In the hour before departing Malé, I spotted three Gulf wide body planes, one SriLankan A330, an Aeroflot aircraft and Air India B737 – all twisting and turning like cumbersome whale sharks around the single, water-flanked runway. Velana International Airport is a bit of a time warp, outwardly and inwardly looking much the same as when I first came here in 2003, though in a commercial sense the Maldives is unrecognisable.
Change is in the air, or more precisely, on the ground. A second runway is complete, adjacent to the first. Etihad sent down an A380 to mark the completion last September, indicating its superjumbo handling capabilities, but we await an official launch date. A $350 million passenger terminal is also in the offing.
They can’t open too soon. Alongside alleviating operational pressures, adding slots and the prospect of more premium seats, the capacity boost will be equally welcomed by hotel operators and businesses in the hemmed-in capital city, providing foundations for future growth.
Last year’s visitor numbers are expected to weigh in around 1.5 million and there are now over 130 resorts – with around the same number in the pipeline.
China, Germany and the UK spearhead the tourism charge though while the Chinese lead the table with 266,376 visitors, their numbers have been sliding (down 23,000 2018 on 2017) while UK is on the rise (up 10,625). Sandwiched between the Asian and European titans, the Midd