The official twitter hashtag of the World Travel Market (WTM) in London has been hijacked by Maldivian pro-democracy activists.
The WTM is one of the world’s major annual travel industry expos, attracting 5000 exhibitors from over 184 countries across the globe. The Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation (MMPRC) has said 143 representatives from 52 Maldivian companies are taking part in the event.
Dozens of Maldivian activists meanwhile on Monday began flooding the #wtm13 hashtag with images of police brutality and allegations against Villa Hotels owner and presidential candidate, Gasim Ibrahim.
The hijacking was widely reported by international travel media, just days after the UK’s Guardian newspaper broke a story about Maldivian police importing over US$100,000 in riot-control weaponry from a Singapore subsidiary of UK firm Survitec.
The twitter activists accused Gasim of funding the 2012 police mutiny that led to former President Nasheed’s controversial resignation, and then influencing the Supreme Court to annul the results of the September 7 poll despite unanimous positive assessments from local and international election observers.
Shortly after placing third and narrowly missing a place in the run-off against Nashed, Gasim alleged he had been robbed of between 20,000-30,000 votes and declared “God Willing, Gasim will be President on November 11”.
On October 7 the Supreme Court overturned the poll on the basis of a secret police report not shown to the Elections Commission (EC)’s defence counsel, and issued guidelines for a new poll on October 19 effectively giving candidates the right to veto elections altogether.
“What happened smacks to me of a child who cannot win a board game, so they tip over the board,” UK Conservative Party MP for Redditch, Karen Lumley told British parliament on November 5.
The October revote was forcibly halted by police just hours before polls were due to open. A third attempt is scheduled for Saturday, just days before the end of the presidential term on November 11.
News of the hashtag hijack was quickly picked up international travel media, drawn by contrast tweets depicting costumed expo mascots and colourful conference hall stalls interspersed with bloodied, hosed and pepper-sprayed protesters: “For much of the day about half the Tweets using the official hashtag were from Maldives protesters,” noted one travel website.
“Travel has both a positive impact and a dark underside. And those unpleasant truths are seeping into the polished booths and buffet tables visited by WTM attendees this year, both online and in person,” wrote Samantha Shankman for the Skift travel website.
WTM tweeted distancing itself from the activists, but did not remove the posts: “We would like to apologise to our followers for the misuse of our hashtag by other accounts. We are no way linked to these tweets,” read a post from the expo organisers.
The coverage follows a downbeat assessment of the industry’s economic performance given by the Finance Ministry this week. According the report given to parliament, tourism growth as measured in terms of bed nights declined by 0.1 percent in 2012 following 15.8 percent growth in 2010 and 9.2 percent in 2011.
“The main reason for this was the political turmoil the country faced in February 2012 and the decline in the number of days tourists spent in the country,” read an accompanying statement.
Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb was not responding at time of press.