The Maldives National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MNCCI) has warned that the “deteriorated” and “outdated” amenities used to support the Maldives’ lucrative resort industry will negatively impact growth across the tourism sector, if left unaddressed.
MNCCI Vice President Ismail Asif told Minivan News that despite the “seven star” reputation of the country’s exclusive island resorts, the group was receiving growing complaints that the service, amenities and treatment afforded to guests by the country’s public and private sector threatened to significantly damage the destination’s reputation.
The comments were raised after several multinational hospitality groups alleged earlier this month that the sale of the Maldives’ two main seaplane operators to US-based private equity fund Blackstone in February was having a “significant” negative impact on the wider tourism industry as a result of the monopoly created.
MNCCI Vice President Asif told Minivan News that the chamber had not received any “particular concerns” related to the Blackstone deal, but had instead noted growing criticisms of standards of service from state and private institutions vital to the country’s resort industry.
“We have had e-mails from foreign investors and business people about the general service and standards at the country’s airport as well as the quality of transportation [available to tourists],” he said. “We are not able to distinguish [whether the complaints] are about seaplanes or speedboats.
Asif also identified the current condition of Ibarahim Nasir International Airport (INIA), a general lack of amenities, and the attitude of customs and immigration officials towards foreigners visiting the country as major concerns needing to be addressed by the wider industry.
Late last year, the present government controversially scrapped a US$511 million contract signed under the previous administration with India-based infrastructure group GMR to develop and manage an entirely new airport terminal.
The state is subsequently facing a US$1.4 billion compensation claim from GMR for its decision to terminate the contract over allegations of corruption, claims ultimately rejected by the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC).
The MNCCI has nonetheless maintained that the government’s decision to abruptly terminate the GMR contract did not hurt foreign investor confidence, with Asif claiming that the existing airport structure could be modified to improve service standards. With the eviction of GMR construction of the new terminal is stalled at 25 percent complete, according to the government’s own engineering assessment.
“Foreign businesses don’t want to get into politics here. In the meetings we have had there are two major concerns raised. Internationals want the Maldives to remain as it is. The feedback we get is they want the airport as it is, but with improved services,” he said. “This doesn’t mean a new five story building is needed. For instance free wifi is not [at the airport at present]. Certainly not at the standards visitors would expect.”
Criticisms had also been raised over the conduct of customs officials and regulations banning tourists from bringing alcohol into the country to consume on the country’s resorts, according to the MNCCI. Asif claimed there was minimal information provided to visitors about restrictions on alcohol and pork products outside of resorts.
“Expensive wine is often confiscated from guests, who are not getting it back. I understand visitors must act within local laws, but it is also important to correctly inform them as well,” he said. “Often these are very expensive gifts given to people while they are travelling, and I don’t see why they cannot bring such items to their resort.”
“It’s not like tourists will bring large amounts of liquor with them. Often the value of the goods they are holding is high, but a customs person will have no idea of the goods or the culture. Their response is ‘liquor is prohibited here’,” he claimed, accusing police and other state authorities of favouring restrictive laws on tourists to reduce their own levels of responsibility.
Asif argued that all national bodies needed to take greater responsibility to ensure treatment of tourists matched the services being provided by the resort industry.
“If it is too much hassle for tourists to visit, people will not come here [on holiday] and will look to other destinations,” he said. “Tourism is is based around trying to make clients happy. We are concerned about this and the need to make things easier here.”
The MNCCI has also stressed the need for political stability, the lack of which he had alleged has had a considerable impact on investor confidence and business development since the controversial transfer of power on February 7, 2012.
With a run-off vote scheduled for September 28 expected to decide whether former President Mohamed Nasheed or MP Abdulla Yameen will take office over the next five years, Asif said it was important to have an elected and head of state – no matter the candidate.
He argued that a Commonwealth-backed Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI) last year dismissed Nasheed’s allegations that he was removed from office in a “coup d’etat” had led to an increase of larger-scale investment – particularly with resorts.
However, with a number of properties remaining under construction, stability within the country’s domestic politics and court system was a huge problem needing to be addressed, he said.
Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb was not responding to calls at time of press in response to the MNCCI’s concerns.
Meanwhile, the government earlier this month said it hoped to secure longer-term financing to plug a shortfall in annual revenue that has seen the number of 28-day Treasury Bills (T-bills) sold by the state almost double in July 2013, compared to the same period last year.
Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad told Minivan News at the time that the state’s increased reliance on short-term T-bills between July 2012 and July 2013 reflected the current difficulties faced by the government in trying to raise budgeted revenue during the period.