As the Maldives emerges from an 18-year unprecedented dip in business following the lockdowns, the government has decided to up the ante for economic diversification and create more job opportunities for the citizens.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) stress promoting gender equality and empowerment to achieve its diversification goals.
And the hospitality industry is at the center of the government’s vision. At OBLU Select Lobigili resort in the Maldives, the 30-year-old Sudha Gade exuberantly greets guests. Originally from Mysore, she has worked in hotels across India, the UAE, and Bahrain and is now a restaurant captain at this Ylang Ylang restaurant at this newly opened Maldivian retreat. Monica Olga, who is 32, is the island hostess at this popular destination for honeymooning couples. An Indonesian, she is ideally at home at the resort, where she is assigned guest relations for select villas.
A look around the property reveals an interesting fact. A majority of the workforce at this 68-villa resort comprises women, most of whom are non-Maldivians. This is not an accidental occurrence but a strategic plan by Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts, which owns the property.
Jorge Amaro, General Manager of OBLU Select Lobigili, and the upcoming OBLU Xperience, which belongs to the Maldives-focused hotel chain, revealed that this particular property was envisaged as a women-run establishment. "While it is not possible to be exclusively women-driven, almost 85 per cent of the 100-strong workforce comprises women. This is an unusual concept in the Maldives, where usually women constitute a maximum of 25 per cent staff strength," he elaborated. "Some might go up to 35 per cent, but it is rare to have them in the majority."
Jorge, however, added that the soon-to-launch OBLU Xperience - separated by a walkway from OBLU Select Lobigili - will have a different gender ratio in the workforce. Females will comprise just around 25 per cent because the resort has to employ locals as per government policies. "Since women from the mainland are less likely to join the hospitality sector, we have more men making up the big chunk of the workforce," he explained.
The Womanly Touch
According to various reports, the Maldives, which has over 1000 islands, has more than 150 resorts and 600 guesthouses with a bed capacity of approximately 40,000. It is largely dependent on the tourism business, which is the main driver of growth, jobs, and revenues.
In 2020, just 555,494 tourists visited the nation, while this number did rise to around 1.3 million in 2021. The country has been working hard to attract tourists from new and emerging markets to supplement shortfalls in arrivals from traditionally high-performing regions like China, Europe, and the Americas. Currently, Indias are amongst the country's highest visitors, accounting for 22.1 per cent of tourist footfall in 2021.
It has been noticed that women's participation in the labor force is higher in sectors like education, health, agriculture, and manufacturing but relatively low in tourism. This is ironic considering that 40 per cent of the Maldives economy runs on tourism.
Hence, hotel chains like Atmosphere Hotels & Resorts, which has eight operational properties in the nation, have employed several women from Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and South Africa to meet their internal gender equity goals. It also gives these workers onsite accommodation and several perks to keep them motivated and reduce attrition.
"We have a fast-track promotion program to help our women associates grow up the ranks, which gives them a strong sense of brand ownership," Jorge explained. "Having consistency in the workforce is good for the business and guest satisfaction scores since we have several repeat visitors."
The hotel chain has also come up with a concept of pairing women from different departments as team members. So, a front office associate works very closely with the F&B Manager, which helps take care of all guest needs seamlessly and sometimes proactively. For instance, if a guest requests something specific in the restaurant, like their preference for sparkling water, the F&B associate will communicate this with their front desk team member, who will then direct the housekeeping to place only sparkling water in the rooms. This cohesive practice of operations helps in increasing guest satisfaction, something that rates high on Atmosphere Hotels & Resorts' checklist.
But then again, surely men can achieve this collaborative modus operandi? While admitting they can, Jorge pointed out that women are naturally equipped with soft skills, a huge asset in the male-dominated hospitality sector. This is especially true for OBLU Select Lobigili, which caters extensively to honeymooners and couples.
"Chauvinistic as it might sound, should there be a discrepancy in service, guests are likely to be more receptive to a woman associate explaining herself than their male counterpart. They have empathy and are more understanding," Jorge candidly stated. "And once the initial discomfort or displeasure is overcome, she can quickly take course correction steps to leave a smile on the guest's face."
Moreover, having women associates from India and Indonesia has an added benefit - these ladies can cater to the growing tribe of tourists from these regions and make them feel at home by speaking in their local language.
The company helps women associates upskill themselves with new-age skills to manage guest relations better and adapt to changing traveler preferences. It wants to increase the participation of females in the workforce by presenting them with the same opportunities as men. It has taken several strong steps to bridge this gender skill gap to attract more ladies from Maldives who naturally gravitate to women-inclusive sectors like retail, BFSI, and beauty, among others.
And it looks like they are succeeding. Calling OBLU Select Lobigili her heaven on earth, Sudha claimed it is her second home after India. And she now hopes that her husband will also join her on the island because she can't see herself going back to another hotel company.
"I have the best of everything here – great colleagues, a well-outlined career path, a well-paying job, understanding seniors, and an amazing seascape. Why would I trade it in for anything?" she emphatically questioned. Why indeed?