplanes start operating again.
This time, in the Maldives, I was reminded of what a perfect destination it is for Indians. The resorts are the finest in the world, the ethos is international and yet, you always feel at home. There are many Indian staff members, many resorts have Indian restaurants (both Four Seasons hotels have Indian outlets) and you can always have dosa, idlis or parathas for breakfast no matter how fancy the resort.
My sense is that the complicated relationship between the Maldives and Indian tourism has now become closer than I ever thought possible.
Frankly, it is about time. When one of the world’s great destinations is at your footstep, it is crazy not to take advantage of the proximity.