by Greg Dickinson, The Telegraph, April 25, 2018
Rewind just two months, and things were not looking good for anyone with a holiday booked to the Maldives.
A state of emergency had been declared as tensions bubbled over between president Abdulla Yameen and his political opponents. As a result, the UK’s Foreign Office (FCO) joined the US, China and India in issuing a warning to tourists to the Indian Ocean nation to “exercise caution and avoid any protests or rallies”.
You, our Telegraph Travel readers, were concerned by the unrest. In a Telegraph Travel poll run in February with more than five thousand respondents, 75 per cent said they would cancel a trip to the paradise islands because of the current political unrest.
Such a fear appeared then to materialise. The state of emergency lasted from February 5 to March 22 – three times longer than expected. A spokesperson for Paradise Island Resort-Villa Group, which runs a 282-room resort a 20-minute speedboat ride from the capital of Malé, told Reuters they had been receiving 50 to 60 room cancellations per day.
Meanwhile, the German envoy for the Maldives, Joern Rohde, tweeted: "We hear big airline carriers from Europe will suspend their Maldives flights for the summer season."
It then came as some surprise when the Maldives released their tourism figures this week, revealing a 17 per cent global rise in the number of arrivals in the first three months of 2018. British holidaymakers increased 12.2 per cent, from 29,088 to 32,633.
Was the assumed tourism lull purely speculative?
In terms of airline operations, yes. Most issued a warning along the lines of “we are monitoring the situation closely” but never cancelled a flight.
Tour operators also remained resilient. Jemma Purvis from Kuoni told Telegraph Travel: “During this period Kuoni continually monitored the situation closely alongside our resort team, FCO and travel partners, but all resorts continued to operate as normal and people continued with their holidays."
“All our guests fly into the airport, located on a separate island, and are transferred directly to their resorts via seaplane or boat, and there was no impact on holiday resorts or the airport, with flights operating as normal.
“In reality very few of our guests choose to travel to Malé and at the time we were advising against visiting the capital.”
While Brits kept on travelling, how did other nationalities respond to the state of emergency?
One of the most sizable drops was in Chinese visitors, who decreased from 73,135 in the first three months of 2017 to 72,539 this year. A decrease of 0.8 per cent may not seem significant, but this comes in the midst of a tourism boom for outbound Chinese travellers – overseas visits are expected to rise from 145m in 2017 to 154m in 2018.
This may be down to the strong wording of the Chinese foreign ministry’s warning. In the midst of the tensions, the foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said: “China suggests that Chinese citizens who are preparing to go to the Maldives in the near term to postpone going until the situation on the ground stabilises.”
Not that foreign office advice is always heeded. During the Maldives political unrest in February, the Israeli foreign office warned: “Anyone currently residing in the country should consider ending their stay.” They also advised: “Since Israel has no diplomatic relations with the Maldives, any Israeli citizen who finds themselves in trouble there could face serious difficulties in obtaining help.” Despite this, Israeli visits rose by 45.3 per cent in the first months of 2018, compared to the same period last year.
While the response from China and other countries like Japan (a rise of just 2.9 per cent) was tentative, the reaction to the state of emergency among European and American holidaymakers has been notable. Europe as a whole is up by 23.2 per cent, the Americas up 23.4 per cent.
So why the boom from certain corners of the planet?
The growth in international arrivals is down to a number of factors. The first is that a series of airlines have introduced or increased operations to the Maldives. Air France introduced two weekly flights from November 2017, prompting a 23.7 per cent year-on-year rise in French visitors in the first quarter of 2018.
Alitalia announced a new service for the winter of 2017, boosting arrivals from Italy up by 25 per cent in 2018 so far. Etihad will soon join the party, with four additional flights from Abu Dhabi to the Maldives, bringing their weekly services up to eleven.
There is also a notable rise in the number of holiday resorts – at least 23 new ones are set to open in 2018 – and particularly guest houses across the Maldives. As the world develops a taste for more intimate home-sharing sites like Airbnb and HomeAway, the archipelago has seen a seven-fold increase in the number of operational guesthouses in the last five years, from 70 in 2013 to 467 in 2018.
Tourism accounts for a third of Maldives’ gross domestic product. This equated to a figure of $3.5billion (£2.5billion) in 2017. If the recent statistics are anything to go by, this is on-track to rise considerably by the end of 2018.