Addu’s new convention centre, purpose-built for the SAARC Summit, looms out of a deserted patch of swampy marshland in Hithadhoo like some kind of spaceship, thoroughly incongruous with the background.
When Minivan News first visited yesterday, a large crowd of local residents stood by the road leading to the giant building, staring at it dumbfounded as if waiting for extraterrestrials to emerge.
Past the polished lobby, the cavernous chamber inside is warmly lined with wood and resembles a modern concert hall. Opposition media outlets have ungenerously suggested the structure is sinking into the swamp, while assorted government officials were quick to attribute this to political jealousy.
Addu is a fiercely independent atoll, neglected by successive governments following an abortive attempt to secede from the Maldives alongside Huvadhu Atoll and Fuvahmulah as the United Suvadive Republic in 1959. This was brutally crushed in 1962 by then-President Ibrahim Nasir using a gunboat borrowed from Sri Lanka, and the entire island of Havaru Thinadhoo was depopulated and its inhabitants dispersed, killed or imprisoned.
The presence of the British airbase at Gan ensured steady employment, English proficiency and free medical treatment. Even today a disproportionate number of the country’s most successful businessmen are from Addu.
The departure of the RAF in 1976 hit the atoll’s independence hard, and the tourism boom beginning to take hold in other parts of the Maldives was slow to develop in Addu despite the presence of an airport and some of the country’s best dive spots.
President Mohamed Nasheed’s decision to declare Addu Atoll a city prior to the local council elections, the declaration that it would be hosting the SAARC Summit, and the building of the convention centre has played to the atoll’s independent sentiment and given it unprecedented political recognition.
There are 30,000 votes in that sentiment – and an additional 8000 with the opening of the new airport at Fumuvalah, a single-island atoll and the country’s most isolated, surrounded by rough and inhospitable seas.
As a domestic political strategy, SAARC appears to be working. Driving along the link road from Gan to Hithadhoo yesterday, Minivan News observed amid the country flags of SAARC nations an abundance of yellow buildings, the colour of President Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).
A local woman, sweeping up weeds with a rake under a large billboard, described her work as a “national duty”. The billboard read: “Thank you President Nasheed, you led us to believe in dreams.”
Speaking to Minivan News in between juggling mobile phones, Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem observed that conferencing and event tourism had “huge potential” in the Maldives, given the country’s already “five star personality”. It would shift the Maldives from its reliance on beach and sun tourism, he suggested.
There were, he noted, some “tabloid” opinions about the centre, but said there was already interest in the tender for running the centre post-SAARC and the construction of a nearby hotel from hoteliers around the country and region.
“The infrastructure has been developed and people have been trained to run this kind of event,” he said.
SAARC dignitaries have been staying at the upmarket Shangri-La Villingili resort, while journalists around the world from London to Bangladesh have taken over Equator Village, the former RAF Sergeant’s mess, moaning about the sporadic shuttle bus and opportunistic US$10 taxi fares.
The locals have meanwhile launched a campaign of parades and evening entertainment, with music performances and enough fairy lighting along the link road as to give the place a festive feel. Participation was initially muted, acknowleged one official – “everyone still seems surprised. It hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Among the most successful local operations is the Hubasaana 2011 Arts, Crafts and Food festival, which has set up stalls at major venues and been doing a brisk trade in T-shirts, local handicrafts, and peppery Adduan short-eats and banana-leaf wrapped medicines all made by local producers. Trails of foreign journalists crunching their way through packets of homemade spicy gulha are a common sight.
The key day of the Summit is November 10, the opening ceremony during which SAARC heads of state will give their address. During the two-day Summit all traffic in the atoll will be stalled, divers pulled out of the water, and travel on the link road restricted. Last night checkpoints backed up as police logged the registration of every passing vehicle.
During the presence of the world leaders mobile communications around the centre will be jammed; foreign journalists became flustered after being told they would be unable to take laptops or phones into the convention centre during the opening and closing ceremonies due to tight security.
Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem told Minivan News the most important objective of the Summit was to improve and promote trade in the region, and remove existing barriers and impediments: “only three percent of trade among SAARC countries is regional.”
“We should adopt SAFTA (South Asian Free Trade Area) as soon as possible,” he said.
Economically, the Maldives is most concerned about developing ferry transport connections with countries in the region, reducing its dependence on air travel, and on the climate change front, “promoting renewable energy investment”.
Naseem also raised the prospect of introducing a human rights mechanism into SAARC, but acknowledged that it was ambitious and that SAARC had “an embedded system.”
There was, however, “a lot of good will on all sides”, he said. SAARC would be a success “even if we can agree on the issues to be solved.”
For Addu, the outcome of SAARC has already been assured.