3 Years of Resilient Recovery; The Maldives’ Journey After Reopening Borders for Tourism

In July 2020, the Maldives took a significant step forward by reopening its borders for tourism after a prolonged closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the first countries to reopen borders for tourism following the global pandemic, this move marked a turning point for the nation's tourism industry, setting it on a path of recovery and growth. Now, three years after reopening borders for tourism, the Maldives has exhibited remarkable resilience in navigating the challenges brought about by the pandemic. Through a combination of stringent health and safety measures, sustainable practices, innovative application of technology, and collaborative efforts, the Maldives was able to sustain the ‘Sunny Side of Life’ brand within the minds and hearts of travellers. Over the course of three years since the reopening, the Maldives has successfully navigated the challenges posed by the pandemic and has emerged as a shining example of tourism resilience, innovation, and adaptability; so much so, that our small island nation’s plans and actions during and post-covid is now used as case study for students learning ideal ways to manage crises. 
At the height of the Pandemic
In March 2020, the Maldives closed its borders for three months to contain the spread of Covid-19. The tourism sector was the first and hardest hit, as expected. 
As the government agency entrusted with promoting the Maldives as a premier destination rose to the occasion and played a pivotal role in analysing, building resilience, and spearheading the recovery of the Maldivian tourism industry. As the pandemic unfolded, Maldives Marketing & PR Corporation (MMPRC/Visit Maldives) emerged as a key player, providing invaluable daily updates and insights from the main markets. With an unprecedented halt in tourist arrivals and the industry shrouded in uncertainty, MMPRC took the lead by initiating consultations with industry stakeholders, offering much-needed guidance. 
To ensure that the Maldives remained at the forefront of travellers' minds and continued to capture their imaginations, we swiftly adopted a comprehensive crisis management strategy coined "React, Rethink, Recover." This was a multifaceted approach encompassing both short-term and long-term plans, strategically pivoting towards digital platforms. With concerted effort, MMPRC successfully maintained the destination's online presence, delivering captivating and impactful content directly to potential visitors' homes.
Recognizing the importance of virtual connectivity during those challenging times, MMPRC facilitated the development and promotion of immersive virtual tours. Under the banner of the "Stay Safe Now & Visit Maldives Later" campaign, aspiring travellers were invited to embark on a mesmerising virtual journey, exploring the breathtaking landscapes and exquisite scenery of the Maldives from the comfort of their own homes. Leveraging the power of social media platforms, MMPRC reinvigorated its digital marketing strategies, captivating a wider audience and directly engaging with potential visitors. 
A prime example of this was the highly successful "Maldives, the sun will shine again" live Facebook event, which served as a vibrant reminder of the Maldives' unparalleled beauty, ensuring it remained vividly etched in everyone’s minds. MMPRC allied with various entities such as the Ministry of Tourism, Mondhu Productions, Orca Media Group, and Public Service Media (PSM) for this awe-inspiring virtual gathering that transcended borders. It united well-wishers, celebrities, key opinion leaders, influencers, artists, and devoted fans of the Maldives to express their opinions, share memories, and convey messages.
The “I’m Vaccinated” free national inoculation drive in conjunction with the Ministry of Tourism secured the welfare of tourism industry workers as they resumed their livelihoods. With this, visitors too could rest assured of their health and safety in the Maldives. Also notable was the Maldives Border Miles programme initiated by Maldives Immigration, in partnership with MMPRC and other stakeholders, to further incentivise travel to the Sunny Side of Life. Together with the government’s intuitive protective measures and strict safety guidelines in place, MMPRC helped bridge the gap between would-be tourists stuck in their homes and the shores of the Maldives by providing them with glimpses of the destination's unique offerings while maintaining a strong destination presence.
As the Maldives prepared to welcome visitors from all corners of the world once again, MMPRC launched the "Rediscover Maldives...the sunny side of life" campaign, aiming to entice global travellers to embark on a new adventure in the Maldives. MMPRC hosted a virtual press conference that garnered tremendous international attention, drawing esteemed media representatives from 21 countries, including the most influential source markets such as China, Italy, India, Germany, Russia, the UK, France, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. The conference served as a platform to unveil strategic plans and introduce a collection of 12 must-do experiences in the Maldives to captivate the imagination of a world that had been, until recently, greatly inhibited by the pandemic.
Throughout this challenging journey, MMPRC exhibited remarkable flexibility and adaptability. We remained vigilant, closely monitoring the ever-evolving situation from day one. While certain campaigns had to be momentarily put on hold due to market conditions, we swiftly seized the opportunity to organise live events as soon as circumstances permitted. Events such as SATTE, MITT, ATM, and our roadshows in places like Dubai and Russia showcased the dedication and commitment of both the MMPRC team and industry stakeholders, who tirelessly worked as ambassadors to instil confidence in travellers and assuring them of the Maldives' unwavering allure.
The Road to Recovery
The Government’s efforts and plans for the reopening of our borders were drafted with the contribution of the entire industry, emphasising the unique geographical formation of the Maldivian islands as the key USP of the one-island-one-resort concept. These characteristics made the Maldives one of the safest destinations for visitors even amidst the pandemic, uniquely positioning us as the ideal destination for tourist visitors to escape zoom blues and anxiety induced by the pandemic worldwide. While most other countries were still debating over safety standards, the Maldives achieved the World Travel & Tourism Council’s (WTTC) prestigious Safe Travels Stamp on September 18, 2020, the world’s first-ever global safety and hygiene stamp. Endorsed by the World Tourism Organization and more than 200 travel companies, this further solidified the trust in the Maldives’ brand. MMPRC conducted a total of 314 activities during this pandemic as part of the crisis recovery plan; some of these include fairs (online as well as offline), webinars, FAM trips, online roadshows, outdoor campaigns, digital media campaigns, joint marketing campaigns with leading global airlines, and more. Our marketing activities were extensively conducted in 22 global markets, partnering with our international PR agencies to ensure that every visitor in every market continued to see the beautiful sights of the Maldives despite global border closures. 
Although the Maldives ended the year 2020 with only 555,494 arrivals, half a million tourists visiting us at a time when most of the world was still struggling with safety standards can be considered a milestone unto itself. However, although tourist numbers declined again in Q2 2021 during the COVID-19 Delta wave, arrivals started catching up to pre-pandemic levels after June 2021. In fact, by the end of 2021, monthly arrivals had almost recovered to 2019 levels. The Maldives received over 1.3 million tourists in 2021, achieving the arrivals target set by H.E President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih for the year. 
As Chinese borders remained closed in 2021, and the new crisis that followed in early 2021 in the form of the Russian invasion of Ukraine further threatened visitor numbers. However, MMPRC restrategised to concentrate on other promising markets such as GCC and South East Asia. The top markets to the Maldives pre-pandemic, barring China, remained strong. Four of the five top source markets to the Maldives currently, namely, India, Russia, the UK, and Germany, had already  swiftly recovered to their pre-pandemic arrival figures. India, the top source market for the past 3 years, exceeded pre-pandemic arrivals in 2021. Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany exceeded pre-pandemic arrival numbers in 2022. Italy, the sixth top source market for this year, and one of our traditionally strongest markets, also shows exceptionally positive signs of recovery despite not having reached pre-pandemic levels yet. The Italian market has shown a 31.26% increase in arrivals month-by-month from January-June in comparison to the same period last year. 
The Result of Our Endeavours 
On December 22, 2022, H.E. President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih announced during a briefing with the media that the Maldives’ economy had recovered to pre-pandemic levels. As the main driver of the Maldives’ economy and the largest contributor to the nation’s GDP per annum, the Maldives’ tourism sector workers deserve much of this praise. The President visited MMPRC main office twice over the 3 years to personally recognise and thank MMPRC and our staff for the tireless work and dedication. The Maldives ended the year 2022 with 1.6 million tourist arrivals, having reached the President’s target arrival figure of 1.6 million visitors 2 weeks ahead of the new year. As of July 2023, the Maldives is closing in fast on 1 million visitors for this year, an incredible feat within only 7 months, and a surefire sign that we are well on our way to achieving the President’s target of 1.8 million tourists in 2023. 
A key event driving arrival numbers this year is the resumption of direct flights between the Maldives and China, one of our top-performing markets as mentioned earlier. After a 3 year hiatus, China resumed direct flights to Maldives on 18th January 2023 which positively impacted the arrival numbers. The Chinese market consistently topped the arrival charts prior to the Covid-19 pandemic period, and is already firmly in the top 4th source market spot for the Maldives in 2023, with a staggering 1,659.5% growth in comparison to the same period last year. MMPRC continued our destination marketing work in China despite their borders being closed, and the influx of Chinese visitors as soon as borders reopened is a testament to the effectiveness of this work. 
Another of MMPRC's remarkable marketing events this year is the Visit Maldives Storytellers' Conference 2023, held from 30th May 2023 to 02nd June 2023. This highly anticipated event, strategically organised during the low season, aimed to drive an increase in arrivals in the upcoming months. The conference garnered widespread attention globally as it showcased multiple regions of the Maldives simultaneously, generating an impressive reach of over 89,517,434 on Visit Maldives' social media platforms alone. The extensive coverage of various regions during the sideline activities of this event is expected to result in a further surge in arrivals, with bookings becoming more evenly distributed throughout the Maldives. It further allowed us to put a spotlight on sustainable tourism practices that are the norm in the Sunny Side of Life. 
In addition to the remarkable performance in visitor arrivals, the Maldives has garnered global recognition through various achievements and accolades. During the pandemic, the Maldives consistently topped global searches for travel destinations, a testament to our enduring appeal to travellers worldwide. Our work and effort culminated in the Maldives being named the "World's Leading Destination" for three consecutive years (2020-2022) at the renowned World Travel Awards, often referred to as the Oscars of the Travel Industry. This prestigious recognition, not once but three years in a row, is proof of the Maldives' ability to compete with world-class, rich destinations and emerge as a favoured choice for travellers. MMPRC's marketing efforts have not gone unnoticed either. In 2022, the Maldives achieved another significant milestone with MMPRC earning the title of "World's Leading Tourist Board." for the first time in our nation’s history. This recognizes the exceptional marketing strategies implemented by the MMPRC, solidifying our position as a global leader in destination marketing. 
The Maldives has also received numerous accolades at both the destination and individual property levels from prestigious international bodies. The Maldives as a destination secured 17 awards in 2020, 18 awards in 2021, and 19 awards in 2022. These accolades highlight the exceptional efforts of resorts, hotels, and tourism initiatives in the Maldives, emphasising the destination's commitment to excellence and innovation across various aspects of the tourism industry.
Our success story has extended beyond our borders and has become a source of inspiration for other tourism-dependent economies. International universities now consider the Maldives' ability to steer through the pandemic as a case study, examining the country's adaptability, innovative approaches, and effective crisis management. Moreover, as the Maldives reopened its borders early on, tour operators and airlines personally approached the Maldives for guidance in managing the pandemic. The Maldives' proactive measures allowed these businesses to sustain their operations, preventing a significant percentage of tour operators in major markets from going out of business.
While the Maldives has witnessed a successful recovery and is well on its way to surpassing pre-pandemic arrivals, we continue to explore new opportunities for growth. Key markets have not only rebounded but have also exceeded previous levels, showcasing the destination's strong recovery. Additionally, the Maldives is actively focusing on developing new segments and tapping into emerging lucrative markets, thereby diversifying its offerings and ensuring long-term sustainability.
The Maldives' success story serves as an inspiration to other tourism-dependent economies worldwide, highlighting the importance of adaptability, innovation, effective destination marketing and a commitment to sustainability in forging a resilient future for the industry. Our journey of recovery stands as a testament to the enduring spirit of our people, our resilience and our ability to come together in moments of need. As the Maldives continues to captivate travellers with its natural beauty and unparalleled hospitality, MMPRC remains at the forefront of collaborative strategies in rebuilding and shaping the future of a thriving tourism sector. 
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