Once a Journalist

Togo journalist

  • Once a priest, always a priest; once a mason, always a mason; but once a journalist, always and forever a journalist.” – Rudyard Kipling

Journalism Day today which reminded me of the earliest roots to Maldives Complete…my lifelong avocation in journalistic writing. I embarked on a life of “journalism” in elementary school penning a weekly newsletter for the youth programme at church called “Juice Man”. I then started and edited my high school’s first page in the local paper (the “Ramblin’ Clam” in the Ipswich Chronicle). My first “professional” journalism gig was as an overseas correspondent focusing on travel writing about the West African country of Togo. The Maldives Complete’s interactive database stems from my similarly long technology, but the now 2400+ article blog stems from this life of reporting intriguing stories about intriguing places.

Maldives Complete-ly by the Numbers 2023

Maldives - Completely by the Numbers 2023

A decade and a half of Maldives Complete. While other Maldives websites have come and gone (eg. pioneering guide writer Adrian Neville’s Seven Holidays), Maldives Complete has remained a steadfast resource about the growing collection of Maldives resorts. But we keep visiting (reaching the 20 visit mark this summer), expanding our resort coverage (116 resorts now visited), and adding to the enormous trove of photos and data about the resorts.

The functionality of the site has remained largely constant for the past few years. Explorations into new content, like the Snorkel Spotter, and Instagram listicles, were intriguing experiments but didn’t seem to attract that much extra traffic or engagement. The pace of posting has stayed relatively steady a one every three days on average (I plan for every other day, which is generally a good rhythm for this type of material, but often end up skipping days due to scheduling conflicts).

Twitter – or “X” – has pretty much fallen by the wayside with its slow rot. The most active social media for me is Facebook which has steadily grown in Followers (3,600 at last count). TripAdvisor Forum remains a vibrant community where I try to contribute regularly. The profile of the contributors and the nature of the enquiries has changed considerably over the 15 years. When I started, the TA Forum was dominated by discussions (and recommendations) of small, “traditional” (ie. thatched villas), mid-market properties. Now the majority of new constructions have contemporary styling. I would say that 70% of the TA Forum posts were mid-market, 20% were budget, and 10% were premium properties. Today, I would say that 60% is premium, 30% is midmarket and 10% is budget. When I started contributing to the Forum, I was often the only one sharing info on the premium properties, but now I am often one of relative few sharing on the budget ones.

The whole “Guest House” scene has really taken off and I regularly get asked if I am going to add a database and some posts on this segment. Unfortunately, I have too little experience (ie. none) to write about them authoritatively, and there are way too many (836 at last count compared to approximately 170 resorts) to document them comprehensively with my limited resources.

Looking forward to year 16 with a little help from all the followers and supporters out there.


Things I (Still) Haven’t Seen in the Maldives #20

Havent Seen - acrylic table

Despite a double visit in the past year, the list of things I haven’t seen in the Maldives (yet) continues to compile. At least it is the shortest list I have ever posted which is maybe a sign that the resorts are introducing about everything one could imagine.

1.  Artistic Acrylic Table – We might not have the whole table (see photo table), but our son Chase bought us a gorgeous cutting board by this maker which evokes the Maldives ocean edge every time we every time we serve with it.

2.  Geode Slice Light Table – I highlighted the Maldives aesthetic of blue geodes as #1 in Haven’t Seen Yet #16, but Faithful Counter top have taken them to a new level incorporating a collection of them, AND lit from underneath.

3. Plankton Stars Blue Light Alert – This notion came to me during our recent visit to Sun Siyam Vilu Reef where we were delighted with seeing the “diamonds” of sparkling blue lights washing up on shore as a small bloom of bioluminescent plankton washed ashore. The word spread somewhat haphazardly through the resort and we only stumbled upon it when a bartender informed us. For something this magical, I would propose that a resort have a “blue light” special inspired alert with some blue LEDs they could light up whenever this relatively rare and precious occurrence is spotted.

4. Sound Walk – Another inspiration from our son Chase who studied Sound Art & Design and took us on this “sound walk” in London’s Regent’s Park. The artist had composed various sound art pieces incorporating field recording from the park. When you tuned into the app on your phone, the music morphed into different pieces inspired by your specific location in the park.

5. Water Concerto – DJ’s are so commonplace now. This should be the new ‘wave’ of musical entertainment.

6. Hanging Pilates – With all of the innovative wellness and fitness activities in the Maldives, I’ve seen hanging yoga, and hanging silks as well as several variations on pilates, but I’ve never seen hanging pilates.

7. Spin Tubing – I’ve featured lots of fanciful and thrilling water sports for water zoomies, but have never seen such a carnival-esque contraption as this one.

8. Surf Jetty – At a world-class surf destination like the Maldives, you could laboriously paddle out to your break, or holidaying in luxury, you could just stroll out. Especially with the Maldives’ famously modest sized waves known more for their length than their height. Or this might be a clever means to provide ready access to an especially fine snorkel point that is beyond a wave break.

9. Shark Wearable Blanket – No “Haven’t Seen” post would be complete without the obligatory shark item. Land Shark!

10. Kulhi Boakibaa – Cited in a nifty piece in National Geographic “Five Unmissable Dishes That Define the Maldives”. I’ve seen 3 of them, but Kulhi Boakibaa, not yet.

Havent Seen Yet - Kulhi Boakibaa

11. Kaya – Coconut Jam? I only found about it in Saveur’s article “Meet the Coffee-Shop Staple Serving Up Coconutty Vibes Around the World”.

Havent Seen - coconut jam

12. Fresh Hot Donuts – Such a simple delight that they make them in food trucks at fun fairs. The donuts served at ALL resorts (even the luxury ones) are stodgy, stale and second-rate.  Many must get tossed for being too past their sell-by-dart to put out again.  So why not have a donut station making them fresh (with an array for special toppings…like coconut jam).


Why Do I Tour in the First Place?

Tour 2023 map

This was my most difficult tour yet. In fact, research trips have gotten more and more challenging in recent years. Primarily driven by the scourge of “influencers”, but lots of other variables as well. With zero revenue for the Maldives Complete website, the cost of research is high in the best of times. If I am paying full rack rates (as well as lots of extra and expensive transfers) for the privilege of spending 24 hours running around to get content and promote the destination and resort, then the cost-benefit equation for all the work I do year-round tends to be questionable. Part of the motivation was the enthusiastic greetings and often special support and consideration given to my visit.

With American Labor Day weekend upon us, I reflected on tis labor of love enterprise and the changes from when I started Maldives Complete in 2009 and now 14 years later. It is a lens to how the industry has changed in 14 years:

  • Resort Organisation:
    • Before: Most resorts were local with limited marketing resources who welcomed any assistance.
    • Today: Most resorts are international with big corporate marketing departments in some remote country
  • Web
    • Before: When I started, the resort websites were very basic and there was a thirst for my content creation.
    • Today: Maldives content is commoditised with every guest cranking out material in Instagram and TripAdvisor posts.
  • Ministry of Tourism
    • Before: The MMPRC embraced the Maldives Complete site and helped me extensively to get materials. The destination was a bit of lesser-known niche sun-spot for Europeans.
    • Today: They don’t return emails now that they have been turned into a global bucket-list destination with the lifestyle porn abounding on social media.
  • Industry
    • Before: The tourism industry was relatively small and there was a close-knit community of people involved with it who all helped each other out.
    • Today: The sector is several times larger and mostly corporatised by remote bureaucrats.
  • Price Points
    • Before: Starting as a dive destination with basic accommodation, the Maldives resorts started going mostly into mid-market properties with a few luxury properties sprinkled amongst.
    • Today:  Now the majority are luxury (if you have a limited amount of real estate, get the most you can for each square metre) and many are super-luxury. As a result, even with industry rates, the costs of a visit are huge (not problem for operators who can just write it off, but a direct expense to me).
  • Transience
    • Before: Long-term players were prevalent…people who embraced the destination for extended periods allowing relationships to form.
    • Today: Short-stint secondments by corporate staff are more prevalent making supportive relationships harder to nurture.
  • Atoll Logistics
    • Before: I used to choose an atoll each year to fly to and then island hop around fairly easily.
    • Today: Having been to every major atoll, fashioning an itinerary of resorts involves longer, complicated, more expensive transfers to get to the far-flung outliers I have so far missed.

The question remains, “In the Digital Age, is there any need for in-person visits to the Maldives to research the website?” The question is no unlike the one circulating the post-COVID corporate executive suites about how important face-to-face time is and how much companies should encourage if not force staff to return to the workplace. I have always held (for over a decade) that remote working is not an “either-or” question, but a “how much” question dependent on the dynamics of the job(s) to be done. And similarly. Keeping Maldives Complete…well…”complete”, requires a non-zero amount of time on the ground at the destination.

The benefits boil down to three key areas (which are pretty similar for any remote working):

· Relationships – One of the top arguments for spending SOME time together in the remote working is relationship building. In my work environment, I always try to meet someone face-to-face even if most of our interaction will be remote. Establishing that initial introduction and rapport facilitates the teleconferencing interaction, but cannot be effectively achieved by it. In many cases, I end up with more material from the resort after the visit than during it. The reason is because having been there and gotten to know the (right) staff, they understand me better and are more responsive and effective in forwarding me useful material for the site.

· First-Hand – The terabytes of information are great for basic research, but there is just no substitute for seeing the whole property, in context of both the surroundings and the minute details often overlooked or not visible in the countless pictures. Especially as Maldives Complete’s blog often focusses on the unique and distinctive, those features can be hard to search for online when buried under a mountain of the same old pictures of palm trees and blue vistas.

· Serendipity – The final benefit to “getting over there” is the sheer serendipity that happens when you are in the thick of things. Bumping into people you know (in fact, I created a “Crossing Paths” tag in the blog to mark these occasions) or other interesting staff or guests who just happen to be around.

Actually, one of the books I brought and read on this trip is a travelog about the Maldives: “Gatecrashing Paradise” (stay tuned for post about it) which included a fine quote from travel writer Paul Theroux justifying the need for re-visiting in this digital age:

  • “If the Internet were everything it is cracked up to be, we would all stay at home and be brilliantly insightful. Yet with so much contractor information available, there is more reason to travel than ever before: to look closer, to dig deeper, to sort the authentic from the fake, to verify, to smell, to touch, to taste, to hear, and sometimes – importantly – suffer the effects of curiosity.”

I’ll keep pushing forward trying to see as much of the new Maldives as possible (I think I have seen all but a handful of the resorts that were around when I first started the website).

Practice Any Art

Vonnegut advice

Every Maldives Tour is probably the most stirring reminder of the year of why I invest so much time, effort and money into the Maldives Complete website. As it happens, en route this time I was catching up on a bit of reading which included a piece by Esquire magazine on a letter Kurt Vonnegut wrote to his students. He tells them to “practice any art…” and that is what I am doing with Maldives Complete. From blog writing, to coding, to all the other creative activities that go into the content of the site.

During my visit with Sun Siyam Iru Veli, their digital marketing manager described how they segmented the people the resort supports during their visits – celebrities, influencers, and content creators. While I have a bit of a profile in the niche arena of Maldives tourism, and the site influences research guests and operators, he said that my real value was content creation. I guess I never really thought of my role in such a clear manner, but it makes sense in light of my motivations which abide by Vonnegut’s wise advice.

More AI

Maldives Complete AI

Happy Birthday Alan Turing. Recent events in technology have brought Mr. Turing’s name to global headlines more than ever both with the rise of ChatGPT and other striking artificial intelligence tools. Turing famously proposed the “Turing Test” which stated:

  • A computer could be deemed ‘intelligent’ if a human being acting with it one on hand and an actual human on the other hand cannot determine which is the human and which is the machine.

I’ve come across more and more AI tools being released to the wild and thought that I would have another go at trying them out in the Maldives context. Instead of looking at what AI could do for guests, I wanted to explore what AI could do for the Maldives Complete website. I ran the site through 2 prominent offerings:

  • DURABLE (website building) – Really just a website template with a bit of pre-populating done. Low wow factor.
  • MICROSOFT DESIGNER – Like Durable, but more about the look-and-feel.

The collection above was from Microsoft. Frankly, it didn’t seem that “intelligent” at all. It essential just pulled prominently tagged content (eg. headers, titles) from the site and populated some of other templates, and then used some subject searching to find a bunch of relevant images to slap on it. That said, I have talked with some web designers who proposed revamping the Maldives Complete UX and they didn’t propose doing much different. Maybe the bar for the intelligence AI is lower than we think.


Generative Hobbies

Maldives Complete generative hobbies

So why am I going full speed ahead into year 15? People continue to be surprised that I don’t make a penny out of Maldives Complete…it is one big, expensive hobby for all intents and purposes. That might sound dismissive, but Seth Godin thankfully has a more eloquent perspective on it:

  • “Some people say “hobby” like it’s a bad thing. In a race for more, it seems as though doing something you don’t get paid for, something that requires patience and skill–well, some people don’t get it…A generation or two ago, hobbies were things like paint by number or candlemaking, or perhaps a woodshop. That’s changing. Not simply because computers allow us to be far more professional, but because the very nature of the output is different. This might be the golden age for a new kind of hobby, one that’s about community, leadership and producing public goods, not private ones. Because it’s so much easier to connect and because ideas multiply, the generative hobby gives us a chance to make a contribution, even (especially) when we’re not at work. Sharing ideas, leading, connecting. Perhaps “generative contribution” is a better name for it.”

Other examples of such hobbies are Wikipedia and Github. in fact, I’ve often thought of Maldives Complete as an interactive Resortipedia for the Maldives. Even the blog posts are mostly constructed to be used as referenceable info as opposed to timely broadcasts.

Maldives Complete-ly by the Numbers 14

Comple-ly by th enumbers 2022

The 14th anniversary of Maldives Complete and time for my customary look at the site numbers and share a few perspectives informed by another year of Maldives fanboying…

  • Post COVID Catch-up: Our July trip represented the first time we have ever visited the Maldives twice in a 12-month period (being on the heels of our November 2021 visit). The trips gave us a chance to re-stock our “Best of the Maldives” larder for posts and generally keep packing the database with material.
  • Lowest Resort Increase: 4 new active resorts is consistent with the previous two years in being quite low and likely reflective of the post-COVID impact on development plans with both financing and construction logistics impacted.
  • No dives: Lori and I had just the month before taken a 7 day live-aboard trip in the Galapagos diving 4 times a day and seeing the some of the most astonishing underwater sights on the planet (eg. while we never saw any hammerheads at Hammerhead Point off Kuramathi, a school of 300 hammerhead sharks swam by us at Darwin Island). So we decided to just enjoy the snorkeling and the sunshine in July.
  • Twitter twilight?: This past year my Twitter engagement completely dropped off. This was not a big surprise as Twitter has been increasingly becoming simply a broadcast medium for very high profile individuals. In fact, the Musk acquisition might just be the final straw for me to depart this increasingly disfunctional and toxic platform.

World Travel Market London 2022

WTM 2022

Yesterday, I enjoyed my annual pseudo-escape to the Maldives at London’s 2023 World Travel Market. Their booth is replete with images of the destination’s linen white beaches and tapestry of ocean blues and manned by a platoon of the Maldives’ resort leaders touting its alluring charms to agents, operators and media. I was able to reconnect with long time friends and connections as well as make new ones. In particular, I sat down and learned much more about Brennia Kottafaru, The Standard Huruvalhi, Outrigger Konotta, Movenpick Kuredhivaru, Rahaa and Baglioni (none of which I had ever visited).

The highlight of the event was meeting a contender for “newcomer of the year”, a resort I hadn’t even heard of – Oaga. Or “Oaga – Art Resort” to be precise. And actually, planned to be a 5-property complex built from terraformed reclamation in a North Male lagoon. Oaga is one of the most inspired concept properties I have come across for a while – “Maldivian Artistry”. Not just engaging a Maldivian artist to add some colourful touches to the property, but imbuing the entire DNA of the property with a visual aesthetic. Even their show swag was a piece of art from one of their resident artists (I got the one below done by Rahvehinn). I normally have to visit a resort to identify its truly distinctive touches, but just a short chat with the Oaga folks (including two of their founding directors – see photo above and special 360 photo provided by the Visit Maldives hosts of the booth) came up with a dozen “Best of the Maldives” pieces I could write about. They soft open later this month so keep an eye open.

WTM - Oaga handout