'It's the Gucci handbag of holidays': Maldives tops Chinese travellers' wish list
Asia's smallest country tops destination wish list for mainland honeymooners but it's not all paradise in the Indian Ocean island nation
On the last day of her holiday in the Maldives, Zang Kun and five fellow travellers from China splurge on imported tofu at the newly opened Beijing Restaurant near the white-sand beach on the island of Hulhumale.
Zang travelled to the remote Indian Ocean destination in search of a quiet place to rest, far from China's hectic tourist spots.
"I couldn't stand the idea of going to Sanya or Beidaihe , it's too crowded and expensive," she said. "The cost of vacationing in China is going up. There is less of a difference to going abroad now. And I don't need a visa here."
Zang is one of the 400,000-plus Chinese expected to visit the Maldives this year, according to its Ministry of Tourism. Last year, the number of Chinese tourists exceeded the Maldivian indigenous population for the first time. Some 363,000 Chinese visited the tiny nation, 9.7 per cent more than in 2013 and 24 times more than a decade earlier.
And even more are coming. A report by investment group CLSA released on Tuesday found that while only 2 per cent of mainland holidaymakers had been to the Maldives, the archipelago was top of their wish list. It is the top choice among Chinese travellers for overseas weddings and honeymoons. "Destination weddings are becoming a trend [among Chinese], with the Maldives the No 1 hotspot for wedding shoots and honeymoons," the report said.
Thanks to direct flights, free visas on arrival and a reputation for pristine beaches and refined resorts, Chinese visitors have been the largest group of tourists in the Maldives since 2010.
"It was like a happy accident. The recession happened and there were rooms to fill," said Mifzal Ahmed, director for strategy and business development at Mega Maldives Airlines, a private carrier that caters almost exclusively to Chinese tourists.
"The Maldives is the Gucci handbag of holidays," he said. "People want to have a better answer if friends ask them 'what will you do during Chinese New Year?'"
The airline, the brainchild of Beijing-based American entrepreneur George Weinmann, was the first to offer direct flights from China to the archipelago. In 2011, it began flying scheduled charter flights to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. Weinmann said he was still waiting for permits but flights to Xian and Changsha should start around the Lunar New Year.
Weinmann said he expected many more to visit from China in the coming years. "The Maldives now has 1.2 million tourists in total. Imagine when we will have 1.2 million Chinese coming here [per year]," he said. "The question then will be how to deal with those numbers."
In a commentary last week on the local news website Minivan News, Ahmed said the country's tourism industry was still struggling to cater to Chinese customers. "It's about time we put our prejudices aside and learned to love them back," he wrote.
Chinese have developed a reputation as unusual tourists, dreading the sun and spending little during their stays. About one-third of Chinese visitors spend more than US$5,000 during their stay there, according to a 2013 survey, compared with two-thirds of Russians and Britons.
When one resort removed a kettle from the rooms of Chinese visitors in 2013 to discourage consumption of cup noodles, it set off a hail of outrage on Chinese microblogs.
"They often go half-board and then take items from the [breakfast] buffet to eat for lunch," said Mohamed Adam, director at the state-run Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation.
But Maldivian resorts had adapted to Chinese demands, Adam said. "All 55 five-star hotels now have Chinese staff," he said. "You'll find noodles and even rice [for breakfast]."
Souvenir shops and some restaurants increasingly accept payments in yuan along with the local currency, the rufiyaa, and US dollars.