In the wake of the coronavirus disease and decline in global aviation and tourism, the Maldives' renowned tourism industry went into recession. On 15th July, Maldives' borders were opened again for travelers and the industry is on a steady ascend.
We spoke to Jason Kruse, General Manager at Amilla Fushi Maldives about how he and his team spent their time on the island of Finolhas in Baa Atoll the through the lockdown and uncertainty, and about the property's post-pandemic operations.
Maldive Islands: The tourism industry is obviously one of the worst-hit due to the pandemic, and is something never before seen despite multiple recessions, how did it affect the resort and as the General Manager, how did you deal with it?
Jason Kruse: That’s true – we’ve never seen anything like this before, either in the Maldives or anywhere else in the world. It’s made it particularly hard for the tourism industry as a whole to deal with, because there’s no playbook for this. We’ve seen outbreaks of SARS and MERS happen elsewhere, but nothing on this scale, and I don’t think anybody really knew at the start of the outbreak how much impact it was going to have around the world. Back in February and March, we started to see some cancellations but some of our guests already on the island didn’t realise how it was going to play out, so they decided to stay here island with us, and ended up staying for nearly four months.
In the meantime, some of our staff were getting quite panicky and wanted to fly home to see their families, but we needed to keep some staff on the island to look after the guests who were staying, so it was quite a difficult situation. I called the staff together and we had a meeting about it. It seemed that our two options were either to close Amilla down and accept defeat or to stay on the island and fight, and prepare ourselves for reopening so that we’d be in the best possible position by the time we reopened. Our team members decided they wanted to stay and fight.
MI: As the country moved towards a border closure, business at Amilla Fushi would also have decreased significantly, can you describe the last days before the lockdown and the experiences of you and your team when the last guests left the resort?
JK: In those last few days we didn’t know what exactly to believe on the news, as some TV stations were saying it’s nothing more than a cold while others were making it sound like the world was ending. When it looked like the borders were about to close, we still had those guests on the island that had decided they wanted to stay and ride out the lockdown with us.
I realised that the border closure might mean it’d be harder for us to get hold of enough food for the 180 staff plus guests, as all of the Maldives resorts rely heavily on imported food. We can always find fish and coconuts easily enough, but we also need fresh fruit and vegetables. So, realising that our team members and our guests might be in for an extended lockdown period, we realised we’re really lucky in that Amilla has so much space. It’s one of the largest resort islands in the Maldives, with only 23 villas actually on the island (the rest are water villas). This means we had a lot of space to grow our own produce. So, we built new organic gardens and fruit plantations, created aquaponics projects, built ‘Cluckingham Palace’ hen house and bought a coconut oil machine to make our own virgin oil for cooking and making soaps and spa products. Our team members responded amazingly well during lockdown – we had spa therapists who became gardeners, F&B guys building a chicken coop – everybody just got stuck in to help. And our guests became like our family.
MI: There was a few months’ time of uncertainty after the border closure in Maldives. However, preparations commenced for a new-normal and post-COVID-19 travel in adherence to guidelines set by the authorities. What are some of the preparations taken at Amilla Fushi? Are there any extra precautions that you have taken to set Amilla Fushi apart from other establishments in terms of safety?
JK: I believe we now have the most robust COVID-prevention measures of any resort in the Maldives. We got to this advantageous position by taking coronavirus extremely seriously from the start. We were one of the first resorts to start testing all our team members coming back to the island before we even reopened, and quarantining them until we obtained a result, because we wanted to do everything possible to remain COVID-free. We also instigated testing for guests coming on the resort so that we were confident we were as COVID free as possible. Even though this cost the resort extra we continue to believe we have taken the correct approach.
We created rigorous COVID-prevention protocols and got our staff COVID-certified, made sure we met all the Maldives Government’s new COVID regulations, and that’s all really paying off now that we’re open again. The main thing is testing, testing, testing; backed up by a solid prevention programme.
MI: Would you say that Amilla Fushi is one of the safest properties in the Maldives? Why?
JK: Yes, we’ve been consistently testing and quarantining all staff until we get their results right from the start and also haven’t been allowing our staff to visit other local islands to reduce the risk of them bringing the virus back to the resort. Because the Maldives has the ‘one island, one resort’ policy, it’s one of the safest places in the world to vacation right now because all the islands are tiny and private, with no public access, so they’re all inside their own mini quarantine bubbles.
And at Amilla, we’ve got huge amounts of open undeveloped outdoor space (23.5 hectares), so since it’s one of the largest resort islands in the Maldives, guests aren’t crowded together. That makes a huge difference in terms of safety. Then we also have a lot of space between our Villas and Residences and huge self-contained amenities (our Villas are amongst the largest in the country) so they don’t even need to leave their ‘bubbles’ unless they feel like it. All our dining venues are open air or semi open air too, so again, all that fresh air circulating makes them much safer too.
We also engaged an external company, NSURE, to provide training for all staff and to come to the resort (With Quarantine!) to conduct audits and offer advice to the team.
MI: COVID-19 is still prevalent in some areas of the world. Do you think the travel and tourism sector would ever go back to normal to the pre-COVID state? Or do you believe the industry has to adapt to a new-normal at this point?
JK: I think it’s going to take several years for things to go back to normal. In the meantime, I think we’re going to have to learn how to live with COVID in the short-term and how to make calculated risks in our lives. But I think the Maldives will recover quicker than some other places where they have mass tourism, with lots of people crammed together because we have so much space here. The Maldives has a real advantage when it comes to that and people are starting to recognise that.
MI: How would you describe such a journey of adaptation and what are some of the challenges you can anticipate for now?
JK: At the start, I think we were initially maybe a bit too cautious with our guest journey. When we reopened in July we had everybody wearing face masks, using hand sanitizer and no cutlery on the tables. We’re still carefully following hygiene regulations now, but what we noticed was that with compromised hospitality, the guests perceived it as reduced service. So now, as soon as we know the guests have had two negative PCR tests on two separate occasions, we are 99.6% sure they don’t have COVID. We want to give them a return to normality, but with precautions. Therefore, we’re still washing hands, following careful guidelines and being hygienic, but we’re not wearing face masks because everybody has been thoroughly tested and is within a quarantine bubble on our island.
Also, at the start we were only doing PCR tests when they arrived at the island, so guests used to have to wait two days in their Villa or Residence until we had the results. We gave them bottles of wine, delivered food to them and gave them snorkel gear to explore the reef but it wasn’t ideal. Now the Maldives Government requires everyone to have a PCR test 72 hours before arriving in the Maldives, we still do a complimentary PCR test on arrival, but now we’re allowing guests to go out straight away, but with some precautions. We have them a separate restaurant and they have their own bubble of staff. We have four staff who only look after arriving guests. So hypothetically, if a guest tests positive on the second PCR test here, we’ve got it contained to these three or four people who don’t interact with any of our other team members and nobody else. Those four staff have got their own accommodation and their own rooms. That’s how we’ve adapted to mitigate the risks but maximise the enjoyment of the island for guests.
MI: How are your team members at Amilla Fushi doing? What are the measures being taken for their safety?
JK: The team members coming back to the island are loving it because they get their 14 day quarantine in a Villa over the water! They get food delivered to their room and can sit around and read books, whilst being paid, they’re loving it! But in all honesty, they can’t wait to get back and be serving guests again.
We’re protecting our team members to the same extent as we’re protecting our guests, with two PCR tests and quarantine bubbles, plus all our other measures like hand sanitizer stations, right thorough training in how to protect themselves and others, and so on. The entire team has adjusted very well to the new procedures and the ones who stayed with us during lockdown demonstrated so much resilience and spirit!
MI: We hear you have some Residence ownership opportunities available. Could you please tell us a bit about this?
JK: We’re getting a lot of inquiries and our biggest challenge has been getting potential buyers here to see the Residences during the pandemic. Our new Residence ownership model is very competitively priced and unique. They get to be an owner but we also see them as a partner in our business. We want to make sure we’re attracting good people who are going to help us evolve and develop our property. Essentially, Residence owners can come and stay 60 days a year, so they get to spend their holidays here and then they also get a good return on investment from us renting them out to other guests while they’re not using them. Most resort ownership schemes charge tens of thousands of dollars in leaseholder fees per year but we allow our owners to generate a passive income from their Residence while they are not there. Amilla only takes a tiny percentage of the revenue (10%) to cover utilities and Residence management. The remaining revenue is clearly cut 50/50 between Amilla and the owners. They can even choose to keep the net revenue in-resort and use it as credit for holiday treats such as Amilla’s excursions, spa treatments, watersports and even food and drinks.
MI: In terms of attracting tourists and the resort’s efforts to get back to where it was before the lockdown, could you tell us a bit about some of the ideas on the drawing board and how you would implement them?
JK: As I already mentioned, we’ve got this massive island with all this natural space - no other Maldives island resort has anything close to this much untouched space so that’s a huge attraction right now for travellers. Also, our sustainability and wellness initiatives have become even more important now than ever. Before we even started our lockdown projects, we were going down to path not to turn into a wellness resort but as a great resort that has really excellent wellness offerings for those who wanted it, so during the lockdown we consolidated this by creating our organic gardens and launching our [email protected] and [email protected] programmes which support our pioneering Wellness Your Way cuisine (catering on an enormous scale to eating lifestyles like vegan, gluten free and low carb). Nobody else in the Maldives was catering to this in such a comprehensive, uncomplicated and positive way, and I think that embracing dietary and eating lifestyles with open arms will pay off because so many luxury travellers today don’t want interruptions to their eating habits when they travel. We’ll deliver your low lectin meals, dairy-free dishes or whatever adaptations you want, but with the flair of world class five-star resort. We’re also offering [email protected] immunity-boosting juices and smoothies as well as probiotic kombucha, kefir and kimchi to help keep everyone in optimum health.
We know that people are looking for really good value for money because COVID is having an economic impact on the world and that’s where Amilla provides really good value with our new all-inclusive meal plans. People want to come here and enjoy their holiday and not worry about their outgoings, so we created this plan to help give them the most amount of satisfaction. They can enjoy daily three course meals at eight dining venues and a huge selection of premium spirits, wines and beers for a reasonable price.
MI: Would you like to note anything else, or convey a particular message to our readers?
JK: Guests coming to the Maldives right now will find it’s a super safe destination – every person on their plane is getting a PCR test before they even get on that flight – but they’ll also get the best Maldives holiday experience they’ll ever have in their lives. Because we’re not at full capacity they’re getting an incredible ‘private island experience’, being spoiled by every team member - they’re getting everything they could dream of and then some! Honestly, for the next three, four or five months they’ll be getting a once in a lifetime opportunity that’s normally impossible to get in the Maldives unless they pay for a $6 million holiday! For example, every guest at Amilla tonight is getting a special Dine by Design dinner in a spectacular location, with 10 different menus on rotation– they’re being spoilt rotten. They’re having the best time ever then are heading home to their friends and telling them, ‘Hey, you just have to go to Amilla Maldives!’.