The Maldives Surfing Association (MSA) has hit out at a proposed resort development on a Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) training island, claiming it will substantially reduce local access to an already limited number of high-profile waves in the country.
Ahmed Rifaee, a member of the MSA’s Steering Committee, claimed that while Maldivians were largely unaware of the significance of the waters around the island of Thanburudhoo to the country’s sporting heritage, the proposed resort development threatened to leave local people with access to just two world-class surf points.
Rifaee said that tourism laws presently prohibit non-guests from using prominent surf points based at the country’s resorts – legislation that threatens the future development of a sport he noted had gained the Maldives its greatest athletic successes and recognition internationally.
The resort proposal, first discussed under the previous government as part of plans to fund a state-of-the-art military training complex, was forwarded to the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) this week to determine the legality of an island set aside for the military being leased for commercial purposes.
However, the private group linked to the development, Telos Investment, told Minivan News that a “robust development plan” was being put in place for local surfers, adding that discussions were already under way with surf authorities – including the MSA – over the issue.
Earlier this week, the MNDF confirmed to Minivan News that it would be leasing Thanburudhoo to a third-party that would develop the site as a surf resort. The island is currently used by officers for training and recreational purposes.
The country’s military authorities this month registered the MNDF Welfare Company in a bid to generate income to fund welfare services for the armed forces by investing in various businesses, including the tourism sector.
With an ACC investigation set to be tabled in the coming days, the development proposal was slammed by Rifaee, who claimed that the waters around the island were a unique experience for local and international surfers alike. He added that the waters housed two world class waves that had been used for generations to allow local surfers to hone their skills – no matter their levels of experience.
“We have been surfing these waves for a long time, they are one of the best training grounds for local surfers,” Rifaee said. “Outside the local community, it is little known by the wider Maldivian people about what a loss this would be to the country. I would say it was equivalent in England to selling off Wembley stadium to a foreign company.”
Former government proposal
In a proposal said to have been discussed last year between the government of former President Mohamed Nasheed, then senior MNDF figures, and Telos Investment, Thanburudhoo was to be leased for an initial 50 year period for development as a “boutique surf resort” to secure US$5 million in funding for an MNDF training facility.
The resort development plan was initially submitted by Telos Investment President Dr Gunnar Lee-Miller, who is said in the proposal to have experience “serving the Ministry of Human Resource, Youth & Sport, the Maldivian Olympic Committee, and several associations in a sports development capacity.”
MNDF spokesperson Lieutenant Abdulla Ali said this week that the concept of development of its training island as a tourist resort was approved by the former government in 2010, but that work had stalled “for various reasons”.
“However, we have started that process again, and the discussions are continuing,” Lieutenant Ali said.
No agreement at the time was reached on the proposals, which included a clause to allow local Maldivians “in good standing” with the MSA to have access to the waves around the resort twice a month, on every other Friday and Saturday.
While accepting that even limited access to local surf points was a less restrictive policy compared to other resorts in the country, Rifaee said even allowing access twice a month would be a major setback for national surfing.
“By allowing us to surf only on Saturday or Friday morning , when the waves are not always going to be there, this might not be too helpful,” he said. “It’s not just local surf spots that would be affected by such a proposal either. I’ve been told that there are one or two top dive spots in the waters. However, any resort development would need reclaimed land and a harbour, which will endanger these spots.”
Rifaee contended that while the MSA had yet to take a formal stance to oppose the resort development, discussions were ongoing over how to proceed.
“We are going to protest this if we have to. It’s part of our culture and has been for many years. Even my grandfather used to surf.”
Responding to the claims, Telos Investment told Minivan News that it would be issuing a statement soon regarding the project and the potential impacts on national surf development.
“To be sure, there is a robust surf development plan for local surfers and fruitful discussions with Maldivian Surf Association Leaders have already commenced,” Dr Lee-Miller responded by SMS at time of press. “We care greatly about the development of Maldivian surfers both in Male’ and the outer atolls.”
Minivan News was awaiting a full statement from Telos Investment at time of press.
Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Ahmed Adheeb was not responding.
In a proposal submitted in July 2011 by Telos Investment and senior Ministry of Defence figures, Telos Investment would pay US$5 million dollars for a 50 year master lease for Thanburudhoo to develop a surf property for tourists. The money would be used to fund the development of a ‘Leadership and Management Centre for Excellence’ at the MNDF’s Girifushi facility.
The proposal stated that Thanburudhoo had originally been given to the MNDF to carry out combat training exercises – a purpose that it could no longer maintain due to the number of surrounding resorts.
“So rather than letting an under-utilised island continue, MNDF believes that Thanburudhoo can be utilised to give a new lease and life and strong future to Girifushi and the emerging leadership of MNDF and the country,” the proposal stated.
The proposal was not an attempt by the MNDF to enter the tourism market, collect a yearly lease from an island, or form a joint venture with a foreign investor.
Former Economic Development Minister Mahmoud Razee, who was acknowledged in the same proposal as having provided “constructive counsel” to Telos Invesment and senior MNDF officials, confirmed to Minivan News that discussions over the proposal had taken place. However no agreement was reached with the Nasheed government, Razee said.
Razee claimed the decision to not move ahead with the proposal was “partly due to timing”, but also concern over providing access to the surfing areas around the island for “young people”.
The government of the time had checked the offer in line with its wider Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programme and found it comparable to other privatisation projects, Razee said.
“However, what we didn’t do was make the project a joint venture with the MNDF,” Razee added.