Former President Mohamed Nasheed’s pledge to expand guest house tourism in the country has been strongly criticised by senior government figures, who accuse him of lacking sincerity and “bluffing” over his commitments to mid-market tourism.
State Minister for Finance Abbas Adil Riza and Minister for Tourism Ahmed Adheeb both this week slammed Nasheed, claiming guesthouse bed numbers more than doubled last year after President Dr Mohamed Waheed came to power.
The ministers, who represent the government-aligned Gaumee Ithihaad Party (GIP) and the Progressive Party of Maldives respectively, also criticised Nasheed over previous remarks he made in international media calling for a boycott of the country’s tourism sector.
However, Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has claimed that after reintroducing the guesthouse concept to the Maldives during its administration, the party’s latest manifesto gave further importance to growing mid-market tourism. The MDP claims such growth will be vital to tackling what it called a “total disconnect” between the lucrative island resort model and local people.
With the inclusion of development of small and medium businesses – particularly in the emerging guesthouse sector – in a “mini-manifesto” drawn up by the MDP, mid-market tourism has emerged as a key potential issue for elections in September 2013.
Speaking to Minivan News, Abbas Adil Riza accused Nasheed of lying in regards to his commitments to mid-market tourism development, criticising him for a wider failure to protect small and medium businesses in the country.
“My concern is that Nasheed is bluffing. Between 2009 to 2011, there were 16 new guest houses built,” he said, claiming these properties amounted to some 180 tourism beds.
Abbas said that in 2012 alone, the number of guesthouse beds available to tourists in the country had almost doubled as a result of programs implemented by the Waheed government to provide smaller-scale loans leading to 37 guest houses being developed.
“During Nasheed’s administration, outsiders were given public land and there was no funding supplied,” he said. “After February 7, we gave small-scale loans to 37 individuals.”
Abbas also accused former President Nasheed of failing to support small and medium enterprises and local industry in general.
He added that small and medium scale businesses had to be set up in harmony with local culture and traditions, particularly on small islands.
“He can’t just say that he is the champion of these things,” Abbas added.
Traditional holiday staples for large numbers of tourists coming to the Maldives, including being able to wear bikinis and drinking alcohol, are not permitted by law on local islands that are classed as being inhabited.
Speaking to local media, both Abbas and Tourism Minister Adheeb have hit out at claims by the MDP published in international media last year calling for travellers to boycott Maldives tourism.
Adheeb told Sun Online that Nasheed had not made sense by previously calling for the promotion of guest houses in the build up to this year’s presidential election after calling for a boycott last year.
“President Nasheed had made a global call to boycott Maldives tourism, and now he is calling to promote guest house businesses, targeted at Maldives tourism. This does not make sense,” he was quoted as saying.
Nasheed last year called for a tourism boycott of the Maldives, as he continued to question the legitimacy of the government of President Waheeed – his former vice president.
However, these calls were soon dropped by Nasheed and supporters of the now opposition MDP.
The Ministry of Tourism last year fell short of its stated aim of welcoming one million visitors to the country during 2012, citing difficulties resulting from media coverage of political turmoil following the change of government that brought President Dr Mohamed Waheed to office.
However, authorities in the country have since pledged to surpass the one million visitor goal in 2013, claiming late last year that the “hard days” were over for tourism in the country following 2012′s political turmoil.
Despite this stance, as part of a so-called silent protest at this year’s ITB event, anti-government campaigners distributed leaflets entitled ‘the cloudy side of life‘ – a play on the country’s official ‘Sunny Side of Life’ tourism slogan to draw attention to alleged human rights violations under the new government.
MDP MP and Spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor responded that Nasheed’s government had sought to reintroduce and expand guest houses in the Maldives – a development the party claimed was needed to bring a “paradigm shift” in general thinking and economic development in the Maldives.
After 40 years of concentrating primarily on exclusive island-based resort tourism, Hamid accused former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom during his 30 years of power of creating a “total disconnect” between local people and the country’s famous high-end tourism product.
“They local people Islamic rhetoric while talking something very different to tourists,” he claimed.
Pointing to the ‘mini-manifesto’ released by the MDP in the build up to this year’s elections, Hamid claimed that was capacity for an additional 600,00 tourists to travel to the Maldives annually, yet there was not enough options to accommodate them.
“All across this country, you see that many islands are ready for [middle-market tourism]. There are impressive cafes. People who have worked in the tourism industry are setting up businesses based on their experiences,” he said. “Tourism is very much a business we know and some of these places are quite sophisticated.”
As part of the MDP’s election pledge, Hamid claimed that some MVR120 million was set to be pledged as part of a policy to provide “seed money” to help establish guest houses and supporting industries.
He said that guest houses have always been a central policy of the MDP to support national development.
By comparison, Hamid claimed that before coming to power, the previous government under former President Gayoom had tried to paint tourism on local islands as “haraam” to discourage interest and investment.
He claimed such a strategy was overseen by certain resort owners and tourism magnates alleged by the MDP to being central in bringing the present government to power on February 7, 2012. Nasheed himself resigned following a mutiny by sections of the police and military.
Both Nasheed and the MDP have continued to contend that the transfer of power was a “coup d’etat”, despite the findings of a Commonwealth-backed Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) last year.
Responding to the party’s previous reported support for a tourism boycott, MP Hamid claimed the party had always committed itself to what it called selective boycotts – rather than calling for tourists to outright reject the destination.
“We are not saying that all resort operators are bad. But some of them were directly involved in the coup and have sought to exploit their positions,” he said.
Hamid denied the party had sought to boycott the industry outright, claiming instead to be targeting resort owners that he alleged ran their businesses unethically in the style of “cartels”.
Nasheed’s tourism potential
Just last month, in an open-editorial piece reprinted in Minivan News, former President Nasheed claimed that only 50 people directly profited from the resort industry in the Maldives, limiting what he claimed were a wealth of economic and social policies.
“What the average Maldivian wants is basic. We want a way to increase our income. We want to broaden our narrow financial horizons through development.
It is not that we lack this capacity to develop. We have plentiful natural resources. If we settle for the current economic status quo, believing that what we have now is the limit to what we are entitled to, it will mean that our true wealth potential remains untapped,” he wrote at the time.
“What the MDP and I have always pointed out is this basic fact: we want to develop. To upgrade beyond the current status quo. The ordinary Maldivian’s complaint is that of poverty, of financial anxiety. We want a wallet with the wads; we want to realise that financial progress is possible. The political office is a place that should offer solutions to these complaints. This is its responsibility and obligation.”
Meanwhile, an island owner involved in the country’s burgeoning mid-market holiday sector last week slammed new regulations imposing financial restrictions on tourism joint venture projects with the government, claiming the legislation outright excludes small and medium-scale investors.