Mr. Salah Shihab is the founding shareholder and Managing Director of Voyages Maldives and Seagull Group. After completing his Bachelor’s degree in the field of Economics in Australia, Mr. Shihab returned to the Maldives and served the country by filling various government positions such as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and serving as a member of the People’s Majilis for Male’ constituency from 1983 and 1988.
Throughout his lengthy business career which spans over forty years, he has explored multiple sectors such as trade, tourism, and aviation to name a few. His vision to operate Safari boat trips is realized in the fleet of seven safari boats run by Voyages Maldives today. Starting small by setting up the company as a start-up in the early 1980s, he worked his way up, acquiring islands in Ari Atoll to eventually become an influential businessman in the industry.
In acknowledgment of the innumerable ways he has contributed to the success of the industry and the country, Gold 100 has recognized his services by awarding him the prestigious Gold 100 Lifetime Achievement.
How did you start your journey?
My journey started perhaps in 1958. I was among the last batches of students that were sent to Sri Lanka – Ceylon then – for Primary education. Having studied up to Year 10, I returned to the Maldives in 1968 and joined Majeediyya School Year 10 for my O Levels. For various reasons, this was not possible until 1970. Once results were available, we all looked for the opportunity to study overseas. Mine came towards the end of 1972, in the form of a Colombo Plan Scholarship to study in Australia. After six years of studies, I returned to the Maldives in late 1978, just as the new government of President Gayoom was taking shape. As I was on a government scholarship, it was my obligation to serve where I was needed most. I started my working phase as an Economics teacher at Aminiya School.
As a teacher in those days, we did have a lot of free time. It is this free time plus the pursuit of having more financial mobility that led me to do some business.
It made sense to have partners in such a business and me and my close friend Mr. Mohamed Shafeegu decided to form a travel company with a few other like-minded friends. This company was called Voyages Maldives, which came into being in February 1980 – 40 years ago.
Voyages evolved more or less along with my government job. Our first boat safaris commenced in 1981. We started having a presence at the airport to look after the incoming tourists towards the end of that year. As Mr. Shafeegu and myself were full-time civil servants, we were motivated to build a strong management team to enable our business activities. Much of our success today is a result of our focus on developing and continuing to develop strong management teams.
In 1983, it became necessary for us to diversify our travel business to engage in non-travel activities in order to expand our revenue base. Hence, Seagull Group was born.
All along we tried to focus on having reliable partners and extending reliable services every day 24/7. Providing value for money is one of the pillars on which we try to build our business.
Perhaps the next most important milestone in our journey was being successful in our bids to build two resorts. Namely, Athuruga by Voyages and Thudufushi by Seagull.
It is also worth noting that in our journey, one of the best things that happened to us was being able to encourage Mr. Champa Hussain Afeef to become a partner in both our companies. His joining gave us a competitive advantage in many touristic related services including the success we had in our bids for resort development.
In much of the 1980s, the main story of Voyages would be the success of our safaris. Once again many thanks go out to our loyal captains, managers, and crew who worked tirelessly year-round in order to fulfill our obligations to our customers. The ’90s would be more of doing the same.
Was there any competition in the industry at that time?
There was always competition in the safari sector. We were not the first and certainly, newcomers joined the business all the time. How we managed to survive then and now is by listening closely to what guests were saying and incorporate them while working on our strengths.
What are the challenges you have faced in your long journey as a businessman?
Most of the challenges we faced were external. And this remains so even today. The Gulf War of the ’90s did affect our business severely. As did the attacks on the Twin Towers in the U.S and the related instability it brought to the region and the world in general. Recovering after the Tsunami was yet another challenge we all faced. And then there was the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, the Easter Sunday attacks in April 2019 in Sri Lanka and the current COVID-19 which we are dealing with as we speak.
In all such cases, it was important for us to focus on cutting our expenditure and keeping our costs as low as possible without losing focus on the business that continues to keep going and the opportunities they create. We truly believe we cannot control events that are external to us. We have to be ready to take such shocks in the short run and not panic. Very important, we try to hold on to our staff and take a moment to consolidate our businesses and prepare for the future.
What advice would you offer to young entrepreneurs in the Maldives?
I strongly believe the Maldives still offers many opportunities for those who are willing to work hard and work smart. In business, there are no short cuts that help you in the long term. You must be ready to work long and hard and make many sacrifices, especially till you establish a strong platform. I will be honest in saying that it took us over 15 years to feel comfortable in what we do. However, we do not take anything for granted and it is absolutely essential to be aware of what is going on around you and your business all the time. One must be willing to modify their businesses in order to meet new challenges and new demands. As a business grows, investing in having a good well trained and dedicated management team is the only way in which a business can grow beyond your best days.
I take this opportunity to thank all my business partners, business associates and our staff, past and present, who have all contributed so immensely throughout this journey. Thank you, and God bless.