State Trading Organisation (STO) has announced it will venture into the Maldives tourism industry in order to increase its access to foreign currency.
The STO is the Maldives’ state-owned importer, and is the primary supplier of general goods, fuel and pharmaceuticals to the Maldives. It also supplies aviation fuel to Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA).
STO Managing Director Shahid Ali said the company needed to purchase “at least three resorts and one hotel”, to meet its demand for foreign currency at a time the country was facing a ongoing dollar shortage, according to newspaper Haveeru.
The Maldives grapples with a foreign currency deficit due to a heavy import-export imbalance. Goods from overseas must be purchased with foreign currency, but the Maldives has little ability to earn this outside the resort industry.
The industry typically pays salaries in local currency, while most of the its banking is conducted outside the country in financial hubs such as Singapore. The properties also charge directly in US dollars bypassing the rufiya altogether, a practice which is technically against the country’s monetary legislation but is unenforced by the central bank. As a result, the wider Maldives economy sees little of the dollars that tourists bring into the country, and importers must rely on the fluctuating blackmarket for rufiya-dollar transactions.
“We are trying to a find a way to earn the foreign currency we need without relying on another party for it,” Shahid Ali told Haveeru. “Venturing into the tourism industry is the way to achieve that. We need to own at least three resorts for this,” he said.
The STO board is currently reviewing resort islands for purchase, and a decision is yet to be made on which islands will be bought.
STO Spokesperson Ismail Sadiq had not returned calls at time of press.
The company is currently building a 5-star hotel on Hulhumale under a contract with USA-based multinational travel company, Carlson Group. The hotel project started in October 2011, although the contract was signed between STO and Carlson in 2008. Shahid said at the time that the delay was due to financial constraints.
The STO was initially formed in 1946 as a fully state-funded business, in the name of Athireemaafannu Trading Agency (ATA), with the task of purchasing and importing essential food items in bulk to be distributed nationally via local traders and their own retail outlets. It was later expanded and rebranded as the State Trading Organisation.
The STO is not the first government entity to venture into the tourism industry. In February 2010 the Maldives Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) – another public company investing in the tourism industry – paid US$3.5 million to end a long-running court dispute with former management of Herathera, Yacht Tours, after the company stopped paying rent and claimed the MTDC had failed to fulfil a contractual obligation to build a channel between the resort and the adjoining island of Hulhudhoo.
MTDC agreed to pay Yacht Tours the money to end the dispute due to spiraling costs: at one stage, 600 staff had been employed to look after 28 guests.