By Hassan Saeed
Let me start with a disclaimer here: Some of what I am expressing here may be very unpopular depending on the reader but it is my opinion and lived experience.
Localisation is only possible up to an extent; authorities will have to work out the exact numbers and the timeframe. Fact is, we do not have the numbers to localise the entire workforce.
I understand the sentiments of those who disagree with me and I respect that. My opinion is the result of my own experience and what I keep seeing in resorts during my 30-year-long career.
I have worked very closely with young people for over a decade now and what I see is a huge gap between what these young people come to expect from their jobs in the industry and the everyday realities of life, career opportunities and working conditions at resorts.
Maldivians are historically very hardworking people. Our ancestors have survived through centuries of hardship on these small islands.
However, when it comes to employment in the tourism industry, we have not been as responsible as we should as a society. I am not blaming a section, a group, an institution or a particular politician or government for this; we are all collectively responsible for this predicament.
That said, almost all Maldivian General Managers I know are employed by local resort owners and their salaries are on par with that of the foreign GMs elsewhere. This gives people like me a lot of hope. Credit goes to them for the trust and confidence they have put in locals. It is a shame that big international brands who have benefited from their presence in the Maldives for over two decades have not developed General Managers and Resort Managers even for their own properties.
There are those among us who advocate for a global workforce for the tourism industry and that has some merit too. Global representation is fine BUT greater local participation and involvement, I would argue, is more important for the industry to become sustainable in the long run.
Back in the 80s, when tourism was dubbed as the ‘hen that lays golden eggs’, a UN expert commented that for the hen to keep laying eggs for as long as possible (meaning sustainability) it should not mess up its nest. His observation was that tourism was seen as an industry that exploits people and other resources. The benefits of tourism were not fully appreciated by the public.
The proposed amendment that mandates 60 per cent of what the amendment calls ‘is vazeefaa thah’ meaning senior management or leadership positions to Maldivians will be a good step forward but how effective it is, will depend on many things. The definition of ‘senior management’ has to be unambiguous. Implementation of such measures will require close monitoring.
Was the five-year preparation period based on any objective assessment? Or did the committee or the honourable member just pick a number? Any number that is not based on data/evidence will always be arbitrary. Ideally, the Majlis should look at a clear snapshot of the labour market as it is today and forecast the anticipated changes over the next 10 years.
A key question will be how many of these senior management positions can we fill for 140 resorts right now and over the next 5-10 years. Would we have about 600 career-minded hospitality professionals who fit the basic competency requirements for high-end resorts? If not, what plans do we have to develop them and fast-track graduates into management positions?
These are some basic questions. In addition, there are inherent systemic challenges within the industry that will require deliberate interventions to overcome them.
Systemic explicit and implicit bias preventing Maldivians from getting hired and getting promoted
Did you ever wonder why the teaching profession and nursing professions are predominantly female? Why most carpenters and engineers are male?
Through evolution, we have developed mental shortcuts known as heuristics to make our decision making easier and faster. These heuristics then result in us reaching judgements and conclusions based on first impressions. When a certain perception is widespread in a community, it results in stereotyping and generalising. If we collectively associate certain roles or professions with one gender or the other, we become implicitly biased.
This is what happens when you get two equally qualified individuals, one male, one female, and depending on the type of job/role being considered, research shows that we tend to favour one gender over the other regardless of the qualification. Most of us will not admit to this but this happens to all of us.
Some General Managers I have worked with are extremely positive about hiring Maldivian HoDs and some are not. Unfortunately, more General Managers doubt the capacity and potential of Maldivians and tend to favour those they knew in their previous postings and in many cases these happen to be expatriates.
In 2015, I travelled to eight atolls and spoke to hundreds of young women and men about employment in the resorts. What struck me immediately was the first impressions they gave, especially the boys: some of them had long hair, unkempt facial hair, wore flip-flops and had leather straps around their wrists. I did not find many who will fit the stereotypical ideal employee: well-groomed, well presented, dressed appropriately, ready with all the necessary papers. I would doubt if any person with conventional HR thinking would have found any of these boys worth hiring.
I ended up enrolling 18 of these boys and three girls in an apprenticeship programme and over 75 per cent of them were still working in the industry when Covid-19 hit tourism.
There are no easy solutions here and the process of de-programming our minds will be a slow process. Many companies have deliberate de-biasing built into the applicant screening process but some of these measures are designed to eliminate explicit bias, not implicit bias.
Shortage of General Managers, Resort Managers and Human Resource Managers
I got my first assignment as Resort Manager after nine years of work in the industry and after many detours and segues, I returned to the same position 25 years later.
On average, you would need about 10-15 years or more of service in the industry and at least five-eight years of experience as an HoD or in the ExCom to reach the General Manager position. There is no system in place to feed and create a pool from the bottom. There is always talk that ‘company x’ is developing Maldivian talent but that talent never gets to the top. They get stuck halfway through for some unknown reason.
Appointment of a General Manager is a matter of trust and confidence rather than an impressive resume. This is a catch-22 situation for Maldivians — lack of a significant number of notable General Managers after more than 40 years of resort operations leads to owners and corporate HRs to question the potential of Maldivian General Managers.
Some owners also think that Maldivian Resort Managers and General Managers lack international experience. For big brands, it is brand-experience.
It is catch-22 because we do not get considered for not having international and brand experience but how can one get experience if she/he is not considered for lower-level management in the first place?
Some brands have management fast-tracking programmes for graduates. Maybe this is something that could work and be helpful in producing Resort and General Managers in a shorter span of time.
Language is one criterion that a lot of Maldivian HoDs and managers find lacking when they apply for managerial positions. This again goes back to point one: Maldivians do not get to the top because their resume is deemed inferior simply on the basis of their nationality.
My assumption here is that more local General Managers, Resorts Managers and HR Managers will lead to more local HoDs who will then have the opportunity to develop and get promoted.
Lack of political will to change the status quo
A politician’s attention is always from one election to the other and no five-year plan can ever achieve localisation of the workforce to a meaningful degree.
Localising the tourism workforce requires commitment from all levels of government, civil service and society. It requires multi-pronged programmes aimed at youth development, school and community level awareness, mindset change, job centres, apprenticeships, scholarships, regulatory frameworks and incentive programs, all to work together towards a common goal.
There will be no immediate results, no credits that can be claimed in the short term except for the introduction or inauguration of a programme but the results of any such program will not be seen immediately.
Very few politicians are driven by sincere intentions of public service and being altruistic. Partisan politics and poorly conceived ideas can, in fact, turn out to be counterproductive. We have had an Employment Act for over a decade but the extent to which it had changed the condition of the employee or the level of protection it offers to the employer is still questionable.
Politics is mostly about rhetoric, PR stunts, drama and self-aggrandisement. Most politicians use policies as pacifiers to console the public and most of the time, these are quick fixes, not long term solutions.
General perception of the Maldivian public towards the industry
This industry is still not given first preference by the majority of school leavers. Even parents of my generation who benefited from this industry and still depending on this industry, consciously or unconsciously nudge their children towards other professions such as medicine, law, engineering or education. We (the majority of the population) still hold jobs in this industry in low esteem.
I keep repeating the same story of harassment we received as hotel school students back in 1989 when everyone thought work at resorts involved cooking, feeding (restaurant service) and cleaning toilets (housekeeping) for tourists. Hotel school was a place you go to learn cooking.
Sadly, not much has changed in terms of public opinion in the past 30 years. Teachers and parents still tell their kids that failure in their studies will leave them with only two options: fishing or resort work!
It is true that if someone wants to succeed in this industry, they will have to start from dishwashing, cleaning and doing all sorts of manual work and for parents, they just cannot come to terms with their beloved child doing any of these things that we as a society have to relegate to a different class of humans.
Self-discipline and attitude towards work among Maldivian talent pool
This is the elephant in the room and no one will ever admit to this. I have been criticised before and probably will be criticised again for saying this.
My opinion is based on my experience with both Maldivians and expatriates for over 30 years. I spent some of these years in HR and training and have come across many young Maldivians with tremendous potential. Some of them are currently in responsible positions but some of them think they deserve better positions for no obvious reasons.
In this industry, you have to start at an entry-level position to fully understand and develop an appreciation for those who do the basic work. This helps build character and makes them more empathetic as leaders who will have greater career success than their less empathetic counterparts.
Unfortunately, we do not like doing manual work and have relegated it to the foreigners.
“Job hopping” is one of the accusations that HR Managers level against Maldivians. This used to be true to an extent but is changing fast. We used to move from one job to the other without much care, looking for the highest service charge. When we want to move, we sometimes do not do it in a professional manner by giving proper notice. Some just go missing, go on leave and do not return. This drives HoDs mad and their frustration is understandable.
This, therefore, becomes one of the reasons that managements use to justify hiring more expatriates.
Maybe we are victims of our own biases but this issue is too important to be swept under the carpet. We need to discuss and investigate it further. If we want meaningful change, we need to work together and be willing to endure a difficult journey. Sometimes we are part of the problem and not talking about it and avoiding the topic does not make the problem go away.
Our reluctance to do manual work — stewarding, cleaning, landscaping and gardening, which are essential jobs that make up the bulk of the workforce– will not help change the numbers in our favour anytime soon. We have to keep in mind that certain types of work like massage and body works do not generate much interest in the local communities.
If we want to change the situation, at an individual level, more of us need to become reliable and professional as employees, be willing to take up entry-level positions and look for long term career advancement.
At an institutional level, a lot remains to be done to change public opinion, get facts out to the public, run social marketing campaigns to change perception and mindset and develop young people at school/community level so that they grow up eager to explore the many possibilities that this industry offer.
Note: This op-ed was originally published on LinkedIn by Hassan Saeed, a highly experienced hotel/resort manager from the Maldives who currently serves as the Resort Manager at Dhigali Maldives, a luxury resort in the northern Raa atoll. To view the original article, please follow this link.
How to diversify Maldives’ tourism-heavy economy
By Sonu Shivdasani
At Soneva, we adhere to the principle that local is best. Whether it’s food produced by our organic vegetable gardens or the fish we source from neighbourhood fishermen, local produce is always fresher, better tasting, and more sustainable.
Producing things within the country, rather than importing everything from abroad, also makes economic sense. And the greater variety of products and services you produce in-house, the easier it is to diversify the economy, making it more resilient.
In an Op-ed that I wrote last year, I mentioned that, “The Maldives is one of the world’s best places to operate a resort. And yet, the cost of borrowing the money to build one is eye-wateringly high. How do we explain this paradox?”
During a recent conversation with a Male-based banker, I was told why lending rates in the Maldives are so high: there is a perception of risk among the financial community because the Maldivian economy is so dependent on tourism.
As Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih, said during his National Day speech on November 11, 2020: “Covid-19 has made us realise our economy cannot solely depend on tourism. This is something we have always debated, yet failed to adequately address.”
It’s easy to understand why the Maldives wants to put some of its eggs in baskets other than tourism. Covid-19 has swung a wrecking ball at Maldivian tourism, which in turn has devastated the government’s finances, foreign currency reserves, and the value of the Ruffiya, which are all dependent on tourist dollars.
Though tourism is recovering since the border reopened in July, and many resorts (including Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani) are currently as busy as they were last year, a few good months at the end of the year won’t make up for the carnage of March-July. And so, how to diversify the Maldives — a country that’s 99 per cent ocean, and with a small population?
Extracting better value from Maldives’ fish catch
An obvious place to start is in areas the Maldives already does well: fishing. Although the Maldivian fishing industry is already large, much of the value of the fish is in the processing, not the catching.
Here, the Maldives could improve. Instead of selling frozen, whole tuna to Thailand, more money would be made if all Maldivian fish were canned in the Maldives. The fisheries ministry recently said as much; announcing plans to expand cold fish storage.
The branding of Maldivian tuna could also be enhanced. The Maldives operates the world’s most sustainable fishing fleet. Every fish is caught by hand, with a pole and line, one-by-one. Nets and long-lines are banned, meaning there is almost no by-catch of sharks, turtles, dolphins and other charismatic or endangered sea creatures.
More could be made of this inherent strength, especially as consumers in Western export markets demand more sustainable food. Maldivian tourism is globally renowned for being the world’s most luxurious. Maldivian fish should be equally known as the world’s most environmentally friendly.
Growing our own food
Although the Maldives is 99 per cent sea, let us not forget about what can be done on that 1 percent of land. It’s heartening to see a big government push towards growing more food. There is huge demand, especially from resorts, for locally-grown, fresh produce.
Both Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani have highly productive fruit, vegetable and herb gardens that supply the bulk of the ingredients for our restaurants. What we don’t produce ourselves, we strive to buy locally to maintain freshness and reduce carbon emissions. Over the summer Soneva also released a series of video tutorials based on our experiences, showing ways to farm in the Maldives, either on a commercial scale or in a window box.
Looking beyond farming and fishing, another opportunity the Maldives could explore further is its relationship with India.
The $1.4 billion assistance granted by India in 2018, and the more recent economic aid package, have both been of great help. But, rather than aid, the Maldives should engage with India to see how it can grow its economy both through tourism and non-tourism means to develop closer ties with this populous and economically significant neighbour.
Potential offshore financial hub
For example, the Maldives could enter into a double tax treaty with India. The Maldives could also negotiate with India, to allow Indian citizens to make personal investments in the Maldives and be able to remit more than $250,000 — the current Reserve Bank of India limit on any foreign currency remittance by an Indian in a particular year. In addition to this, perhaps more Indians could be allowed to pay for personal investments in the Maldives with Rupees. These Rupees could then be used by the Maldives to buy Indian goods.
With a double tax treaty with India in place, the Maldives could explore the opportunity to become a financial centre. Could the Maldives become India’s offshore financial centre, playing a similar role that Hong Kong does to China?
There is a closer Indian Ocean example; in 1989, Mauritius’ government decided that its economy was too dependent on tourism and sugarcane, so it chose to make the country an offshore financial centre.
Mauritius initiated double tax treaties with 18 African countries and India. Like the Maldives, Mauritius’s tax rate was considerably lower than the 18 African neighbours and India. As a result, foreign investors who wanted to invest in India or these 18 African countries set up companies in Mauritius, helping them to legally reduce their tax bills. There are now 20,000 offshore Mauritius companies.
On average, the basic statutory fees that the Mauritius government charges, such as directors fees, and stamp duties for operating companies, come to $5,000 per year. For all the offshore companies registered in the country, these fees tally up to $100 million per year — a huge source of revenue for the government.
Moreover, according to a recent report, Mauritius-incorporated offshore companies have $630 billion of assets. This is 50 times Mauritius’ GDP. If we assume that these companies achieve a 10 per cent return on capital, that means they have net profits of around $63 billion. It is likely that the Mauritius government received more than one per cent of these profits as taxes. Even at one per cent, this is the equivalent of $630 million of revenue to the government.
It has taken Mauritius 30 years to get to where it is. If the Maldives starts today, potentially in 30 years’ time, the government could generate more revenue from offshore finance than from tourism. There are many considerations when setting up an offshore centre. We have recently seen a global backlash against tax havens, so this will require a lot of thought and consideration. But, it is an opportunity.
Second-home schemes and outsourcing
Introducing second home schemes for foreigners is another way to diversify the economy. The government recently changed the law to allow foreigners to become resident in the Maldives if they invest $250,000 dollars, and deposit another quarter of a million in a local bank’s fixed deposit account for at least five years. Similar programmes, in countries such as Malaysia, are very popular. They make it easier for the government to sell debt and help ease dollar shortages.
Lastly, the Maldives could also look to offshore business process outsourcing, which has made cities such as Bangalore wealthy. These days, a British or American customer ringing into a bank call centre is as likely to speak with someone sitting in Bangalore or Hyderabad as Birmingham or Houston. While the Maldives does not have the huge pool of labour that India does, young Maldivians speak English well, so offshore processing could be done, albeit at a smaller scale.
The Maldives has paid a heavy price this year for its over-dependence on tourism. Nobody predicted Covid-19, or the impact it has had on the economy. But, as any good investor will tell you, the best way to mitigate risk is through diversification.
Editor’s Note: This op-ed was originally published on Linkedin by Sonu Shivdasani. Sonu is the founder and CEO of Soneva, which owns luxury resorts Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani in the Maldives, and Soneva Kiri in Thailand.
A day in the life of Amilla Maldives’ HR Special Projects Manager
Hussain is a well-known face at Amilla Maldives as the resort’s energetic Assistant Manager of Recreation. With lower demand due to the pandemic this year, Hussain pivoted to a three-month secondment in HR Special Projects.
These unique projects are aimed at maximising the quality of life for everyone working at Amilla. They range from renovating the Islanders’ accommodation block to transforming the staff bar into a chilled-out café-style community space.
This dynamic and multi-talented Islander has also helped plan and run staff events — creating some dazzling decorations in the process. He has even channelled his inner artist to create paintings to brighten up staff areas.
Hussain originally hails from Kurendhoo, a small island in Lhaviyani Atoll. We caught up with him to find out more about how he’s ringing in the changes behind the scenes at Amilla.
How does a typical day begin for you?
With my current role, I don’t so much follow time as follow projects and people. So, I normally wake up around 6am, read the news from the Maldives and around the world for half an hour, do 15 minutes of stretching and warming up for the day, take a shower and then I’m ready to start my day.
Often, when I start something, I’ll have to finish it, otherwise I just cannot sleep! So, sometimes, if I had a late night, I’ll wake up at around 7am but never later than 7.30am, so I can get things done.
Every day can be different depending on my tasks, but one of my favourite things to do is making decorations for staff events. Everybody says I’m really good at it. I also like doing carpentry and painting abstract stuff. The management has given me a lot of opportunities to try out new ideas and the freedom to learn new things, which I really appreciate.
How closely do you work with the other Islanders on your projects?
The best resource of any company is their staff. If we don’t care for them, they won’t enjoy their jobs or their life with us. So, our first priority is always our staff and our guests.
Getting feedback every day is the biggest thing in HR Special Projects. Before we make any new service or changes, we get feedback from the staff. That’s because we need to give them what they want where this is possible. Normally, lunchtime is the best time to go speak to them. The best way I’ve found to do it is to have a friendly chat. I just go to wherever they are, have a coffee with them, then ask them in a friendly way. Otherwise, if I just ask them formally, they might not open up.
What has been your favourite special project to work on so far?
I thought something I really had to do was provide what the Islanders really need, so I started working with the Bliss tuck shop, because it’s difficult to get what they need from other islands, especially with the Covid-19 restrictions. So, I’ve changed the concept and created more options as well as redesigned the shop. Red Bull is the most popular item, of course! It’s their basic need, they enjoy it a lot. But although we have a canteen, we didn’t have anything like a café area for them to enjoy the drinks they bought from the shop.
What was the solution?
We have a nice bar which needs a little attention to evolve the concept into something new because as Maldivians, with our culture, we’re not allowed to drink alcohol. So, if we have a bar where people think it only serves alcohol, it means some of the staff can be there, but some might not feel comfortable. I’m leading on the project to transform the bar into an area where the Maldivian staff and expat staff can enjoy things together as one family. This new concept will be more than a bar, it’ll be more like a café area where staff can also do things like book a cinema night, or celebrate a private birthday party with their friends, and so on.
How did you end up in this special projects secondment?
I went back to my island when the Covid-19 pandemic hit but they called me to ask if I was interested in this role. Before this I was working in recreation. I love being active and working with guests and wanted to be back at Amilla with this new opportunity to help me grow and have new experiences.
Can you tell us about your journey to working in recreation?
When I was a teenager, I loved sports and I wanted to play sports professionally, but unfortunately there weren’t many opportunities in the Maldives at the time, so I decided it wasn’t a good idea. Then I decided that recreation at a resort would be a good job because then you get to do everything. But it was hard to get into, so I actually started working in childcare at another resort.
I love kids and it was fun. I spent four years there and became Kids Club Manager, but I still wanted to get into recreation. So, I took a step down to become a Recreation Supervisor at another resort and then finally became Recreation Manager. It was hard to take a step backwards, but it was worth it .
Then I got a knee injury and couldn’t do sports anymore. I had to slow down and from there I decided to learn more about creative art and tennis too. Then this year I got offered the chance to join the HR team, taking care of special projects and staff communications.
I learned one thing from my past; I didn’t follow my passion when I was a teenager to become a professional sports player because of the restrictions including my injury. But I ended up learning many other things that I can use to create beautiful things or to make magic, as our HR Director says! And now with the knowledge and experience I have, I just want to help other people to be happy and follow their passions.
Sustainable development of coral reefs at Cinnamon Dhonveli Maldives
Renowned for its iconic stunning over-water suites, Cinnamon Dhonveli Maldives is a beautiful tropical island resort offering exclusive access to the classic Pasta Point surf break, described as the “wave-machine” of the North Malé Atoll due to its consistent four to six foot waves.
Green Globe recently recertified Cinnamon Dhonveli Maldives.
The resort first started their coral restoration project in 2018 to help replenish diminishing coral reefs and have continued to develop this initiative since then.
“Coral reefs represent some of the world’s most spectacular beauty spots. They are also the foundation of marine life, without them many of the sea’s most exquisite species will not survive,” Sanjeeva Perera, General Manager at the resort, explained.
“The awareness and in-depth knowledge we receive from Green Globe during the recertification process continues to guide us on the correct path to take in the bold steps forward toward the sustainable development of coral reefs that will benefit future generations in the Maldives.”
Coral reefs in oceans all around the world are dying. It is estimated that nearly one sixth of these reefs will be dead within the next twenty years.
In keeping with the commitment of Green Globe members to manage and operate businesses to the highest level of sustainability, the Cinnamon Dhonveli team initiated this mariculture project two years ago focusing on the pre-emptive restoration and rejuvenation of reefs affected by coral bleaching.
The project uses ‘reef balls’ as artificial reef structures implanted with Mari corals that are cultivated in special nurseries. The reef balls are then transplanted onto the bare substrate to grow.
With marine conservation at the heart of their sustainability vision, the Cinnamon Dhonveli team is committed to making their artificial coral reef propagation project a great success in the Maldives.
They also aim to set up a Marine Discovery Centre to educate visiting youth and children in coral reef propagation, environmental awareness, and the rearing and rescue of sea turtles.
Located no more than a 25-minute speedboat ride from the main Velana International Airport, Dhonveli’s proximity and diversity combine to make it one of the most popular destinations in the Maldives.
The island is constantly buzzing with action as divers, surfers and beach bums alike find a common ground in the world of excitement this little island has to offer. Magnificent waves and a policy of sustainable surfing combine to make Pasta Point at Cinnamon Dhonveli one of the most sought after surfing locations by award-winning surfers from around the world.
Large families, groups of friends, divers and snorkelling buffs all seem to find a comfortable common ground in the heady atmosphere of the 16-acre island as well. Sink your teeth into our succulent seafood and indulge in the theme nights at each of the three restaurants with the best of international cuisine. Unwind at the spa or sink into the comforts of the 148 plush rooms.
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