People go on vacation to get things they can't at home. As the industry recovers from the pandemic, Ali Shameem knows paying attention to the guest experience is essential.
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As a little boy growing up without electricity on a Maldivian island 25 minutes away by speedboat from the resort where he now works, Ali Shameem discovered the wonders of the sky that would change his life.
When he was 12 years old, the lack of city lights polluting the air and by using firewood with kerosene to walk around in Maalhos, his home island of 300 people, allowed him to see the night sky in all its magnificence, Shameem said.
It was a combination of those many stargazing nights and the inspiration of his fisherman dad urging Shameem to be one of the “lucky ones in the Maldives to find the North Star,” he said, that led him on his lifelong quest to find the directional star sitting five degrees above the horizon on his side of the world and study astronomy.
Using the knowledge, he’s gained over the years, Shameem has been able to turn what he called a hobby into a thriving career and is creating a legacy he once only dreamed of in his native Maldives at the luxury resort of Anantara Kihavah Maldives Villa. He is affectionately called the Sky Guru.
After getting a diploma in astronomy in India, Shameem went on to study under the patronage of Indian astronomer Dr. Parag Mahajani. He’s continued learning under the tutelage of Italian astronomers Giovanni Benjamin and Massimo Tarenghi.
Tarenghi, whom Shameem fondly refers to as his godfather, is the creator of the “Very Large Telescope,” the most powerful optical telescope in the world and former head the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) observatory in Chile.
“I’ve worked with the greatest astronomers around the world that make me a better astronomer every day. I’ve also worked with (Apollo 11 astronaut) Buzz Aldrin,” said Shameem.
Shameem said he collaborated with Aldrin for four years, often inviting the former U.S. astronaut and one of the first two humans to set foot on the moon to talk with guests in the observatory about his moon landing at Shameem’s first resort.
Now 40, Shameem is a room division manager by day and the storytelling Sky Guru by night extolling the wonders of the universe to guests at the Maldivian luxury resort on a private island in Baa Atoll that offers villas with private butlers sitting over water and underwater restaurants.
The resort, which welcomes celebrities, athletes, musicians, Grammy award winners, and some of the world’s richest, recruited Shameem about five years ago to direct and oversee the installation of the Anantara Kihavah Observatory that Shameem designed himself.
Sky, housing the overwater observatory with a rooftop lounge, where guests can lay down for stargazing, a cocktail bar, and a powerful digitally controlled Meade 16-inch LX200 telescope with a giant tripod, has become the resort’s pièce de résistance.
The idea for the observatory came after realizing the astronomy program he helped create at his previous resort was missing something, a proper astronomy session, Shameem said. And over the years he saw increasing demand for stargazing.
“I felt that they needed somebody to explain to them in detail, but not with the formulas. But with more engaging language,” Shameem said. “And I could see from the look in travelers faces that they wanted more general information about the cosmos and how modern astronomers work.”
Shameem wanted to develop a concept where guests could spend time with the Sky Guru for at least an hour, while he explained the night sky and how the constellations work, he said.
Maldives, with its proximity to the equator and access to both the northern and southern hemispheres, offers stargazing opportunities rare in other parts of the world.
Through his observations over the years, Shameem has found that most guests have some interest in astronomy and 95 percent have never been to an observatory telescope, he said.
Today guests arriving for a stargazing tour, or what Shameem refers to as hospitality astronomy, are welcomed on the rooftop with champagne and canapes. Shameem familiarizes guests with the mysteries of the night sky utilizing his Sky Guru storytelling skills, visual presentations and lasers to point out constellations and planets for 45 minutes, before leading them up to the observatory for a closer view.
“Shameem brings a unique passion for the galaxy and the mysteries of the cosmos to our guests both young and old, we are proud to have Shameem in our team as our Sky Guru and the education he provides is simply astounding,” said Ross Sanders, Anantara Kihavah’s general manager.
The hospitality industry is all about the experience and Shameem looks to provide an experience that is easy to understand for everyone and changes how people look at the night sky, he said.
Known fondly by his co-workers as “Tom Cruise” for his wicked smile, good looks and serious amount of laughter, Shameem lives 320 days at the resort and sometimes cooks on his terrace for his co-workers and other members of his stargazing team, said Paul Counihan, the resort’s director of sales and marketing.
And it’s that stargazing team, of three other Sky Gurus he’s trained over the years, that Shameem said is his greatest accomplishment, because his legacy will continue. His next dream is to recruit a female to become a Sky Guru. After spending 14 months at the resort due to the pandemic, the Sky Guru is enjoying some time off with his wife and children these days. But his gaze is never far off from that night sky.
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Photo Credit: Using a laser, the Sky Guru points out stars and planets to Anantara Kihavah resort guests. Anantara Kihavah Maldives Villa.
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