The curious case of adventure tourism and its relative non-existence in the Maldives

We know, how during the 2010s, the Maldives government actively pushed out a wholly new tourism mandate that revolved around the growth and fostering of local tourism. This was during the presidential administration of Mohamed Nasheed when his government actively focused on expanding the country’s tourism industry outside of its conventional comfort zone.

Traditionally, the Maldivian tourism industry banked heavily on targeting affluent travelers. The country’s tourism industry mainly focused on catering to tourists with middle-class to higher categories of earnings. In addition to this, the conventional tourism approach in the island nation was developing tourist resort islands geographically detached from residential islands; professionally speaking, Maldives relied heavily on enclave resort tourism.

However, with the emergence and successful reception of the local tourism industry – or otherwise known as guesthouse or boutique hotel tourism, the island nation attracted an entirely different segment of travelers outside of the affluent tourist markets.

Now, the island nation was a top-of-the-mind location for many backpackers, globetrotters, and lately even digital nomads. However, despite the growth and boom of local tourism, the island nation is still not marketed towards thrill or adventure seekers as a potential destination with thrilling adventures.

What is adventure tourism?

Before we get into the meat of what adventure tourism is, it is also important to understand what it entails. First, adventure tourism is generally defined as the movement of people from various locations that place them outside of their comfort zones for exploration or relatively risky adventures.

While popular among comparatively younger tourists, this type of tourism finds successful growth in how well the sector allows travelers to step outside of their comfort zones which may include activities such as sky-diving, diving, or even participating in extreme sports. Through these activities, the thrill-seekers or adventurers put themselves in some degree of risk and physical danger.

Since this is a relatively newer tourism concept, there are no professional or specific definitions attached to adventure tourism. Most tourism commentators lean on the idea that this is a niche sector that bears similar characteristics that overlap with other niches such as ecotourism, sports tourism, activity tourism, and adventure travel – thus in professional explanation, adventure tourism may be ambiguous for the untrained or uninitiated.

There have been several definitions of adventure tourism, outlines by notable institutions and tourism commentators. For instance, the Adventure Travel Trade Association describes adventure tourism as “a tourist activity that includes physical activity, cultural exchange, or activities in nature.”

Meanwhile, Muller and Cleaver comment that “adventure tourism is characterized by its ability to provide the tourist with relatively high levels of sensory stimulation, usually achieved by including physically challenging experiential components with the tourist experience.”

The Canadian Tourism Commission in 1995 described the niche as “an outdoor leisure activity that takes place in a usual, exotic, remote or wilderness destination, involves some form of unconventional means of transportation, and tends to be associated with low or high levels of activity.”

In another research article, it was extensively given a description which was described as “the sum of the phenomena and relationships arising from the interactions of adventure touristic activities with the natural environment away from the participant’s usual place of residence area and containing elements of risk in which the outcome is influenced by the participation, setting, and the organizer of the tourist’s experience.”

To wrap up the various definitions, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) stated that adventure tourism “can be domestic or international, and like all travel, it must include an overnight stay, but not last longer than one year.”

Diving and water sports activities alone do not warrant the existence of adventure tourism

Based on the myriad of definitions by industry professionals and commentators, one constant can be derived – that simply the presence of a physically inducing activity such as diving or water sports alone do not mean a country’s tourism industry caters to adventure tourism niche.

In the case of the Maldives, it can be argued that though adventure travel and activities tourism are present, the concept of adventure tourism has yet to be widely marketed or fostered.

While this is a personal opinion based on relevant and available information, I am under the impression that most of the tourism commentators affiliated with, or with a vested interest in the Maldivian tourism industry may contend with this argument – and there is nothing wrong about it.

However, it is evident how the comparative characteristic overlapping between adventure tourism and a few other niches could lead to confusion in discerning one concept from the other. This could lead many to lean strongly on the idea that the existence of diving excursions and water sports activities is enough evidence on the existence of adventure tourism in the island nation – not necessarily.

As described through various definitions, it should be understood that adventure tourism relates to tourists putting themselves through some extent of risk and danger. While there is a notable risk factor related to diving, the activity has become very much attached to the identity of the entire tourism industry and so vastly executed that it also could be argued as a basic activity which in turn, is a part and parcel of the Maldivian tourism industry.

As for water sports activities, most of these are carried out with extensive safety measures and almost all of the time under the supervision of trainers and guides that the risk and danger factors are mostly eliminated or diffused.

A better excursion that can be marketed as adventure tourism

The island nation is home to over 1,100 coral islands out of which roughly 200 are residential and about 150 are enclave tourist resorts. This means that several other islands remain naturally untouched and undisturbed by external elements.

These islands are less frequently visited by the locals and they are not frequent spots for passing vessels to drop anchor for rest either. These are natural and realistically remote islands.

Several tourist resorts lie geographically in close vicinity to many of these uninhabited islands or at least within the same atoll where many uninhabited islands remain without synthetic harm or corruption.

The idea is the active promotion of remote ‘island castaway’ excursions in which thrill-seeking or adventurer tourists can visit these remote islands through local vessels and become completely engrossed in the natural environment for set durations without any external aid or intervention.

Tourism promoters affiliated or originating from the Maldives, in association with relevant tourism industry stakeholders and ventures (such as tour operators or travel agents) may promote ‘island castaway’ tourism as part of a new tourism segment as well if the country aims to expand upon the adventure tourism niche.

To sum up, it would be fair to say that despite the country’s tourism industry expanding to cater to thrill-seekers and adventurers, there is the relatively less or active promotion of activities that indeed fall under the ‘adventure tourism’ niche. Perhaps the time has come, to boost marketing of the niche if the Maldives tourism sector wishes to expand upon its tourism market segments.