Exploring Guesthouse and Cuisine Experiences: The Strategic and Sustainable Development of the Guesthouse Phenomenon in the Maldives
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The Maldives has catered to the high-end tourist market segments for half a century. Prior to 2009, the tourism industry was based solely on the “one island, one resort” concept with each hotel and all its facilities built on its own uninhabited island. From 2009, changes in the law have allowed for accommodation establishments, known locally as guesthouses, to be built on local inhabited islands. The growth of the guesthouse phenomenon has been exponential, from accommodating only 1% of tourist visitors in 2011 to over 20% of bed capacity by 2021. There are currently over 600 guesthouses registered in the country, outnumbering all other forms of accommodation. Guesthouses, being more affordable than luxury resorts, have opened up the Maldives to a new market, potentially offering opportunities for deeper, eudaimonic experiences, closer to the culture and “island life” of locals. While the resort industry is well developed, guesthouse tourism is still at a relatively early stage. Despite the incredible pace of its growth in numbers, the industry’s emergence within the crowded and prolific tourism landscape of the Maldives has not been explored. Most significantly, the perspectives and intentions of visitors experiencing this new phenomenon have not been scrutinised. This study examines this by exploring their experiences. A significant part of many tourism experiences is the cuisine. An audit of guesthouse menus found that only 2% of dishes served to visiting tourists were traditional local cuisine. While exploring tourist experiences, this study investigates the previously unresearched area of Maldivian guesthouse cuisine and its minimal links with local cuisine, from the point of view of guesthouse participants, within community-based, local island settings. Tourists were recruited from three local islands to participate in a tasting buffet of local cuisine. A total of 28 tourists participated in in-depth, semi-structured interviews about their guesthouse and cuisine experiences. Ten guesthouse operators were also interviewed to gain an overview of the guesthouse phenomenon. This study explored these topics, utilising qualitative methods via an interpretivist paradigm, through the ontological position of relativism, and the epistemological position of social constructivism. An embedded, single-unit, exploratory case study approach was employed, incorporating multiple subsets of analysis to enhance in-depth insights. Thematic analysis was conducted on collected data, which revealed that the uncontrolled, exponential growth of the industry has led to the development of a confused guesthouse identity. This confusion is seen through the perspectives of the operators and the tourists. A lack of government support and unhelpful regulations have led to the industry being developed unsustainably, offering an inauthentic product for tourists who seek richer cultural experiences. Issues of cultural conflict between locals and visitors will increase, as tourist numbers overwhelm local islands due to unrestrained development, with negligible benefits for communities. The sensual experience of tasting unfamiliar local cuisine led to rich elicitations of previous holiday memories, highlighting the novel method utilised as a methodological contribution towards food tourism research. A major contribution of this study is the development of a strategic framework which can contribute towards the development of a sustainable, community inclusive, guesthouse industry. The framework is adaptable for other destinations going through similar development experiences, and several theoretical, managerial, and policy implications arose from the study.