Tour 17 – 2020 Tour Review

Tour 2020 sum

We didn’t think we would pull off a research tour in the write-off year of 2020, but as mentioned, when the pandemic settled a bit and travel restrictions eased in the autumn, some compelling offers were available to entice people back onto airplanes and over to far flung destinations that had the virus more under control (like the Maldives). While the trip was indeed a bit more complicated than usual and beset with some inconveniences, they were in no way overwhelming and certainly worth it to be able to escape to some joy and paradise. In fact, the journey just seemed to take us back to a time when the level of difficulty we experienced before Maldives tourism had matured and the digital innovations streamlined so much of the travel process. In the end, most of the added steps and requirements simply added to the safety of travel and stay which provided the benefit of enhanced peace of mind during our visit.

We noted several notable changes in just over a year of absence:

· Safety – The measures introduce to protect against COVID are not just numerous but pervasive. Once in country and on the resort, they are more re-assuring than troublesome.

· Families – Families everywhere. When I first started the “Maldives for Families” vision. One of the things that struck me on our recent mini-tour in December was how family-centric the visitor base had become. I tried to find some stats, but age seems to be tracked only periodically. What I did find showed young visitors (under 24) growing from 8% in 2011 (https://webunwto.s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/imported_images/36136/maldives_tourism_performancereport_for_2011.pdf) to 10% in 2015 (https://www.tourism.gov.mv/en/downloads/visitor_survey). If that segment is growing at 0.5% per year, in share it would be about 13% now. It does seem also that catering to families is the default now. The list of Adults Only properties is really the exclusive list (only about 20 of these). Then, there is a segment of Family Agnostic resorts which I would estimate to be about a dozen or so. These properties tend to be lower end properties who have few amenities and services in general. They have no problem with kids, but they just haven’t made any investments in a kids club or other features that are aimed particularly at kids. So that would be about 30 resorts out of 160 active one that are *not* especially family friendly making a catalogue of family friendly ones about 130 properties long.

· WhatsApp – The lion’s share of our service was provided by WhatsApp. As soon as you check-in, your “butler” (or whoever else is your point of contact), connects with you on WhatsApp. Every resort worked this way. And it was a revelation. No more calling reception, or looking for the right button on your room phone, or worrying about the time of day. Just send a WhatsApp message to the person looking after you and they respond immediately. It sounds like a simple introduction, and yet it made service provision seem to run that much more easily and slickly.

A final tip is that the Dhiraagu wifi in the departure area is a rip-off. Buying access isn’t cheap and the service is horrendous (the app is poor and the connection is weak).

Pandemic Paradise (just kidding!)

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Tour 17 – Hard Rock

Hard Rock - tour 2020

Hard Rock brings its iconic hip style to the Maldives injecting a bit of up-tempo vibe to this paradise spot.

So many prospective visitors ask about entertainment and activity on offer in the Maldives fearful that a however idyllic, such a holiday might just be too indolent for them. Hard Rock Maldives should put their worries at ease that they will be too much at ease.

A centrepiece to their lively atmosphere is their pool equipped with a thrilling slide (dubbed appropriately “Deep Purple” for its colour and elevatin), luxurious floats and a poolside party swim-up bar. The energetic fun seems to go day and night as stumbled across the largest and most enthusiastic audience for an evening’s entertainment I’ve ever seen in the Maldives. It was at karaoke night hosted by the Hard Rock Café during our stay (we had dropped in to purchase a few of the iconic Hard Rock t-shirts as gifts) and was full of all ages (families and couples), all enthusiastically appreciating every rendition of Abba or whatever else was available on the playlist (see clip below)

Yes, Hard Rock has the brilliant white beaches, tranquil waters and swaying palm trees for any one looking to just chill out as well.

Good, good, good, good vibes at hard Rock Maldives.

Tour 17 – SAii Lagoon

SAii Lagoon Tour

SAii Lagoon is the most lush, opulent resort in the mid-market Maldives.

We’ve not seen a resort more packed with colourful landscaping which complements the colourful décor of the villas. And this rich visual aesthetic is carried inside the rooms themselves inviting décor filling the space. So many resorts slap a perfunctory print on otherwise barren walls, but SAii Lagoon rooms are filled with detail. The resort reminded us of Velaa in its opulent aesthetic (but a fraction of the price) and of Cocoon or Finolhu in its funky vibe.  SAii Lagoon describes itself as the “chilled” sibling in The Crossroads resort complex to Hard Rock Maldives’ more active vibe.

I found the resort a masterclass in product marketing. They know who they are. They are not afraid of people to not like them them because the that is the price of being distinctive enough that many people adore you.

Like The Crossroads, itself we felt transported to a version of the Maldives that was current, cosmopolitan and still in keeping with the aquatic and tropical aesthetic that has been drawing us to this paradise destination for decades.

COVID PROTOCOLS – SAii Lagoon (and all of The Crossroads complex) is taking COVID prevention extremely seriously including the following measures:

  • Health form completed on entry
  • Temperature check on arrival and departure
  • Hand sanitizer dispensers distributed liberally throughout
  • “This Table Has Ben Sanitised” signed
  • Hilton “Clean Stay” protocols
  • Sanitising floor mat (see photo below) – I haven’t seen this measure before either in the USA or the UK!

SAii Lagoon - tour 2020

Tour 17 – Crossroads

Crossroads - aerial

A destination within a destination – Patrick de Staerke, GM

And what a “destination” it is! The Crossroads complex is an exciting manifestation of a colourful and inviting 21st century Maldives. Infusing itself with the palettes and ingredients of the Maldives while building a vibrant, modern incarnation of this sunny paradise.

“The Crossroads” refers to the overall archipelago within an archipelago of a 9-island complex being fashioned by ambitious terraforming (ie. making islands from sand dredged from the bottom of the ocean) as well as the circular maritime hub at its heart. The latter forms a circular harbour with the waters’ edge lined with colourful seaside bistros and boutiques (see photo below). So much has been written about the ‘sinking’ of the Maldives with rising ocean levels, and yet this is a story of the Maldives rising out of the ocean. It is not just a new property, and not just a new concept, but it is an entirely new class of resorts for the Maldives. The biggest change to Maldivian tourism since the introduction of guesthouses.

Crossroads Maldives evokes the most vibrant seaside community destinations of the world: Key West, Florida; Murano, Italy; Cape May, New Jersey; Positano, Italy; Charleston, South Carolina; Barefoot Landing, North Carolina; Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts; Willemstad, Curacao; Paradise Island, Bahamas. The Crossroads is a revelation..of what the Maldives can be as a sparkling maritime cosmopolitan centre moving beyond the charming “thatch-covered fishing island turned resort” concept that has prevailed to date.

Scale not only gives you variety, but it also enables scale economies. One of the reasons why Maldives is renowned as an expensive destination is because the “one island, one resort” format greatly restricts scale. Each tiny resort island has to build and sustain a mini-city of power generation, water distillation, waste treatment and all the services required to host dozens of guests expecting catering and amenities of things not found in the Maldives. The Crossroad complex means that its properties (ie. SAii Lagoon, Hard Rock and soon to be several more) can deliver some of the best value-for-money rates in the Maldives.

A number of Maldives aficionados (and residents themselves) are not fans of this radical transformation of their sea-into-landscape. My investigation indicates that upon completion, the complex has grown immensely in popularity with the Maldivians. Some “Maldives purists” continue to protest seeming to think that anything more elaborate than a thatched villa on an island is “spoiling” the destination. They love the natural simplicity of the Maldives and its isolation from civilisation as do I. But those who accept only this quaint, longstanding model seem to want the Maldivians to live in some Williamsburg-esque nostalgia.

Some detractors express concerns about environmental impact, and surely there is some. But I am impressed with the degree of impact assessment the developers and the government did prior to construction (EIA for Enboodhoo reclamation project-Borrow area.pdf). One of the interesting stats was that live coral cover for the area was under 5%. The Crossroads also showcases their mascot “Emma” extensively around the island. Emma is a sea turtle who was found to be resident in the area when they performed their impact statement and the blueprints for the resort were modified to avoid disrupting her habitat. She still lives in the area and the dive centre even offers snorkel excursions to go see her in the places she frequents.

Crossroads - main street

   

Crossroad - mural

Tour 17 – KIHAA Maldives

KIHAA Tour

KIHAA is simply one of the best resort *islands* in the Maldives. No wonder people have been flocking to it for decades. I have coveted a visit for years for this classic property. It started as a simple divers’ haven, grew into an Italian “Club Vacances” and some refurb a few years ago. But it still retains a classic Maldives resort feel.

KIHAA achieves the rare island trifecta (the closest comparison is Anantara Kihavah):

  • House Reef – One of the best house reefs we have seen in recent years. CORAL! More than half of the reef was live coral (the “lumpy” coral varieties, eg. massives like favia or prorates, seem to be thriving better than the “branchy” varieties, eg. staghorn, fan, table). Dramatic topology. Easy access. Colourful schools of yellow striped convict tangs, sergeant major fish, Moorish idols. So good, that one of our Amilla dives came over to dive the Kihaa house reef.
  • Beaches – Big, white, wrap around beach not seen since Kihavah. Flour soft sand especially by the water’s edge. An active beach duo is cleaning it constantly. Great for sunset circumambulations. Beach dining every night (partly due to low occupancy).
  • Lagoon – Millpond calm lagoon with turquoise vistas and easy swimming (which was useful as the property’s pools were just being brought back on line after lockdown).

Furthermore, the island scale is pretty much as Goldilocks size – big enough to support good amount of infrastructure but small enough to walk around in under 20 minutes.

A resort like KIHAA demonstrates how difficult it is to pin a star-rating on a property. The island itself is a 5-star deluxe with its exceptional “trifecta” of beach, reef and lagoon. The resort also boasts exceptional sports facilities including two smart tennis courts and two first-rate squash courts as well as finely kitted out gym. The lodging is more the 4-star category with handsome styling (recently spruced up).

The operations are difficult to assess at this time given the COVID situation. After 10 months of mothballing, it is like re-opening a resort with lots of cleaning, maintenance, supplying, etc to get up and running. Like all Maldives resorts, the staff are scrambling to provide the best experience possible for the intrepid and anxious early post-lockdown guests, but they face intractable constraints on availability of personnel (who have to quarantine) and even supplies.

With the resurgent coral and the vintage villas, our visit very much felt like going back in time to our first magical visits to the Maldives years ago.

COVID PROTOCOLS – Take your temperature on arrival, all staff wear masks and sanitising stations are found throughout the island.

KIHAA Tour 2

Tour 17: Flying the COVID-Free Skies to Paradise

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to escaping to paradise is getting there. With the “Tier 4” lockdown announced in the UK, that will scupper possibilities for many. But for those living in areas still able to do international travel, the flying is the first, and perhaps most stressful aspect of getting there is the flying. And our trip was no exception as we grappled with impediments from 3 major carriers:

  • QATAR AIRWAYS – I purchased my ticket through British Airways where I had a bunch of “vouchers” accrued from COVID cancelled trips. BA did not have any flights available, but they did present “One World Partner” options for me to use including some flights from Qatar Airways which worked well enough. What they don’t tell you (and it took hours for me to figure out) is that you cannot purchase extra legroom seats on partner flights. A big concern for me because I am so tall. BA said contact Qatar because Qatar controls seat allocation, and Qatar told me to call BA because BA issued and controls the ticket. As I have experienced in the past, these “partnerships” like “One World” are more gimmicks and be aware that if you get drawn into them, you are likely to face huge complexities in your travel. As if COVID isn’t introducing enough complications at the moment. Also, their “Privilege Club” has probably the worst customer service of any airline I have ever dealt with. I spent 6 weeks and countless communications to get a typo fixed in my profile (which is critical because if your booking name doesn’t match your passport name exactly, they can prevent you from boarding).
  • EMIRATES – I give Emirates credit for a great booking experience including and easy refund when the UK Lockdown II required us to cancel our first trip booked. The biggest problem is that when we tried to re-booked we learned that the required stop-over in Dubai violated the “travel corridor” requirements and meant we would have to quarantine in the UK on return. That provision has since been modified to allow certain stop-overs, but at the time we didn’t want to face the possibility of paying for two weeks of freedom in paradise with a fortnight of sequestration (little did we know).
  • BRITSH AIRWAYS – BA turned out to be really the only option not wanting to quarantine over Christmas And yet, shortly after booking our flights, Sir Lankan offered direct flights and Qatar/Emirates got an exemption from the stopover constraint. The prices were better than usual for this time of year, but not the super discounts of November. The booking was smooth as well as a steady stream of travel advice from BA to help preparations.

Off we go. Yes, the trip there was more complicated, but in fairness matters were no worse than travelling to the Maldives a decade ago. Back before online check-in, airport kiosks, efficient boarding, rich shopping options and in-flight amenities. I know all of us living through 2020 dream of turning back the clock, but this might have gone too far back. In fairness, aside from a few temperature checks and squirts of hand sanitizer, the primary COVID imposition was the PCR test required for the Maldives (and many other destinations)

No online check-in as they had to check PCR certificates and the Maldives QR code (you get when you complete your Maldivian arrival Travel Health Authorisation). So for the first time in years, we arrived at Terminal 5 confronted by snaking queues as agents did check-in the “old fashioned way” (boarding passes, baggage check and passport port check all done by the far-too-few overworked agents at the desks). The agents were especially exasperated by so many people trying to travel and not really having a clue as to the requirements (One family of about 8 took 45 minutes to check-in, if they succeeded. We know because we were in the queue for 90 minutes and watching this one hapless family occupy one of the precious few gate agents was one of our bits of entertainment to pass the time).

The flight itself was very well managed with lots of safety protocols. Chief among them were mandatory mask wearing at all time (except for when you were “actively eating”, ie. take a bite and put the mask back on to chew). Frankly, in the spectrum of possible airplane discomforts, this added one was pretty trivial.

We arrived to Male airport facing arrival queues also not seen for a decade since the agents were coping with the other side of PCR tests, health declaration paperwork and a generous helping of tourist confusion. Our flight had been delayed a few hours and the long lines meant that our PCR test was literally about to “expire” (ie. be beyond the 96 hour requirement). We made it through with 10 minutes to spare, but in fairness, the authorities I approached about the issue seemed pretty understanding about the delays and I don’t think they would have turned us away because we got to the desk a bit after the official expiry.

One final moan on my soapbox. My wife Lori works in an NHS-supported care facility and as such get COVID tested every week as a matter of SOP. But the results that she gets back are not PCR certificates and simple electronic messages saying “test negative”. It would seem to me that in addition to rounds of applause, a simple and pretty cost-free gesture that would save NHS staff some money would be to adapt the weekly COVID test results to be PCR “Fit to Fly” ready. Then, NHS staff wouldn’t have to pay considerable amounts for extra tests (on top of the many they already take) if they want a well-earned break.