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How a greater focus on food can fatten Maldives’ tourism revenue

Opinion Editorial by Sonu Shivdasani, CEO, Joint Creative Director and Co-Founder of Soneva luxury resort chain

08 March 2020, MVT 10:35
A host showcases homemade chocolate at Soneva Fushi's popular chocolate room. PHOTO/SONEVA
08 March 2020, MVT 10:35

The Maldives has some of the world’s best restaurants - but who’d have thought? Most people have no idea that the Maldives is home to dozens of superb restaurants, often headed by award-winning chefs.

While the country is brilliant at selling a picture postcard of paradise, repleat with swaying palms and soft white sands, the Maldives has struggled to diversify its brand and highlight the other features that make it such a wonderful place to holiday.

Focusing on food, and inviting the globally famous Michelin Guide to review Maldivian restuarants, would be a great way to show off the country’s culinary flair, while expanding the tourism offering.

Food is a rapidly growing driver of tourism, especially among Asian travellers – who represent a big growth market for the Maldives. According to a new report by Technavio, over the next three years food tourism will achieve a compounded average growth rate of nine percent, making it one of the fastest growing sub-sectors in Travel and Tourism.

In a survey by the World Food Travel Association, 59 percent of respondents believed that Food and Beverage is more important when they travel than it was five years ago. In expensive resorts, visitors spend as much as 35 percent on food and beverages – Soneva’s experience is that guests spend as much if not more than this amount.

Guests enjoy a live cooking show at the restaurant 'Out of the Blue' at Soneva Fushi. PHOTO/SONEVA

Learning from Japan’s success

Over the last ten years, Japan has become a tourism poster child. Ten years ago, Japan was considered a mature tourism destination with a flat, or very small, growth in arrivals. However, since then, tourism arrivals have surged from 10 million per year to 30 million today, placing Japan among the Top 10 tourist destinations in the world. 

Food has been criticial to Japan’s success. In 2007, the Michelin Guide produced its first Japanese guidebook, reviewing Tokyo’s restaurant scene. What they found left the culinary world agasp.

The Michelin Guide is based in France, a country widely considered the culinary centre of the world. But to everyone’s astonishment, the Michelin Guide gave restaurants in Tokyo many more Michelin stars than the restaurants of Paris.

As the news spread, and Japan’s reputation as a secret foodie destination grew, the Michelin Guide began reviewing other Japanese cities, and found even more exceptional restaurants worthy of Michelin stars. Tourism arrivals started to go through the roof.

Today, the Michelin Guide places Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka as the three best cities in the world for food – earning 296, 146, and 120 Michelin stars respectively.

The Japanese tourism board’s canny strategy, sponsoring the Michelin Guide’s original review of Toyko’s restaurants and promoting the country as a food destination, has reaped enormous dividends.

Overhead view of diners enjoying a meal at the restaurant 'So Bespoke' at Soneva Fushi. PHOTO/SONEVA

The opportunity for Maldives

The Maldives can learn from Japan. The Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation should sponsor the Michelin Guide to visit the country and put together the first Michelin Guide Maldives. They should also work with other food guides, such as the World's Best Restaurants list.

I can think of lots of restaurants in the Maldives that would be serious contenders for Michelin stars, and a Michelin Guide Maldives would help the country explode onto the world food scene. The country’s top chefs, which include many Maldivians, would also gain due recognition at an international level.

If the Maldives were to achieve even a fraction of Japan's success, it would have a big, positive impact on tourism arrivals, and place the Maldives firmly on the global culinary map.

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