“ Entrepreneur and outspoken advocate for the tourism industry on a number of critical issues, Ahmed Nazeer first arrived capital Male in 1960 to pursue a better education - from starting a boutique shop to launching a travel brand that transformed into one of the country's most renowned travel companies. He tells us about his extraordinary journey.”
1) Mr.Nazeer, please tell us about your journey into hospitality and what got you inspired.
I consider myself as very fortunate. That I come from a very humble background, I’m not a person from male’ and my parents brought me to study in male’ way back in 1960. Back then, the education was very basic even in Male’. English was still taught as a second language. Our medium of instruction was still Dhivehi. But soon after I joined Majeedhiyya it all changed. Under the leadearship of President Nasir, Majeediyya and Aminiya became English medium schools. Teachers were recruited from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to teach English, Mathematics, Science subjects, etc. Mr. Hill from Sri Lanka was appointed as the principal of Majeedhiyya School. Mr. Umar Zahir was appointed as the Headmaster of Majeedhiyya School. It was an exciting time to be at Majeedhiyya. Both Schools offered GCE (London) exams. I sat for my ‘O’ Level exams in 1969 and top scored in my batch of students. As a result I got awarded a Government scholarship under Colombo Plan to study in New Zealand. That was in December 1969. At the end of third year of studies in New Zealand I returned to Male’ for a holiday in December 1972. By then Kurumba had just opened as the first tourist resort. I was fortunate to be able to visit Kurumba. Soon I realized the future of Maldives was in tourism. I went back to New Zealand in early 1973 to complete my studies and came back in 1975. I had to serve the Government for 5 years as a scholarship bond. So, I joined Government in 1975 and served the Government for 7 years before leaving the Government in 1983 to start a business privately. During the period from 75 to 83 I had formed a friendship with my future partners who were going to form this company called Crown Company. That was Mr. Afeef, Mr. Saleem and Mr. Ghani. Crown Company was established in May 1983 with four partners. I was made a partner with a free share. I owe a very special thanks to other three partners. We rented a prominent shop called Goldhill at the corner of Chaandhanee Magu and Orchid Magu and started a Boutique shop selling high end readymade garments and solar products like solar panels, solar pumps and solar refrigerators.
In early 1984 Government announced Veligandu Island in North Ari Atoll for resort development. We put in a bid and won. That was the start of my journey into tourism. Strangely Veligandu bid was submitted in the name of Mr. Saleem (Crown shareholder) and Mr. Abdulla Mohamed (Dheylia) who were considered more experienced in resort development than the newly formed Crown Company. We managed to open the resort in December 1984 with 17 rooms. We were the first to introduce open air bathroom concept to resorts. We offered fresh water to all the guest rooms and all rooms were air-conditioned. At that time it was considered a boutique resort even though there were more than 50 operational resorts.
2) Among your many successful projects, can you tell us more about how you established resort and travel agency operations back then? Crown Company, Crown Tours were like no other positioned and performed as role models of the Industry.
In developing the resort we faced many challenges in the form of finding the funds, finding contractors with any experience, finding staff and with transporting materials, supplies, etc. to the island. With finance we got support from State Bank of India and some of our friends helped us. SBI gave us a US$300,000/- loan subject our equity of US$300,000/-. So, we had to develop the resort with about US$600,000/-. That was a huge challenge and without the support of our friends we would not have completed the construction in 1984 and opened the resort in 1984. Communication was also a very big challenge as we had no phone service to Ari Atoll. Special radio sets were used to communicate with the resorts. We were fortunate in that we had Mr. Saleem who is an architect and Mr. Ghani who is an electrical engineer and Mr. Afeef was there giving us guidance on construction and finance as he was already heavily involved in tourism. Mr. Saleem was the first qualified Maldivian architect. So it was natural that he will be our architect for Veligandu project. In those days we had very few masons, carpenters, etc. It was a huge challenge to find the right people to do the masonry work; carpentry work; electrical work and even to cook for the contractors. Equally challenging was to find the staff to manage the newly opened resort.
Despite these challenges we managed to open the resort in December 1984 and moved on to open another property in Lhaviyani Atoll in 1988. It was Kuredu. Then in 1993 we opened Rangali Island Resort in South Ari Atoll. Crown Company became a major player in tourism and our foreign tour operators had a lot of confidence in us. As a result we needed to establish a travel agency to support our foreign tour operators. That was how Crown Tours was born.
3) What were the main stumbling blocks for your startup, especially during the first few years, and what would you do differently from today’s perspective?
It was very difficult to do anything during the 70s. Even during the early 80s everything was very basic. Today’s young people can’t imagine what it was like to carryout resort development in those days. During the early 80s we had to depend on small fishing dhonis for transport. During rough weather it was not possible to use these dhonis for transport. Another challenge was to find the finance required for resort development. There were two banks (SBI and Habib Bank) in the country. Both banks had very limited resources to lend to resort development. There were very few large businesses or people with resources that could help develop resorts. Given all this, I am very surprised to think that Crown Company managed to build a resort in 1984. Finding skilled masons and carpenters was another big challenge. During the early 80s there were only a handful of skilled people. We were fortunate that our shareholders, especially Mr. Saleem and Mr. Ghani played a very active role in the development of Veligandu by being present on the island to supervise the construction staff.
4) Can you tell something about the business model and how it has changed?
Crown stays unchanged among the leading and stable establishments in Tourism Sector. You have to understand that even though we started as a trading company it was our intention to move into tourism. Once we got the resort in 1984, our business model was based on as a company that owns and operates resorts and we continue to be like this even today. Our involvement in travel trade was also based on the same philosophy. We started Crown Tours with Mr. Ally Ahmed as a partner in order further develop the tourism in the country. So, our business model has always been to make sure that we do everything to ensure our tourism product is on the right path in moving forward.
5) What were the main challenges in educating the public and stakeholders about tourism development in early 80s?
As I pointed out earlier the 70s and early 80s were very challenging time in that everything was very basic in those early days of tourism. By the time we developed our resort in 1984 more than 12 years of tourism was behind us. Yet we had very few trained man power to work in a resort. Every resort had to take on unskilled people and train them to be waiters, room attendants, kitchen staff, powerhouse staff, etc. Fortunately in those days new recruits were very keen to learn new trades and they were very enthusiastic about working and living in a resort. This attitude was fundamental in our success in developing and managing resorts in those early days.
6) A little over a year ago, you emphasized the need for direct flights to source markets as it will be the preferred option in the future (especially after the pandemic). With tourist arrivals figure crossing the 1,000,000-mark, we are inching closer to our tourist arrivals target for 2021.
Direct flights to all source markets are important for all countries that are heavily dependent on tourism like Maldives. At the moment we enjoy direct flights from India, Turkey and even from European destinations. But we should not forget the services of airlines from the Gulf countries like Emirates, Qatar and Gulf Air serving the Maldives by bringing tourists from Europe. Similarly, Singapore Airlines has been serving us for a long time, both as a director flight and as a second carrier. But I would like to see our domestic carrier, Maldivian, playing a bigger role in future in our tourism like Mauritius Air for Mauritius. With our arrivals for this year hitting the 1.2 million mark, the outlook for 2022 is very promising and I look forward to all airlines serving the Maldives to continue to play a vital role in bringing the tourists to this country.
7) Please share with us your thoughts in the current state of tourism in the Maldives?
Currently I have to say that our tourism is very mature that is world class with a very diverse portfolio of services starting from guest house business, safari business to world-class luxury resorts. Add to this the concept of one island one resort and that completes the picture of tourism in the Maldives. We have very few to offer to our tourists and yet what we have in the form of sun, sand, beach and the beautiful undersea world appears to be plenty for our visitors to enjoy. We are also very conscious of serving our guests and all tourist establishments are doing a fantastic job of looking after their clients. Food and beverage concepts offered in the high end resorts are now considered world-class and all signs are that we are a mature destination serving the tourists who want to visit this country. But I warn you all not to be complacent about our achievements or else we will lose our status in world tourism.
8) Which of the challenges of the pandemic you see remaining in the short/mid-term? What about the opportunities the pandemic has brought which Maldives was among the few countries which took the risk as well as the bold step to open up borders?
As we all know the pandemic created lot of restrictions like border closures, social distancing, etc. These were alien to travel trade and yet we had to find solutions to address these issues and attract tourists to this country. I salute the Government and industry stakeholders in making the bold decision to open our borders in July 2020 when the whole world was closed. This bold step played a crucial role in keeping our economy from a total collapse. By now we have overcome the short term and mid-term worries by learning to adapt to do our business in this pandemic and unless the pandemic turn’s ugly it is unlikely we will be adversely affected in the near future. Worldwide vaccination programs have helped tourist destinations to open up for business and the travelling public are getting more and more confident in taking a holiday to another destination.
9) What novelties shall we be expecting for the coming year? What are some of the new strategic directions you are looking at as the nation celebrates golden jubilee of Maldivian Tourism?
2022 is our golden jubilee year of Maldives tourism. The Government and the private sector have great plans to celebrate this event on a grand scale. I am hopeful these activities will have a very positive impact on our tourism as it will draw more and more tourists to this country. These days the dominant players in our resort sector are foreign investors and not locals. This is an indication of the profitability of this sector. That is to say it is still feasible to build new resorts in this country. As a result we are likely to see a lot more luxury resorts being developed in this country and some of these will always come up with a surprise wow factor. The future is looking brighter for our tourism.
10) Having successfully engaged in numerous tourism development projects, and among the leading figures in spearheading the tourism sector, what advice would you offer to newcomers who want to follow your example?
The number one thing is to have a dream. Next in hard work in trying to achieve your dream. I don’t believe in short cuts to getting to be successful in doing anything. The same is true if you want to be successful in the tourism industry. The opportunities are there. Our tourism product is diversified enough to create opportunities to all who want to follow a carrier in tourism starting from being a successful staff to becoming an owner of a tourist establishment. I am convinced hard work will reward all those who want to succeed in being part of our tourism.
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