Destination Maldives: tourism undeterred amid diplomatic tussles

With Manta Air launching a direct flight from Bengaluru to Dhaalu airport, and visa-free entry, it has become easier and cheaper to holiday in the Maldives. We find out how Indian travellers are responding

March 11, 2024 05:30 pm | Updated March 12, 2024 03:42 pm IST

A snapshot of the new airport

A snapshot of the new airport | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

On March 1, Maldives came a tad closer to India with the launch of Manta Air’s direct commercial flight from Bengaluru’s Kempegowda International airport to Dhaalu airport in the pristine island nation. It was welcomed by the Indian High Commission’s first secretary Kiran Khatri among other officials. 

Though this comes at a time when Maldives walks a diplomatic tightrope with India, it was welcomed by Indian travellers. “We announced the commercial flight just a few days before the launch and still saw an impressive 50% load on the first flight,” Mohamed Khaleel, chief executive officer of Manta Air, said during a conversation with The Hindu Weekend. “The consumer enquiries are very strong for this route especially Indian families with kids,” he added.

Manta Air’s direct commercial flight connects Bengaluru’s Kempegowda International airport to Dhaalu airport

Manta Air’s direct commercial flight connects Bengaluru’s Kempegowda International airport to Dhaalu airport | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Weeks after the diplomatic spat that sparked the ‘Boycott Maldives’ trend online, Indian travellers continue to consider the archipelagos in the Indian Ocean their summer getaway, industry numbers reveal. This comes after a blip in the Indian tourist numbers to the coral islands, which ranked highest in 2023 and slid down to the fourth rank during the first half of January, as per a report released by the Maldives Tourism Ministry.

It is apparent that tourism has won, diplomatic and social media wars notwithstanding.

Apart from the stunning beaches, which have always been a draw, the accessibility of the destination, free visa on arrival, and fairly affordable return tickets continue to be a big draw. Khaleel and tourism officials see this trend continuing in 2024 given the rapidly growing Indian middle class, with cooperation from both private and Government authorities to tap into the lucrative tourism market between the countries.

The fact that the direct flight from Bengaluru readily got a nod from the Ministry of Civil Aviation is one of the indicators of this. The airline’s deputy CEO Ahmed Maumoon said, ”The Government was extremely supportive and there was no disruption in business as usual for launching this flight.”

Tourists being greeted at the new airport

Tourists being greeted at the new airport | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Skip the sea planes

Eliminating the need for Indian travellers to transit through Male, this three hour-long flight saves travellers both time and cost by providing travellers direct access, via five-25 minutes speed boat rides, to the over 11 properties nestled in and around Dhaalu Atoll.

A round trip on this flight will cost an Indian passenger about $300 (₹25,000) as compared to $800-900 (₹66,000 - ₹75,000) for the traditional route via Male. Moreover, tourists will save almost a full day of travel, which includes driving to the international airport in Male followed by a limited frequency of sea planes to various resorts. 

Plus, right now, Dhaalu remains a relatively unexplored destination owing to this time and cost overhead for travellers coming to Maldives. The country comprises 1192 coral islands and 26 atolls, and among the various islands that tourists can visit, Kandima and Riu fall under the Maldivian affordable luxury segment, while others like Nyama Private islands fall under the ultra-luxury segment. 

Now, direct flights between Bengaluru and Dhaalu are being paired with resort packages for for budget-conscious families and single visitors wishing to experience the Maldives. Interestingly, three new resorts — one in the ultra-luxury category with just 40-rooms and the other two in the mid-market segment and another major residential real estate project — are expected to come up in Dhaalu Atoll by 2025. 

For those travelling on a tight budget, Dhaalu also offers a selection of guesthouses which the direct flight from Bengaluru is expected to fuel the growth of. These flights are also strategically scheduled, on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, arriving in the morning and departing late in the evening, to give travellers maximum time at the destination. 

“We are particularly targeting the wedding market in India which could not be pulled in so far because of the complex transfer logistics,” said Khaleel, adding that the honeymoon and family market segment constitute the largest proportion of Indian travellers to the island nation. 

Dhaalu Airport expansion 

Dhaalu Airport now sees 10-domestic daily Manta Air flights and three international flights per week. The airport is undergoing rapid expansion with investments upwards of a whopping $20 million. Runway expansion is underway to increase the length from the current 1,800 metres to 2,200 metres to accommodate A320s, A321s and other narrow body aircraft by December 2025. 

Moreover, the terminal capacity on both departures and arrivals is being expanded by over 30% while adding retail stores and lounge facilities for passenger convenience. 

“The plan is to also have other foreign airlines directly come into Dhaalu,” said Maumoon. Among Indian carriers, he says AIX Connect (formerly Air Asia) has shown a massive interest to fly into Dhaalu, while the airport is also looking at Indigo to cater to large demand from various parts of India. 

Tapping the Indian market 

After its successful take off from India, Manta Air has received queries from Chennai and Cochin. “We are targeting the South Indian market first considering the type of aircraft we have, and Mumbai and Delhi are the next most preferred markets and we plan to start operations there as soon as we have a suitable aircraft,” Maumoon said. The airline is set to add two A321 aircraft into its fleet in the next two years.  

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