Q: Tourism is your main industry, accounting directly for 30% of GDP, but indirectly for approximately 80%. What are you doing to ensure the sector’s continued growth?
A: Malé International Airport, for transport and transfer, has always been the bottleneck for the development of the tourism sector. We are currently investing close to $1bn in expanding the airport as well as building new regional airports, and we see there is keen interest from foreign and local investors to take advantage of the new government’s strategy to increase tourist arrivals and enhance the industry.
In the past two years we’ve seen many international investors coming in. In fact, we’ve slowed down leasing islands for tourism because we don’t want the capacity to increase overnight as tourism arrivals have to match it. That is why we are doing special work on marketing as well. Additionally, many structural changes have been made and debt-to-GDP ratios have improved tremendously over the past three years, so I think, as a result, the investor confidence is there.
Q: How are you balancing the development of the industry with environmental conservation?
A: We have been very cautious in selecting resorts, for example. We want to ensure the islands selected have a suitable environment and that there is minimal impact on their ecology. We do not develop all the islands, we keep some reserved – for instance, the Unesco biosphere reserve in Baa Atoll, where we have preserved certain lagoons to ensure the protection of the natural habitat.
Before each project starts, developers must submit an environmental impact assessment plan, based on which the tourism ministry decides whether we go forward with it. And if you look at adaptation to climate change, the Maldives has been innovative in shore protection and water management – best practices that have been adopted by the tourism sector. We try to keep a balance and harmony with the natural habitat of the environment.
Q: Any economy heavily dependent on tourism is vulnerable to external shocks. How has tourism in the Maldives been affected by the financial shifts and downturns of the past few years?
A: While we are certainly vulnerable to external shocks – for example, with Brexit we anticipated some uncertainty – we see that it has not, in fact, adversely impacted us. The growth is not really there from that market, but we’ve never gone into negative growth because of that.
The financial crisis impacted us, and the Asian financial crisis especially impacted arrivals from the region. But the Maldivian market is primarily focusing on the honeymooners, and we see that we are not that badly affected. People understand that the Maldives is unique. You just come to the airport and go to your island.
Even when we had difficult political problems about five years ago, surprisingly we were not that badly hit because what happens in Malé has very little bearing on the resort islands. There have been times when a specific market is targeted by something negative and it does have a short-term effect – but we find that eventually the numbers come back.