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Maldives: A hotbed of innovative experiences

In the resort islands of the Maldives, the obsession with unique experiences never stops.

A floating golf course is just one idea afoot, and there are murmurings in the industry that an ambitious joint initiative between the Dutch Docklands and the Maldives government is underway to create bespoke artificial private islands.

Indeed, competition in a nation consisting of 1,190 coral islands spread across 26 atolls is intense as good resorts upgrade to become grand hotels and new resorts are built to test the boundaries of indulgence and extravagance.

But all have one thing in common – to create and sell that feeling of being somewhere extraordinary, a place epitomizing the philosophy that ‘happiness comes from acquiring experiences, not the buying of material things.’

“Everyone talks about experiences; at our resort we call it content. What we are doing within our property is beyond just excellent service; we aim for great food and comfortable beds and so on and given the level of competition, you have to,” says Neil Jacobs, chief executive officer of Six Senses Hotels Resorts and Spas, famed for its focus on sustainability and wellness.

Four decades of selling experiences

The Maldives’ distinctive “one-island, one-resort” concept is in itself a great advertisement, providing exclusivity and giving resorts free rein to work their magic on travelers in their own unique way.

In 1972, the first resort, the Kurumba, was built. Tourism was unplanned. Holidays involved sailing to palm-thatched roof lodgings in a fishing boat. Ceiling fans provided some cool air throughout sunlit days and iridescent sunsets and the Maldives was an unknown explorers’ retreat.

During the 1980s, rooms became villas and air-conditioners replaced ceiling fans. Seaplanes were introduced. Meals became cuisine. From the 1990s, the Maldives, as the country’s Ministry of Tourism touted, developed into “nature’s custom-made answer for every holidaymaker’s needs.”

In the luxury segment, the start of this era marked the introduction of wine cellars and destination spas. Butlers were hired and trained. The emphasis was on delivering a wow factor, such as the secluded desert island experience complete with champagne picnics and spa treatments. Celebrities were invited to add glamour while top chefs were brought on-board to create ‘gastronomic dreams.’

Bringing the ocean inside

As tourism developed, the Maldives adopted a more radical approach to engineering and architecture. With an average ground elevation of 1.5 meters above sea level, it’s is the planet’s lowest country.

This, combined with a lack of land, prompted the start of the concept of bringing the ocean into the living space. The first lagoon villas were half on land and half on sea. After engineers found cost-effective techniques to build villas fully on water, it was only a matter of a few years before water villas became a staple of every resort.

To keep up with the competition, the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island Resort decided to venture deeper into the Indian Ocean. The resort opened the world’s first undersea restaurant in 2005. Anantara Kihavah Villas quickly followed and the PER AQUUM Huvafen Fushi launched the world’s first undersea spa. More recently, the PER AQUUM Niyama opened the world’s first undersea nightclub.

“There has been an increase in the number of operators offering luxury products. The question one asks is how much is enough before it starts to dilute,” says Jacobs, who oversaw Four Seasons’ first acquisition some 15 years ago.

Staying ahead of a competitive crowd

Indeed, the strategy of branded products and bringing in celebrities soon became ordinary. Operators and owners needed something more unique.

The Loama Island Resort, backed by funds from a wealthy Singaporean, created the first museum in the country complete with an on-site curator. In 2013, GHM Hotels announced it had dropped anchor in the Indian Ocean and plans to build and sell 90 hotel-managed residential villas and 40 hotel suites. It will be the first project in the Maldives with a license to sell real estate titles to villa buyers.

“We have seen a change in the profile of investors with more funds going into the business of purchasing hotels,” says Nihat Ercan, Senior Vice President of Investment Sales at JLL. Since 2013, JLL has overseen the transaction of seven islands in the Maldives. Generally, valuations have been increasing steadily by 4 to 6 percent annually, driven by yield compression and market growth.

However, concerns are mounting about how this rapid growth could chip away at the Maldives’ authenticity and take the shine off its biggest assets: its natural beauty.

Jacobs says: “You run the risk of losing the integrity of the destination in some ways. Development is good for the country but it also adds another layer of responsibility in terms of how you maintain the environment.”

Maldives’ biggest challenge is now to find a sustainable way to both protect and promote its beauty so the island paradise that tops the wish list of so many travelers is not lost.

This article originally appeared on Real Views, JLL's news site that features stories exploring the world of real estate and its impact on the wider business world. Visit the Real Views site to subscribe for our weekly email of top stories, delivered direct to your inbox.