Q&A: Former Tourism Minister Dr Mariyam Zulfa

Dr Mariyam Zulfa is the former tourism minister of the Maldives, appointed by Mohamed Nasheed’s administration in November 2010. Prior to her appointment she was a Managing Partner with the law firm Duckham & Co, Lawyers. She holds a PhD from Curtin University in Australia, and in her thesis examined the competitiveness of small island tourism destinations. Dr Zulfa also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Urban & Regional Planning and a Masters of Business Administration (MBA), and has worked as a tourism law lecturer in Australia.

Daniel Bosley: What is the average resort owner thinking about the current political crisis in the Maldives and its impact on the economy?

Dr Mariyam Zulfa: I think everybody is in a state of shock at the moment because the turmoil in the country will definitely have an impact on the image of the destination. The [pro-government] forces are trying to paint the picture that there is a lot of violence in the country and that the violence is being instigated by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which is not true at all. All we are doing is holding peaceful demonstrations and calling for early elections in order to ensure the legitimacy of the government.

Our tourists come from developed countries and I think they have the maturity to understand that people have the right to freely express their views on political matters. In that sense I don’t think the resort owners should be very worried about tourists concerns as to whether the place is going to be safe or not. The resort owners like to say that the situation in the country is safe and I think it is so because the only thing we are doing here is expressing our views on the political situation, and that the current President has assumed his role after a coup.

DB: Have you had any questions from resort owners?

MZ: Not really no, because the government, as it should, has been spreading the message through its own PR machinery that the country is safe.

DB: How have different markets been reacting?

MZ: I am given to understand that many Germans, for example, and many people from the UK, are questioning the welfare of the people of Maldives and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

I have personally had a number of communications from interested persons, especially from Germany and the UK, asking what is happening in the country, and that is a good sign because the traveller is not a nameless faceless body that comes here. I think people who travel are also conscientious people who care about the well-being of the people of the countries that they visit. I would tend to think that the political concerns of a wide majority of the Maldivian people are indeed something worth listening to.

I’ve has quite an overwhelming number of emails and communications sent to me asking about what’s happening in the country and when a political resolution is going to be found, what they could do to help; because of course they will see on the media that a large number of people, including a large number of women,for the first time in the Maldives are demonstrating continuously about how unhappy they are with the coup-led government in the country.

I have also received many calls from the Maldives’ foreign investors who are concerned about the current situation.

The silly thing about what the government is trying to do is portray to the international media that there is violence in the country. Indeed, that is not the case, we are expressing our unhappiness about how undemocratic the coup is. A coup is a coup is a coup, and can never be accepted as something legal or legitimate. That is a message that I think needs to be understood by members of the travelling public who come to the Maldives.

DB: Do you think that there is a risk that resorts will trade their political support for short-term stability?

MZ: It’s not the MDP’s intention to interfere in any way with the economic gains that we have made in the tourist industry. Nevertheless, we say that some people in the resort industry were actually involved. We have information that could be used as evidence to say that some members in the resort industry were behind, for example, in financing the coup and so on. So, in that sense it is connected to the tourism industry. But it has never been the MDPs intention and it will never be the MDPs intention to obstruct the progress that we have made in the tourism industry.

But, having said that, I will say that it is our duty also to inform the travelling public that a wrong has been done unto the people of the Maldives and following from that, we provide the information about the political situation in the country so it is up to that traveller to either decide to do something about it or carry on with their decision to travel to the destination. It’s not in our agenda to affect the travellers decision to choose Maldives as a destination at all.

DB: Do you think the alleged involvement of some resort owners harms the image of all resorts?

MZ: Neither a formal nor an informal investigation has been completed so far but there is evidence to show – and material that can be used as evidence – that leads us to the conclusion that some people in the tourist industry have been behind at least the financing of some of the operations that led to the overthrow of President Nasheed [on February 7]. But I can’t categorically say exactly who was involved unless a formal investigation has been completed. Some in the industry were involved, not all. Amongst them were a couple of major players in the Maldives [tourism] industry.

DB: What did you think of the Friends of Maldives travel advisory, asking tourists to avoid particular resorts associated with these players?

MZ: I have actually not seen the Friends of Maldives advisory. I heard about it in the media to boycott the resorts of the alleged coup perpetrators, but my opinion is that it is not the MDP’s policy, it was something done by an organisation that wished us well and that their purpose would also have been to disseminate information about who were behind the activities that led to an illegitimate government coming into place. I would like to think it was done to spread information, not to deliberately harm the economy or hurt the industry in any way shape or form.

DB: What do you think of the government’s lease-extension and payment deferral decision?

MZ: The lease extension is about increasing the asset value of the properties. In the Maldives, all the islands actually belong to the government and when the second amendment to the tourism law came into place it gave the option for resorts to extend the existing 25 year leases to 50 years. A time period was given and there is a clause that stipulates that the payment must be done in completion before the lease period can be extended. So, the Nasheed government had interpreted that clause as the payment to be paid in full for the period extended. So, because the wording is such that the payment must be complete before the extension is granted, we interpreted it as the full payment.

But there is another clause which says the manner in which the payment is calculated is on an annual basis. This government has over-interpreted that clause and has said that the payment has to be made on an annual , but I have always insisted that the value of the government assets must not be allowed to decrease because the payments go to funding welfare services, housing projects, infrastructure projects, health services and so on that would benefit the local community.

The current government has not only allowed payment to be made  on an annual basis but for the payment to start at the end of the 25 year period, which is years away. It is a huge loss to the government treasury, about US$150 million, and I think as a result that a lot of people will be deprived of the many projects that we have started for the benefit of the communities across the atolls.

Furthermore, I have had news that the government has borrowed US$50 million on a sovereign bond. There is no need to resort to this kind of borrowing when resort investors could provide that money easily. The interesting thing about it is that many resort operators had actually agreed to lump-sum payments, and a lot of them had already done so, because people are very conscious of the fact that services have to be provided to the people and it is a way to support the government budget to do so.

I this noticed because some the influential people behind the coup perpetrators have been pressuring me for some time now to do this so, again, it’s not everybody in the industry but some who had a vested interest in deferring the payment.

Now of course they have the power to decide in any manner that they want and this was one of the first things that they did when they came into power.

DB: The government continues to emphasise the separation of tourism and politics. Is it a good idea to have such a divide between the politics/society and a country’s biggest source of income?

MZ: Tourism and politics have always been separate so I’m quite baffled as to why now they are saying this. It has never been the MDPs intention or any other political party’s intention to harm the economy in any way. So I’m surprised as to why this message is going out to separate tourism from politics. Even in my time at the ministry I have always maintained that Tourism Minister will never be colour coded and we have worked with all stakeholders who have come from all different parties. Even with the new projects we don’t look at anybody’s political background, it has always been very robust in this sense.

DB: With Nasheed’s interest in mid-market tourism as an example, is bringing broader societal issues into tourism something the MDP is interested in?

MZ: Yes, it cannot be any other way because the Nasheed government is about the people and with tourism and every other economic policy, we have strived to put in place a fair go for all. For example the small and medium loan schemes encouraged middle-scale businesses to go into fruitful operation and we tried in every way to encourage the small business owner and the medium SME owners to get ahead in life. Because our philosophy is to do things for the people as opposed to making the rich richer, so in that sense even in tourism we came up with the mid-market policy and the policy to develop guest houses and city hotels across the country especially as a source for more people from the community to participate in the tourist industry – that is our aim. It not anything political at all.

The only way this can be viewed as political would be now people who are already successful, multi-millionaires in the industry, will tend to think that if you spread it around too much their businesses might become shaky. But the way we designed it is not to disrupt the apple cart in any way.

We were always going to emphasise the fact that Maldives is a luxury destination. People who seek that sense of luxury actually come, that was always going to be our main theme when promoting the Maldives yet at the same time we had wanted for more people to be participating directly not only in the business side but from the benefits of tourism in the communities. And also of course we wanted more tourists to see more of Maldives at a value for money price.

The former tourism masterplan, which was effective until 2011, said that islands specifically selected by the government have to be put on tender. But the way the Nasheed government did it was to open up all the islands in the country again to deviate from making the rich richer kind of philosophy to opening up the country to whoever has the ability, ambition and drive to apply for a tourism development to do so.

It was perfectly legally-allowable because the tourism law states that you can do a joint development with the government, so for example the government owned five percent and the developer 95 percent, which was legally permissible. But the interesting thing is that the current administration is saying we were doing that in contravention of tourism law – that is not the case.

Article 5 of the tourism law actually says that a joint venture can be allowed with the government as a shareholder. That is what we were doing instead of making the already rich richer, we were opening the islands to everybody who wanted to apply and with the means to do so.

In the past when you put something on tender, the process is so complicated and costly you have to know the right people in the right places, so the average person who was desirous of joining the tourism industry was very far-removed from anything to do with moving towards successful application.

Equity is what the Nasheed government was about and providing more opportunities for the able person, not necessarily the well-connected person. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that approach so I don’t find it surprising at all when some of the already established enterprises in tourism are saying that these kinds of policies have been perpetrated by the Nasheed government for political reasons. It’s not for political reasons, it’s for reasons of equity.

DB: How do you see the political instability affecting tourism in the long run?

MZ: I don’t think that the political situation is actually affecting the tourism industry as such because Maldives is a well-established destination. The Maldives is a unique destination. You don’t find this kind of geographical competitive advantage in any other country. 1200 islands ringed into atolls, unique lagoons and beaches, the various shades of blue that make the islands so attractive. I have seen many tourists actually cry in amazement, it’s so beautiful.

The political situation is not going to affect the beauty that we have in the islands that we offer to the tourists. But I think the tourist industry has a responsibility to provide correct information about Maldivian life in general because I have had interaction from my experience as tourism minister that even the wealthiest tourists who come here are genuinely concerned about the well-being of the average person, they want to contribute financially and to better the life of the average citizen, and that is what the government was doing.

I think the tourism industry has the responsibility to provide information on the great wrong that had been done unto the average person of the Maldives which is denying them the government that has been legitimately installed through their vote.


34 thoughts on “Q&A: Former Tourism Minister Dr Mariyam Zulfa”

  1. The actions of MDP are causing great harm to our tourism industry, Recently it has been reported in News outlets that MDP Farahanaz and so called "Friends of Maldives" David Hardingham distributed leaflets in London urging tourists not to visit certain resorts in Maldives.

    The outcome of this will inevitably be cancellations in Maldivian resorts bookings leading lost income and revenue for our countries resorts. MDP must realize that tourism is the main source of income in our country, and a lot of people depend on it for their livelihoods.

    If MDP had truly wished the best for Maldivians, then they wouldnt be doing such acts to generate negative publicity and trying to damage tourism industry in Maldives. As a Maldivian i urge MDP to cease all acts to try to sabotage our tourism industry.

  2. @concerned

    MDP cannot do more harm than the coup leaders and their minions have done, even if they tried.

    Surely you didn't think we would have any positive publicity after a coup .

  3. Never imagined i would support this, but tourists who want to visit this country should refrain from going to any Villa resorts, when its so obvious that the owner of that hotel chain had played such a big part in overthrowing an elected government.

  4. Boycott following resorts,

    Bandos Island Resort
    Fun island Resort
    Sun Island Resort

  5. All conscious, savvy travelers must choose there resorts carefully when traveling to Maldives.

    Following resort owner took part in the coup that over threw the young democratically elected government of Maldives and they are Sultan Thasneem Ali, Bandos Waheedheen, Villa Gasim Ibrahim, Crown Company or Conrad Saleem's.

    All travelers must avoid these resorts:

    Bandos Island Resort
    Fun island Resort
    Sun Island Resort

  6. The people of the world cannot be fooled . By what we have seen; its common sense to see how Maldives in fact has developed into a Military?police State by the Coup Leader who Calls Himself ,President!Those who were involved in this Criminal Act should be Caught And Maximum Punishment given. They Are Trying To Hang On To Power, No Matter What.They Are Trying The Dirty Game Of Damaging MDP image. And Also Arresting And Using Violence Against Some Innocent People !

  7. when Zulfa was a minister, how many Island were given to her friends , her husbands and Anni friends ?
    Why did Zulfa closed all Spas in the Resorts. This closure had damaged the country image badly ?

    Anni only want to promote himself not the country and Zulfa was endorsing his wished and was outside the legal frame work.

    Both Zulfa and Anni have no clue of tousim and neither of them were capable of running any office.

  8. There is enough evidence already in the public domain that there has been an illegal and undemocratic change of president in the Maldives.
    What is the judiciary doing?
    What is the legal profession doing?
    What is the Speaker doing?
    They are doing nothing.
    Maldives is not fit for democracy.
    Throw the Maldives out of the Commonwealth.

  9. MDP is so selfish and power hungry that they can do any form of disgusting things to destroy this country if they don't get to rule this country. They are a bunch of devils who prefer to rule this country by force, fear and violence. Ms Zulfa, why didn't you tell tourists how autocratic was your master animal Anni when he was in power? Why didn't you tell the tourists how many thugs he operate on the streets of this country making this place a living hell for the ordinary citizens? Why didn't you tell tourists how many times Anni operated beyong rule of law and against the constituion of this country. You guys are all fake and liars. Infact you all know you are worth nothing. Shame on all of you and I am very glad to today they you are all gone from the top job jobs of this country. And we will do all our best to make sure you guys don't come back to power.

  10. Of course Zulfa the people in the developed nations are mature enough to see and understand the violence MDP brought on the streets. The millions of public property that violent MDP activists burned and destroyed. The hate speeches Nasheed has given and continue give does not go un noticed. You are right there are MDP members who are doing what they should do peacfully but that can not be said to the some of the most leading people in the party. And when you say 'FOM' is a well wisher group.. of coures they want Nasheed in power so that they can pursue their own agenda in the Maldives. They certainly do not wish well for the people of the Maldives by spreading false information about the maldives and aking people to boycott he country. People and governments in the world are also mature enough to understand that Nasheed still hasn't got his mind made up on why resigned.

  11. @Yasir & concerned... Highly targeting those of whom organized and sponsored the coup is to be expected, why sound so surprised?

    It is clear that the MDP or FOM do not want to harm tourism and the economy. That would be easy, all they would have to do is target the airport a get 50 people to protest on the run way = international headlines and close the airport immediatley simple! But they have not done this. Careful!

  12. @ concerned
    = Cancellations at Gasim resorts and the coup backers, YES WE HOPE SO!

    The rest of the industry is not part of this mess.

  13. There's a simple lesson for the likes of Zulfa and her former boss. Maldivians were not ready for the kind of transformation that you wanted to implement and the reason MDP is on the streets is largely a result of that.

    When I say, "Maldivians", I'm referring to the power brokers of the country. After all, only about 5% of the population actually matter in governing this God forsaken place. The rest of the 95% follow the former.

    That has been the case for centuries and is not likely to change for several more centuries. MDP is an experiment that failed. Yes, really!

    Now, we'll go back to our old ways. There will be no grand scheme to empower citizens. The ordinary and poor will once again go begging at the feet of those aforementioned 5%. That's the only system the Maldivians know well and they don't like to change that.


  14. To typical talks of the military regime to blame the decrease in tourism to MDP now... :-)). First the resort owners and dictators boys do an military coup d'etat. Then they request the democratically elected government to shut up, to adree there is no coup and to continue to provide money to the same resorts.
    No, and to be sure : NO.
    I will inform each and every tourist, each an everyone who could be interested in Maldives. I will inform them about the military coup and dictators regime. I will urge them NOT to come to Maldives anymore - as long as the country suffers under a regime and as long as we do not have an by the people elected government.
    Complains you can file with the regime : if they leave, I will stop. They stay, I continue. Even on my single own, I will.

  15. Its international norm to have economic sanctions if governments defy rule of law. I fully support the effort and demonstration lead by Ali Waheed and Farah for the fact that these coup leaders financed the coup and toppled the democratically elected government of Maldives.

  16. Zulfa for your information it was the Ex- President Nasheed's government that borrowed US$100 million as sovereign bond.. not the current government.

  17. Zulfa is crying as her husband sim had received an island for resort development without bidding by the Nasheed government.
    I am sure tourists are also aware of the corruption and the undemocratic ways of Nasheed govt (handing out resorts to his party members without bidding, awarding 21m$ reclamation projects), routine arrests of opposition members, intimidation of media, arbitrary arrests of the chief judge at an undisclosed location indefinitely.

  18. What good will calling to boycott resorts do to the country?
    What harm will such an act bring to the resort owners?
    Do you really think the resort owners will be brought down on their knees by three people who listened to you and decided not to come to a resort here?
    Can anyone please tell me?

    None of us are against Maldives.
    We are all working for the betterment of the country.
    Some among us may not like what some resort owners did. But calling to boycott (their) resorts is not the way forward.
    If at all one thinks that these resort owners should be punished for their actions, one will have to call for actions that will not harm the economy of the country.

    Very few tourists will take the pains and sort out whcih resort is to be boycotted and which is not to be boycotted.
    The result will likely be a mass boycotting no boycotting at all.
    So, please think before you call others to listen to you.

    I disagree that "Friends of Maldives" wishes well for the country.
    If they do, they will not distribute leaflets asking to boycott our resorts.

    A friend will not abandon you at the time of your need.
    A friend will work with you and support you no matter what.

  19. Zulfa all you did was to send circular to resorts to close down their Spas' and gave an island to your husband and few more MDP activists.Explain to the people about the Auditor General's report on your ministry about corruption.

  20. good article. Zulfa and others from the cabinet should tells us about the details of the last cabinet meeting.

    to all the comments coming from President's Office army of commenters: you people need to work a lot harder to spam the Internets. the truth is out there 🙂

  21. Zulfa Zulfa Zulfa Ullaaa you know the whats went wrong why are you protecting MPD and Anni's regime, you are a smart woman tell the truth the world wants to know the truth. I know it will hurt you because your husband is involve in it but have some mercy upon the people and come out with the truth.

  22. Ahmed bin Addu bin Suvadheeb: Brother, you certainly haven't tried to sweeten your delivery of truth here, ouch... You are right, and Kudos to you brother for trying to go deeper into the real causes of this political violence, Sukriah.

    I admire and deeply respect the genuine idealists within the MDP for trying, however naively, to transform the Maldives. They were brave and noble souls, and, desparate for change, so I don't blame them for their radical behaviour.

    Yet their efforts, though naive, though hijacked by power hungry thugs, though way too radical and liberal to be accepted by many, were not entirely futile. No suffering for the cause of justice and freedom is wasted in the eternal sense brother, though we will often never see the fruits of such struggle on Earth.

    In the MDP stories case, we have learnt alot about what needs to be done. We know what needs to be taught in the education system, in the transmission of culture, in the Mosques, to create a culture of respect for diversity, a culture which upholds the sanctity of humanity.

    The deeply Merciful essence of Islam has to be revealed. Intolerant fundamentalism and any violence or discrminatory forms of Islam have to be squashed. A new outlook must be created, a less vengeance prone, a less gangster controlled, less violence inclined, less intolerant society can only come through the transformation of the education system, and the key to it is, is dissemenating a much more humane and progressive form of Islam bottom up, so that the next generation can deal with radical desparation for freedom without reacting violently.

    Dr. Waheed was not going deep enough to blame the violence, to pin what happened on the 'arrogant-dictatorial' character of Anni. The violent political culture was there way before Anni even existed, it was not Anni who brutalised the ppl of the South, or beat up Amin Didi. If Anni was like that, all agressive, dictatorial, arrogant and cruel as ppl say he was, it was only a minor cause of the violence. Anni's being like that, IF he was, (or is) is a symptom of the deeper cause of this violence. After all, from what I had been told, Anni was only a boy when he saw his Uncle and Father brutally arrested, imagine the anger that would put in a boy. Anni did not cause that, whether his Uncle was right or wrong it would not have made a difference to the pain it put in a boy.

    IF there IS arrogance and aggression in Anni, if these ARE the driving forces behind his charm, ceaseless energy, hunger for liberty and charisma, these aggressive drives which manifest at times as arrogance are a symptom of the pai, which are a product of the culture of intolreance, of hunger for power over love of humanity, of respect for the sanctity of humanity and liberty of conscience.

    Dr. Waheed needs to be bigger than the rejection, humiliation, belittling he felt from Anni and forgive Anni. He needs to see the bigger picture, the inner, deeper reasons for the political violence, and he needs to deal with it at a far deeper level.

  23. Zulfa has nothing to do with the resort her husband got. The committee was at the Finance Ministry. Besides, other than her husband, no other Maldivian wanted an island by making an airport.

  24. @Abdulla Gazee Lover
    This is not the first time I am hearing about Crown Company or Conrad Saleem or Nazeer names mentioned in association with the coup. I thought they are very respected businessmen, not like debt (usury) ridden Gasim and Thasneem who needs to hold on to the power so that their assets will not be ceased due to money they have stolen from ordinary Maldivian via Bank of Maldives. Please enlighten me..

  25. I meant of absence of respect for sanctity of humanity... blah blah blah I think I don't need to correct myself you'll get what I meant from the context and you'll correct it in your own heads!!!

  26. @peasant: Exactly, excellently said... Thankyou for your wisdom

  27. Minisvan never asked Zulfa the question of Sims resort. Ha ha. easy on the lady. Mariyam zulfa thinks issuing adhoc orders to close all spas in the luxury resorts in the country is ok. How could this person qualify to be a tourism minister?

    I have a feeling that the current minister boy Adeeb make even bigger blunders. The show is simply too big for the boy.

  28. I applaud those that desire democracy. Like every religion Islam has many forms and interpretations. Everyone believes that they have the truth and that will always be the problem. Elements of Islam don't believe in or desire democracy, others do.

    So my dear Maldivians what do you want? Is it democracy, maybe it's freedom to choose, maybe it's tourist money or is the desire of your heart to be free of fear? Maybe it's all those things.

    Desire the greatest gift, love and everything else will fall into place, in its God ordained order.

  29. Ali Mnikufaanu and Fayaz! Just don't harbour your jealousy. I know you are women in men's names. I have heard you all say even Aishwarya is not beautiful. This is all jealousy!!!
    Zulfa is naturally beuatiful and ofcourse even more beautiful than Aishwarya. Plus she is the most educated personality (men or women) in the Maldives. Fayaz she puts no foundation at all. I have seen her face to face!!

  30. There have been instances where foreign governments have issued adversarial travel advisories even when the situation is not that grim,this is very sad especially for countries like Maldives where tourism is an important source of GDP.

  31. Hi There,
    Zulfa is only backing her friend who is so called Universal Mu Manik who sucks our foreign reserve by banking all their income at a foreign banks


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