Deputy Tourism Minister Mohamed Maleeh Jamal has slammed what he calls the “dubious” motivations behind an Avaaz.org petition calling for tourists to boycott the Maldives in protest over the sentencing of a 15 year-old rape victim to flogging, alleging the campaign is “politically motivated”.
While accepting a need for “capacity building” in parliament and other institutions, Maleeh said tourism had been a key driver in ensuring national development and democratic reforms for the last 40 years, granting the industry “sacred” importance in the Maldives.
“People should not be doing anything to damage the industry. In Switzerland, you would not see a campaign designed to damage Swiss chocolate. Likewise you would not see a German campaign to damage their automobile industry,” he said.
The comments were made as over 1.7 million people worldwide have signed a petition on the Avaaz site aiming to target the “reputation” of the Maldives tourism industry and encourage the dropping of charges against the 15 year-old rape victim, as well as wider legal reforms to prevent similar cases.
The girl was sentenced on charges of fornication after confessing to having consensual sex with an unknown man during investigations into her alleged abuse by her stepfather. The girl is also alleged to have been abused by a number of unidentified men on her island dating back to 2009, according to sources on the local council.
The government of President Dr Mohamed Waheed has pledged to appeal the sentence given to the minor by the country’s Juvenile Court, while also reviewing local laws to enact potential reforms of the use of flogging. No time-line for such reforms has yet been set beyond the commitment to hold talks.
In an interview with Minivan News today, Deputy Minister Maleeh argued that over the last 40 years, the tourism industry has been an intrinsic part of not only relieving poverty nationally, but also driving the country’s democratic transition process – leading eventually to elections in 2008.
Presidential elections are now scheduled for later this year in a highly-polarised political environment that follows a controversial transfer of power in February 2012 that saw President Waheed come to power following a mutiny by sections of the police and military.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed and his opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) have alleged that his government was ousted in a “coup d’etat”. Nasheed has maintained these claims despite the findings of a Commonwealth-backed Commission of National Inquiry (CNI).
“Chaos and anarchy”
Considering the present political landscape, Maleeh claimed Avaaz.org had been deliberately “misinformed” in a politically motivated attempt to destabilise the government and tourism industry through negative media headlines.
“By misinformed, I mean that I don’t think they have taken the government’s stand into account, the president has already spoke on the issue , as has the attorney general,” he said. “I think that in time, Avaaz will be informed of this and will even be our partners.”
Maleeh criticised the intentions behind the campaign, alleging the petition was being used for political gain, rather than focusing on the welfare of the 15 year-old girl at the centre of the sexual abuse allegations.
“I would say the motivation [behind the campaign] is dubious. The problem ultimately needs to be addressed by the judiciary and parliament, not the tourism ministry,” he said. “We are in the middle of a successful democratic transition. Killing the most important industry in the country will not give way for reforms, but chaos and anarchy.”
Maleeh claimed that when accounting for the economic significance and societal benefits of tourism to the Maldives, the industry was very fragile.
He added that the tourism industry has ensured continued national developments in “the right direction” that had helped to alleviate general poverty and improve the quality of life in the country. Maleeh pointed to the availability of consumer goods such as like branded coffees and other foods and produce as an example of the quality of life.
Maleeh added it had been tourism that helped drive democratic developments in the nation, with international parties encouraging former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who served as the country’s autocratic leader for 30 years, to undertake a path towards democratic reforms.
“In the last 40 years [since the introduction of tourism]. we have listened to groups like the World Bank and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO),” he said.
Pointing specifically to reforms that had brought a new constitution to the Maldives in 2008, Maleeh said that rather than seeking a damaging boycott, international partners like the EU, the US and Australia had in the past engaged in dialogue instead.
“We have western-educated people here. We know there are issues in parliament and with capacity building that needs to happen. But we cannot be compared to a Middle Eastern country for example,” he said. “ We are a successful transitional democracy.”
Maleeh said that after facing the impact of negative international and domestic headlines following the controversial transfer of power last year, the country had undertaken a “concerted effort” to promote the Maldives.
“Negative news needs to be minimised as I believe that tourism should be sacred here in the Maldives. In recent years, the democratic system has helped tourism, so we encourage openness and are not afraid of media. What we want to see is correct information being out there. There needs to be more accountability with stories proven with facts,” he said.
“As far as the tourism ministry is concerned we don’t discriminate against any media. It is only those channels who call to boycott [the industry] that we would hesitate to speak to.”
The government last year agreed a US$250,000 (MVR 3.8million) advertising deal to promote the country’s tourism industry on the BBC through sponsorship of its weather services, as well as signing a £93,000 per month (US$150,000) contract with public relations group Ruder Finn to try and improve the country’s image internationally.
For the coming year, Maleeh added that the Maldives was again seeking similar support from private groups to engage in high-profile marketing efforts with media organisations like CNN and the BBC to try and push the Maldives unique selling points – namely “sun, sea, sand and spa”.
He added that with the expected introduction of new high-profile hotel chains to the country’s resort industry, including Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), there was strong potential for positive international headlines in the media.
With a reduced promotional budget available for the coming year, Maleeh added that regardless of the allegiance of the next government, consistency needed to be seen in the country’s promotional budget to better plan future campaigns.
Accepting the potential budgetary challenges ahead, Maleeh said he believed that the Maldives tourism industry had become adept at promoting itself even with limitations, pointing to the growing importance of social media services like Twitter and Facebook to destination marketing – especially in terms of photo sharing.
“The Maldives stands at an advantage in that no one can take a bad picture here,” he said.
Addendum: Avaaz Executive Director Ricken Patel sought to justify the organisation’s petition in a subsequent comment piece published in Minivan News.