On July 28, an Israeli surfer on Thulusdhoo Island vandalised a protest placard featuring a swastika alongside an Israeli flag.
Within hours, an estimated 30 protesters from Malé travelled to the island to call for the expulsion of all Israeli tourists. The new arrivals were temporarily detained while the police evacuated 30 Israelis along with 4 tourists of other nationalities.
The incident has left several guest houses on Thulusdhoo empty and caused the cancellation of bookings, while nearby resorts have called off excursions.
Thulusdhoo, only 40 minutes away from Malé, is home to one of the country’s top surf breaks and – although Israeli arrivals amount to a small fraction (3,253) of the 1 million-plus tourist arrivals in Maldives each year – Thulusdhoo’s nine guest houses rely heavily on Israeli surf tourism.
“Business will be down for the next three months. If incidents like this occur in the future, guest house tourism will suffer a lot of damage,” said Mohamed Hashim, who runs Batuta Maldives Surf View on Thulusdhoo.
Anti Israeli sentiment has been growing in the Maldives since the onset of the Israeli offensive in Gaza. The Maldives has announced plans to boycott Israeli imports, thousands have marched in solidarity with Palestine, and over MVR5 million has been donated to a humanitarian fund for Gaza.
Maldives luxury resorts – with one hotel on one island – are shielded from the local citizenry and society but they have offered islanders little benefit from its multi-billion dollar profits. Local tourism, on the other hand – while it offers hope of greater wealth distribution – is particularly vulnerable to unrest within the community.
Vigilante action of the sort seen on Thulusdhoo could pose serious risks for this emerging sector.
Interviews with protesters reveal that they had demanded police escort guests off the island through the protesting crowd in order to show tourists “they cannot provoke us”.
One man claimed the Israeli tourists were soldiers and described their actions as condescending. He further claimed the tourists had told locals, “We are Israelis. You cannot do anything to us.”
Condemning the police’s detention of the protesters while guests were evacuated, he said the police had treated the locals “worse than the Jews.” Israeli tourists must face the protesting locals, he argued, claiming even US President Barack Obama had gone to places where shoes had been thrown at him.
“This is a slap to Maldivian Muslim faces. After harming Muslims in that country, they come here, to a Muslim country, stay in a Muslim community and slap us in the face.”
“They have given Maldivians a warning. Just as they are killing children there, tomorrow they will kill your children,” he continued.
Another man said, “They cannot come to the Maldives on that passport. This is a 100 percent Muslim nation. Jew, Christian dogs cannot come into this country.”
Thulusdhoo Island Council President Ahmed Anees has denied the claim of confrontations between protesters and guests, saying that the community had in fact resolved the issue before those journeying from Malé arrived.
Batuta manager Hashim said that, though he did not believe that any of the protesters would have physically harmed guests, guest house owners could not agree to demands for guests to be escorted through the irate crowd.
“Escorting guests off through a crowd opens up opportunity for danger, for example someone in the crowd throwing a stone. We didn’t allow them the opportunity,” he said.
Rumors on social media and irresponsible media coverage had caused the situation to escalate, he said.
“Just as insults to our Prophet Mohamed riles us up, the swastika riles them up. It represents the Holocaust in which millions of Jews died. The guest shouldn’t have vandalised the placard. I do not support their actions. The boards were taken down. The issue was resolved,” he continued.
Protesters have gone on to hold a series of nightly demonstrations in Malé, calling for a ban on tourists from Israel. The Israeli and American flags were burned in front on Relax Inn and Mookai Hotel in Malé on Thursday.
Hashim said he did not see how banning Israeli tourists could have an economic impact on Israel.
“A ban on imports from Israel can cause an economic impact, but banning Israeli tourism is not that important. It affects our economy, not theirs,” he said.
Israeli citizen and tour operator Tom Niv – present on Thulusdhoo during the incident – described the evacuation as “heartbreaking.”
“I am fully against ugly behavior. When ugly behavior occurs, whether it’s from Israelis or locals, the police should get involved. As a travel agent, I am not accepting any kind of unwelcome behavior. We are guests in this country and we should respect rules.”
Thulusdhoo is “no longer safe for us,” Niv continued. “That a few extremists can impact a whole nation is crazy.”
Both Niv and Hashim maintained that Thulusdhoo was tourist friendly up until the evacuation.
“The guests mixed with the locals, frequented local businesses such as souvenir shops and went fishing on local boats,” Hashim said.
“There was a really good vibe, even clients posted on social media, look these are Muslims, we are Jews, see how good friends we are and see how much fun we have together,” Niv said.
“Almost everyone who came to Thulusdhoo got really connected with the locals. They weren’t like in resorts, like servants. It was not about money or tips. They really became good friends.”
Anees said residents continue to welcome tourists of any nationality, though he admitted he was now apprehensive of having Israeli tourists on Thulusdhoo.
Hashim fears businesses might now be wary of investing in Thulusdhoo in the future.
“Any act that may harm tourism worries us. Tourism is a very vulnerable industry. Burning flags in front of hotels in Malé and calling for tourism bans will scare off tourists,” he added.
Deputy Minister of Tourism Hussein Lirar said the safety of tourists is the government’s first priority, and that it is holding discussions on preventing similar incidents in the future.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Home Affairs are in the process of establishing Tourist Police to deal specifically with tourist affairs.
“This is quite important as the number of tourists coming to Malé is also increasing,” he said.
For Niv, the evacuation will have far-reaching consequences for guest house tourism in the Maldives.
“Israelis are not the only one who went away, Australians, French – not too many – but they will tell their friends that local islands are not safe anymore.”
“Now it is against Israel. But tomorrow it could be against Europeans or against Americans. It shows what can happen in certain conditions. This will definitely damage tourism in local islands and tourism in general,” said Niv.
Demands for a ban on tourists from any country should be directed at the government, while disagreements with any state’s actions ought not to translate into direct threats against tourists.
The incidents on Thulusdhoo reveal the risks radicals could have on guest house tourism. Local disputes over the actions of an Israeli – or a tourist of any nationality – should be taken up with police and local government.
Failure to do so could cause irreparable harm to the guest house sector.