Social media is awash with photos of Indian celebrities vacationing in the Maldives. How has the country managed to convince luxury travellers that it is safe and worthwhile to vacation there?
Hari Krishnan, Executive Housekeeper – Soneva Fushi (Maldives) speaks about how Maldives’ hospitality sector has beaten the odds to reopen successfully.
Maldives – which relies on tourism for almost 30% of its GDP — went into lockdown at the same time as India did. International flights were suspended, and tourism ground to a halt. However, incoming tourists started coming to the country in mid-July, in ever-rising numbers; in the first eighteen days of November alone, over 18,000 international tourists seeking exclusive, safe, luxurious vacations have checked into resorts there. While so many Indians are reluctant to vacation even within India at the moment, Indians are the second largest nationality to choose Maldives as their destination.
Maldives is an archipelago of almost 1,200 islands, most of which are uninhabited. Out of the rest, 400 islands are strictly for residents, while some have been allocated for tourism. What makes these resorts unique is the concept of ‘One Island, One Resort’ – only one resort property can be developed on an island, and the resort occupies the entire island. No part of the island can be developed by anyone else. Hence, the resort management has complete control over the comings and goings of people on and off the island, as well as oversight over everyone living on the island – guests as well as employees.
The Soneva Fushi occupies an entire island over a kilometre long and over half a kilometer wide. It generates its own power and provides for its own water supply. With 72 villas and 152 bedrooms, all activities – from swimming to snorkelling — happen in the resort itself. There is no need to step off the island. In effect, this creates a Covid-free bubble. Across India, there are similar luxury properties situated far from dense populations, occupying a vast area, with individual villas and cottages, and no other development in sight.
The Soneva Fushi is served by a staff of around 450 employees. However, one feature that separates this team from hospitality professionals in Indian resorts is that every staff member lives on the island itself. In India, most staff live in nearby villages, work in shifts and enter and exit the property daily; in the Maldives, there is no risk of staff members bringing back from the virus from outside, since each resort is cut off from other islands. As cases begin to rise again, Indian resorts should consider investing in housing arrangements for every single member of the staff on campus; nothing else will convince a guest about the 100% safety of their vacation.
Life at Soneva Fushi
No guest is allowed onto the island without a confirmed reservation; those who have one arrive by boat or seaplane, and are immediately tested for Covid. Krishnan said: “We have procured our own equipment to test guests and employees for Covid using the RT-PCR test. Our in-house doctor performs the test, after which guests are escorted to their chosen villas, where they are isolated until the results available; this usually takes up to 14 hours, most of which is during the night. The test results are communicated to the guest early next morning; if negative, they are free to go anywhere within the resort, without a mask, since all other residents of the island are already confirmed as Covid-negative. All our activities are outdoors and open to the door, including all dining.”
He continued: “All employees are tested once a month. If an employee is returning from somewhere off the island, he is tested, and isolated for fourteen days.”
Guests who visit the resort usually spend up to two weeks there. Hence, they are also tested on the 5th and 12th days of their stay, as well on the day before they leave, providing them with a Covid-negative certificate to travel back to their own countries.
What if a guest tests positive?
“We inform the guests immediately,” said Krishnan. “They are asked to quarantine in the villa in which they have been staying. We arrange for all food and drinks to be delivered as room service, and served on the sea-facing deck area outside the villa. A single employee is dedicated to serving this villa and no other; he will be clad in PPE from head to toe, and will be isolated from other employees until the guest recovers.”
Some guests have chosen to convert their holidays into working vacations. Some spend months working from their beautiful villas, others opt for conference rooms or small offices available in the business center.
Granted, all of the above requires additional investment by the resort. But Krishnan said, “We are one of the few resorts that remained operational throughout the lockdown. At present, we have 82% occupancy – the highest in Maldives. We are completely sold out in mid-December. Our revenue last December was $4.2 million; for this December, we have already collected tariff worth $5.7 million!”
Clearly, the Soneva Fushi’s investments have paid off. Indian resorts particularly those spread over a large area, with individual cottages and villas should consider emulating them. Yes, expenses will rise, but the no-stone-unturned policy to protect guests’ health will also attract tourists who are willing to pay a premium for safety, hygiene and zero worries. After all, isn’t that what a vacation is all about?