Bolstering security at the lucrative island resorts scattered across the Maldives poses an urgent challenge for government and industry amidst growing national and international crime, the Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour operators (MATATO) has claimed.
Mohamed Maleeh Jamal, Secretary General for MATATO, said today that despite a relatively low number of security breaches at the country’s resorts, wider societal issues such as gang crime, piracy and terrorism needed to be hastily addressed by tourism operators and authorities.
The concerns echoed recent comments made to the media by Dr Mariyam Zulfa, Maldivian Minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture, over fears that rising levels of national crime are beginning to impact the country’s secluded resort business. The tourism industry has this year witnessed a number of isolated criminal incidents at the country’s resorts culminating last week in an attempted robbery at Baros Island Resort and Spa, and the death of one of the attackers.
The Tourism Minister said that while the industry had been working to be proactive in recent weeks to outline new measures alongside police and private companies that are designed to strengthen security against a number of potential “internal and external” threats, the recent robberies and reported presence of piracy in Maldivian waters has made addressing these issues more urgent.
Responding to the Tourism Minister’s concerns, Jamal said that the entire industry would need to face up to addressing preparatory measures for resort security as it outlines a fourth tourism master plan that will cover the tourist sector’s work from 2012 onwards. The current masterplan is said to relate to vital initiatives to develop the country’s travel industry from 2007 up until this year.
“We fear there is a big challenge ahead related to security,” said Jamal.
The MATATO secretary general added that it would be vital to protect the Maldives’ main tourist selling points such as natural beaches and the peace and security afforded by a policy of providing a single resort per island.
“If we lose just one of these factors the Maldives will lose out as a destination,” he said. “We are a hospitable people and we welcome visitors with a smile and we expect record visitor numbers in the coming years.”
Jamal claimed that the full potential of an expected increase in visitor numbers could be disrupted on the back of continued reports concerning local crimes and regional issues like piracy.
The MATATO secretary general added that the security issues currently being faced were potentially a short-term challenge for the industry to overcome.
“We see the importance of collaborations with the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) and police to step up patrols across the country’s islands,” he said.
Jamal additionally stressed that the recent concerns were also related to wider societal issues such as drug abuse across the country inhabited islands that would reacquire a more “holistic” approach to prevent criminals from targeting resort islands, though he added that MATATO would also look to speak with property owners for their own suggestions for dealing with any possible threats.
“We are very fortunate here in the Maldives that the resorts are isolated – although there have been a number of incidents they are well managed by the resorts,” he said. “Yet 99 percent of the country is water, this creates a huge task to manage and police.”
Jamal was confident that the Maldives’ tourism industry had in the intervening decades since its inception proved to be capable to adapting in the interests of security as well as profitability; from moving towards the use of supposedly safer sea plane transportation rather than helicopters, or adopting en mass more efficient fire safety procedures in the 1990’s.
“In the past we thought that it may natural disasters that would be are biggest challenge, yet in terms of adaption, although terror threats may not be immediate, more preventative measures need to be in place,” he claimed.
Jamal claimed that despite potential concerns from the presence in neighbouring waters of Somali pirates – whose suspected presence in the Maldives has yet to lead to any attacks – the number of the threats at present facing the industry had remained limited.
After announcing concerns to the media this week about the possible impact criminal activity could have on tourism in the Maldives, Dr Zulfa told Minivan News today that she was referring particularly to the proportional rise in crime and gang behavior in society rather than the tourism industry alone.
However, the tourism minister herself accepted that recent reports of attempted robbery at Baros and a violent theft at Kihaadhuffaru resort in January this year, as well as the potential in the future for attacks from piracy and terrorists had brought an additional sense of “urgency” to addressing security issues.
She added that extensive discussions on the issues of security and safety would form the basis of meetings scheduled between the tourism industry and security officials next month (April 6 to 7).
“The [crime] issue is of a serious concern to me, though is proportional to what happens in the country at large rather than resorts alone,” she said.
Zulfa claimed that in the interests of trying to be proactive in protecting security, the country had been “working for some time” on developing new measures to protect resorts and bolster existing security systems that are in place in the country.
The tourism minister added that ultimately, the government alone could not handle the entire burden of dealing with security challenges and that various stakeholders – from resort companies to airport operators – had so far been very cooperative in trying to ensure they were not “easy” potential targets for criminal attacks.
“As industry representatives we will all be getting together on the April 6 and 7 to have extensive discussions with police and security authorities to address these urgent issues,” she said. “Papers have been earmarked looking at a number of issues including internal and external threats as well as public safety in areas such as watersports and resort design.
Taking the example of safety, Zulfa took the example of large resorts where people might be more isolated and ensuring that mechanisms were in place to ensure guests and staff were able to be assisted efficiently and quickly.
“We are looking to be proactive and have been wanting to do this [outline amended security and safety policies] for some weeks,” she said.
Not all stakeholders within the tourism industry have shared concerns over security though.
Maroof Zakir, Vice President of the Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM), told Minivan News that although it had not been consulted on the amendments to security in the Maldives, it had not received any complaints from its members concerning fears about safety or security.
“We haven’t had any complaints about security fears from our members, I would say this is not a big problem for resort staff at present,” he added.