Our team at Travel Trade Maldives decided to sit down and gain some insight into the inspiring story of Abdullah Rasheed who is the Managing Director of Sun Ocean Maldives.
How did you start off in the tourism industry?
I have been working in the tourism industry for about 30 or so years. Unlike many others in the industry, I mark my beginning in the industry by working at tourist souvenir shops. I then moved on to an Italian company which sparked my interest in the Italian market. In 2004, after the discontinuation of the company we were working in, I decided to start my own company which is Sun Oceans Pvt Ltd.
What led you to start a travel agency and how was it like at the start?
Due to the circumstance of my then company, its foreign employees told us to look for alternative work. While looking for something to do, we met with the people who sent crew accommodation to Bodu Hithi and were looking for a new partner in Male. When they asked us for a favor it gave us the idea to start our own crew accommodation company. We started off with a small capital which proved to be really difficult. We began from level zero and put in numerous efforts to finally get here.
Which market do you mainly set your focus on? What are the trends and behaviors of the market?
Even though we work with several markets now, we have always treated the Italian market as our number one priority in the past and even now so as well. I think the reason why we lean towards Italian market is since this is where I began my career, having worked in one of the Italian companies. Along with that, we have Italian staff and we ourselves are also able to converse in the Italian language which helps when dealing with Italian tourists who arrive in Maldives.
There are two main reasons as to why Italian travelers visit Maldives. These reasons are for both family vacation and honeymoon. In the past, we witnessed a time where the Italian financial crisis caused a major setback on the market which causes a rise followed by a drop in the arrival numbers. Fortunately, in the past 2 years, the market seems to be on the rise. In order to increase the current numbers, we need to increase marketing efforts made in Italy. I believe that once we market Maldives as much as we should do, the tourist arrivals would increase in the future.
When focusing on the Italian market, what are the main challenges you face in bringing them here to Maldives?
The biggest challenge that we face is rate parity. A lot of resorts have their own rate parity which makes the role of the local DMC’s even more insignificant than it used to be. Moreover, resorts would rather wish to work directly with foreign agents which once again, puts local DMC’s at a disadvantage. Even though some resorts do choose local DMC’s, many lean towards foreign agents, which makes our work more challenging.
Speaking of challenges, what are your greatest successes?
There have been many little successes here and there as we have come a long way from when we began. Due to this, it is difficult to pinpoint what are the greatest ones. Even so, I would like to highlight how we were able to grow out of our original work which was crew accommodation, to being a travel agency in 2011. After that, newer areas of business have sprouted from our company, which is also something to be proud of in my opinion.
What is your opinion regarding direct flights from Italy and how would it affect the market share in Maldives?
Currently, there is only 1 direct flight from Italy which is namely, Air Italia. Though there are not enough flight connections from Italy to Maldives, I would like to believe that the arrival numbers complement the flight connections available to Italian tourists well. It is also to be noted that arrivals are also increasing due to the use of scheduled flights. Moreover, Alitalia and Air Italy are also planning on commencing their operations to Maldives in the coming winter. In my opinion, this shows that the market is growing and that the market has proved to be worthy to be invested in. When the additional flights commence, the numbers are sure to increase in the future.
As a company that started off 15 years ago, in terms of operation, what are the major changes that you have seen?
Automation has taken over the travel industry. Customers rely more on online platforms than the traditional booking process we are used to. Earlier we did not have many challenges regarding online booking as we were not that big of a company. However, with the increase in online systems, things have become more competitive. When resorts have low booking rates, they post on OTA’s such as Booking.com, Expedia and Agoda in order to attract potential tourists. This becomes a major challenge for us as a local travel agency. In order to make our business more successful, we need to work on making our services more accessible online.
How many foreign tour operators are you working with currently?
We have partnerships with foreign operators from all around the world. I believe the total number would be around 150. Our main operators are from either Italy, Eastern Europe, and Nordic countries. These countries are followed by the Middle East along with the GCC countries. We also have tour operators from markets such as India and other countries throughout Asia such as Malaysia and even Singapore.
What do you think will be the main market for Maldives in the future?
Honestly, the future is the European market. Even though China market is currently number 1 and other Asian markets are on the rise, it is a known fact that the Chinese tourists are not fixated on one destination and travel to many different countries. However, looking at the current demographics and its potential, I would like to believe that the European market will overtake China in the future.
What advice would you like to give to aspiring young hoteliers?
The most important advice I would like to give is to work as honestly as possible. Work hard to achieve as many milestones as possible. It is also not uncommon knowledge that many people have the wrong idea about the hospitality industry. Try to be the person who changes their mentality in the industry with your honest and hard work. I have worked in this industry for over 30 years and always tried to instill these values in my work. I believe that is what has gotten me to where I am.