The budget travel industry is one of the fast growing business avenues in the Maldives. Despite being focused largely on islands near the capital city Male, these past five years have proved the potential profitability of this business as a number guesthouses have emerged all over the country. In total, 490 guest houses have been established, catering to approximately 8,000 tourist beds.
One of the most important factors contributing to the booming guesthouse business in Male Atoll, is the easy access of public transport within the central atoll. Unfortunately due to the irregularities and deficiencies with our public transport system, the guesthouse business has not taken off in other areas of the Maldives the way it has in some of the central atolls. This is particularly true of the far-lying Northern and Southern atolls.
HA. Kelaa, one of the biggest islands in Haa Alif atoll, is also an addition to the rolodex of islands that have subscribed to the flourishing trade of guesthouses. However, owing to difficulties with transport, despite being in the midst of countless untouched beaches, having access to fresh produce grown in local farms, dive spots aplenty and having preserved much of the region’s rich heritage - all of which are potential tourist attractions that may enhance hospitality offerins, their businesses report a considerable dip in profits compared to that of centrally located businesses.
"Tourists visiting the Maldives from Europe or China can travel to an island like K. Maafushi, easily and at a reasonable price. But we won't be able to thrive without flexible public transport prices to islands far from the central atoll as well' says one of the owners of a guesthouse in the northern atolls who wishes to remain anonymous.
According to him, the beaches and the environment of these northern atolls are well received and appreciated by plenty of tourists. And further that they have opportunities to expand activities such as excursions and snorkeling.
'One of the biggest complains of the tourists who visit our island, is the prices of the ferries. For example, a ferry ride from Male to Hanimaadhoo is too expensive for these tourists. Moreover if we were to transfer them from the airport to the island ourselves, the expenses that we need to weather include speedboat hire and fuel payments, which are not feasible' said the guesthouse owner.
One of the most successful islands in the business of guesthouses is Dharavandhoo in Baa Atoll. An important reason behind their success is the easy accessibility to this island asVelana International Airport provides a direct route to Dharavandhoo Airport.
"In the past five years, the guesthouse business on this island has expanded. And because of the easy accessibility to our Airport, some islands nearby have also joined this thriving business. The main reason for the success of this business here would be our the local airport. The fact that tourists can travel here at nearly local rates has aided the high turnover" said an anonymous guesthouse owner.
The rent of the land in Dharavandhoo has experienced an increase of MVR11,000 in this past year. Yet more and more guest houses continue to establish themselves on the island.
Despite not having an airport in Alif Alif Atoll, the island of Ukulhas is also expanding their venture into budget traveling. Currently the island comprises of 24 guesthouses that caters to 340 rooms. And an additional 50 rooms are to be added to the range this year.
One of the factors that help guesthouses prevail even in a resort-dominant atoll like Ari Atoll is because of accessibility of transport; via speed boats as well as seaplanes.
There are two, one-hour, speed launch rides scheduled to AA. Ukulhas and neighboring islands of Rasdhoo, Mathiveri and daily, with tickets amounting to MVR250 per trip, operated by two transport service providers. Travel options also include an even more budget friendly four-hour public ferry ride, also scheduled daily, with tickets amounting only to MVR50.
"Guesthouse business began in Ukulhas after careful consideration of the accessibility and feasibility of public transport to our island. The beaches of this island are serene and picturesque and most tourists don't find it difficult to travel one and a half hours by speed launch to our island'. said an Ukulhas guesthouse owner.
According to a veteran source from within the tourism industry, guesthouses provide much, much needed source of income that is needed to expand throughout the Maldives, adding that in order to achieve this, aviation companies need to assist and introduce new routes and affordable prices to provide accessibility to areas in need.
The need is felt both in terms of requirements for the successful operation of such businesses as well as by the islanders who are forced to be situated in the central areas in order to achieve continuous accessibility to various services available only at the capital city area, as frequent travel is expensive beyond consideration.
Furthermore, he stated that there are currently 137 resorts catering to 42,000 beds but that these are mostly at resorts which belong primarily to foreign investors. If more direct profit is to be received by the local people, he argues, the business of guesthouses needs to be expanded further or allowed the possibility of further expansion.
For instance, the ‘added’ expense of $250 for a round trip to HA. Kelaa is absolutely definitely not a realistic option for most budget travellers seeking to experience Maldives.
Travelling southwards, prices increased from Laamu Atoll onwards to Addu Atoll at alarming rates, costing as much as an international ticket to fly to India or Sri Lanka for a round trip, for locals and foreigners alike.
Owing to special offerings such as unique diving, surfing and fishing experiences these atolls offer, these southern hospitality businesses seem to have carved out a niche for themselves and an edge over other local destinations.
However, in query regarding the obstacles they face the answer remains is strikingly similar to their nothern counterparts, as guesthouse owners and line staff gravely report rising transportation expenses to be the greatest hindrances to their expansion, and quality of life alike.
However, if more affordable prices were set for these routes, the guest house business is sure to be granted more of a possibility to thrive throughout the Maldives. Arguably, it would introduce healthy competition for prices of hospitality offerings in Male to drop, and for unique value added experiences to grow.
Optimists may even theorise that in one fell swoop, it would bring island communities across the archipelago a far more realistic step closer to narrowing the ever-expanding income gap felt by all Maldivians, by offering them not just a chance to build businesses but to see them flourish and grow to their full potential.