Hotbed of Luxurious Ideas
By Raini Hamdi, Editor, TTG Asia
When hoteliers look for inspiration on luxury resorts these days, they head for the Maldives. So should travel agents. Raini Hamdi reports how the Maldives has become a hotbed of luxurious ideas.
THE private reserve at Soneva Gili, comprising exotic presidential suites, sold 136 room nights last year. The average room rate? US$7,500 per night.
Thailand's Minor International believes its recently opened Naladhu, comprising 19 exclusive ocean houses each 225m2 in area, can fetch US$2,000 a night. Raffles Resort Konottaa is more modest, eyeing a rate of US$800 per night when its 49 villas open in spring 2008.
Like the "It" bag coveted by fashionistas, the Maldives is the place for luxury operators because it can fetch such high rates and the excitement feeds itself as more upmarket brands race one another to show who is better at the top-end game. For agents, particularly those handling the honeymoon, luxury and upmarket family travel markets, this means a spectrum of products and rates to choose from (see A tale of two luxuries below), and probably happy clients gushing with tales of innovation not seen elsewhere. From overwater duplex villas (Raffles Konottaa) to treetop villas overlooking the surf (Shangri-La Maldives Resort & Spa, Villingili island, now under construction), and from sandbank dining to a private butler serving every whim, not to mention its idyllic and secluded setting to begin with, the Maldives has it all.
Minor chairman and CEO, Mr Bill Heinecke, said: "In the old days, we looked to Bali for interesting resorts, but today Maldives has all the ideas and can fetch the rates too. "
Naladhu's US$2,000 a night is twice as much as his Four Seasons tented camp in Chiang Rai, which for Thailand, was already "ground breaking", Mr Heinecke said.
The new breed of luxury travellers...want to go to places with sex appeal, are remote and exclusive, be it the Maldives or Bhutan.
One&Only Maldives at Reethi Rah general manager, Michael Luible
So why is the Maldives able to draw the top dollar? According to One&Only Maldives at Reethi Rah general manager, Mr Michael Luible, it is all due to the changing needs of the luxury traveller. "The new breed of luxury travellers has very high expectations and is willing to pay for them. They want to go to places with sex appeal, are remote and exclusive, be it the Maldives or Bhutan.
"We see three groups, wealthy families, the comfortable rich who earn more than US$200,000, and the super rich, the emerging markets such as Russia, China and India it is amazing to see the rise of this billionaire club. They move in the same circles, be it to St Moritz or Amanpuri (Phuket). They want ‘remote', but they also want the luxury and they want to stay connected."
Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts director of development resorts, Mr Joachim Schutte, said for developers, the Maldives was attractive as it had shown stable occupancies throughout the year with "high-end rates" and therefore gave good returns on investment.
Although its political climate showed some restiveness, catching the eye of The Economist, which wrote an article on The Maldives, waving or drowning last year-end, Mr Schutte believed a country that depended mainly on tourism could not afford drastic changes. He also hoped the government would keep resort development to "a sensible pace" to maintain natural resources and the destination's priceless sense of seclusion.
The government is releasing 35 new islands for development over the next two years. According to Mr Heinecke, most of these were far from the airport. "Islands close to the airport are more expensive (to lease), but their returns are still better than Thailand's," he said.
Naladhu, Raffles and Shangri-La join a string of plush resorts that have opened in the Maldives, which include two One&Only resorts, two Four Seasons, a W Hotel and of course earlier entrants such as two Sonevas and a Banyan Tree. Even Hilton Maldives Resort and Spa is rebranding to Conrad Maldives Rangali island (fetching higher rates) from December 2007, while Six Senses Hotels, Resorts & Spas is developing a "five-star", 130-villa Evason Laamu.
Resorts in the Maldives actually defy star ratings. Evason, Minor's Anantara or Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts' Angsana, by right are deluxe, four to four-and-a-half stars. In the Maldives, however, these villa products often stretch their own standards and become torchbearers of the brand. Mr Heinecke describes Anantara simply as, "affordable luxury".
No one believes or wants to believe it is getting crowded at the top.
Six Senses CEO, Mr Dan Reid, said the continued entry of top-end operators only strengthened the Maldives' position as a high-end holiday destination. "On any one day in the Maldives, there are typically four to eight private jets parked on the apron at the airport.
"Development in the Maldives has been rapid and the tourist dollar has transformed the country into the most prosperous country in South Asia," Mr Reid said.
A true budget product, although helping to broaden the Maldives' market mix, in reality, was difficult to offer, Mr Reid said.
"The challenge in the Maldives is operating costs, given the remote locations and requirements to produce power, water and treat sewage along with transportation costs for food and other materials. As such, it is very difficult to offer a true budget product (price-wise) in the Maldives."
Last year, Mr Reid said the two Soneva resorts there saw a 13 per cent increase in occupancy and a 50 per cent increase in total revenue. This year, a further five per cent increase in occupancy was expected, with improved rates, he said.
The World Travel & Tourism Council and Oxford Economic Forecasting rank the Maldives eighth in the world with the fastest rates of tourism growth, or 7.2 per cent.
Asked what the Maldives should watch out for as it grew, Mr Luible said: "There are several questions it should ask.
"Is the infrastructure adequate can the airport handle more arrivals?
"Can the labour support it where are we going to get the qualified labour?
"Guests paying US$1,000 a night want the best service, and in their language. With new markets such as Russia, China, Japan, the labour market must follow suit.
"Is it sustainable to the environment? Can the environment support more traffic, garbage, etc? The customs and ports are already overfilled, yet everything needs to be imported.
"If there are more hotels, are there more seats?"
More business- and first-class seats are a common wish of hoteliers. Care for the environment is the other.
Mr Reid said: "All the resort operators must integrate social and environmental concerns into planning and decisionmaking processes in their resorts.
"One of the key areas we see missing and are working on is recycling of non-organic wastes.
"We compost all our organic waste but non-organic waste, metal, glass, etc, is difficult to manage and the recycling efforts i the Maldives are minimal.
Artist impression of a villa concept at Shangri-La Maldives Resort & Spa, Villingili island.
"It is critical to keep the environment in mind as day by day the conditions are deteriorating.
"It will not be long before numerous climatic changes will take place as we have seen in the past decade, driven by global warming. And before we know it, beautiful paradises on earth such as the Maldives will be sunken islands.
"Hence, reducing carbon emissions is crucial and possibly one of the most urgent issues.
"By 2010, Soneva Fushi aims to reach zero carbon emission through a large investment in alternative energies and state-of-the-art engineering so as to become recognised as being carbon neutral. We would definitely suggest (resorts) adopting a similar policy."
Shangri-La, too, has appointed world-class architectural firms, environmental consultants and oceanographers to ensure that the building and final operation of Shangri-La Maldives will conform to the highest environmental standards.
May luxury bask in the sun forever.
New luxury brands
Raffles Resort Konottaa: At Gaafu Alifu in south Maldives. Scheduled to open in 2008 with 49 duplex villas. Facilities include RafflesAmrita Spa, Grill Room, specialty and all-day casual dining restaurants.
Shangri-La Maldives Resort & Spa, Villingili island: On the southern-most tip of the Addu atoll. Offers 60 water villas, 44 beach villas, 16 treetop villas, 20 twin beach villas, one VIP water villa and one presidential villa. Facilities include Spice Market and Silk Bar, and CHI The Spa at Shangri-La.
Ms. Raini Hamdi
Editor, TTG Asia, TTGmice, BTN Asia-Pacific
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