Adhaalath Party denies supporters physically attacked by MDP

Adhaalath Party representative Hussain Wafeer has denied allegations that Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) supporters “physically attacked” its members on the island of Thulhaadhoo in Baa Atoll last week.

The comments were made after local media reported that a crowd of “violent thugs” – led by an unnamed MDP councillor – attempted to attack Adhaalath Party President Sheikh Imran Abdulla during a visit to the island.

An unnamed source from Thulhaadhoo previously told the Sun Online news service that the attackers threw stones at the visitors, injuring several people during the incident.

Despite the claims, Wafeer told Minivan News today that while the gathered crowd did not physically attack anyone during the visit, sand was thrown at Adhaalath party representatives.

Wafeer refused to speculate on whether the crowd were true MDP members, or whether an MDP Councillor had been involved in the alleged attack.

“They were waving MDP flags, so we can assume they were MDP, but we didn’t recognise any of the members so we can’t say they were MDP,” Wafeer added.

An official from within Thulhaadhoo Island Council – speaking on condition of anonymity – said that the crowd who greeted the Adhaalath Party officials was both a mix of MDP and anti-MDP supporters. The council source said it was not certain who had thrown sand at Sheikh Imran.

“Some of local women on the island witnessed a Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) councillor throwing sand and causing the trouble, while some people said it was the MDP supporters,” the council official claimed.

“After an hour the riot police showed up and arrested the island President, a councillor and some MDP supporters.”

Adhaalath Party Leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla was not responding to calls from Minivan News at time of press.

Following the incident, a senior MDP MP told Minivan News that he had received death threats via telephone from unknown callers whom he believed to be members of the Adhaalath Party.

According to Sun Online, the police have arrested a number of individuals allegedly involved in the incident, including an MDP councillor.

Verbal abuse

Following an MDP protest held in Male’ on Friday (January 25),the Adhaalath Party alleged that demonstrators had verbally abused its supporters and vandalised promotional materials at a membership drive held at a school.

The party also claimed MDP protesters ripped up the party’s banners at the school, which were temporarily put up as part of the membership drive.

Responding to the allegations at the time, MDP MP Hamid Abdul Ghafoor claimed that while the party did not encourage such behaviour towards government-aligned parties, he said he would not be surprised if some supporters had ripped up banners during the protest.

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Government to establish conservation zones as part of Maldives bio-reserve transformation

The government is moving ahead with plans to transform the Maldives into a biosphere reserve through the designation of zones across the country that would earmark land use for specific purposes such as tourism development or conservation.

In approving the plan to transform the country into a “world renowned” marine reserve, members of the cabinet claimed there had been a growing number of visitors to areas such as Baa Atoll after it became a protected area.

While some tourism industry figures have welcomed existing efforts to transformation areas such as Baa Atoll into bio-reserves, concerns have been raised about the efforts taken to manage such zones in balancing tourism interests with preserving local habitats.

Zone strategy

Muhusina Abdul Rahman, an analyst for the Ministry of Environment and Energy, told Minivan News that the cabinet had opted to implement the action plan following a declaration by President Waheed at the Rio +20 summit last year to make the Maldives the world’s largest marine reserve.

“We consider this a good direction for development in the country, not just in terms of conservation, but as a means to improve livelihoods in a sustainable way,” she said.

In an attempt to implement the marine reserve plan, Abdul Rahman claimed that rather than impose nationwide restrictions on developments and activities that could be conducted in the country’s waters, special zones would be established instead.

“We have considered three zones that will set aside sensitive sites that would protect areas deemed crucially important to the environment,” she said.

The zones were at present expected to be separated into three categories ranging from conservation areas and “buffer zones” around these protected sites, to “transition” areas that would be able to be developed for industrial and other purposes.

According to Abdul Rahman, the action plan for the reserves had been drawn up alongside consultation with tourism authorities, NGOs, members of the fishing industry and various atoll councils.

The plans, which will form part of efforts to make the Maldives a “world-renowned biosphere reserve” by 2017 have been based on a paper submitted to the cabinet by the Environment Ministry, according to the President’s Office.

However, Abdul Rahman claimed that the implementation of the bio-reserve strategy was not expected to be without its challenges – not least in terms of negative public perception towards possible restrictions on livelihoods and businesses.

“I would like to mention that the pubic will also be able to to propose certain sites to be awarded protected status,” she added.

Biosphere designation

Baa Atoll was designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 2011.

The development was claimed at the time to be a significant achievement for the Maldives by NGOs and state organisations, who highlighted the need for efficient management.

Almost two years on from being awarded the accolade, one resort general manager based in the atoll said the designation of the site as a bio-reserve had not changed operations at his property a “single bit”, despite claims from authorities about the significant marketing potential.

“The bio-reserve is certainly a nice thing to have here, but I don’t think so many people are coming here because of [the designation],” the general manager stated.

The resort head maintained that guests had been coming for some time to the area, which is renowned for sightings of whale sharks and manta rays.  This was attributed in part to growing international attention on the nearby Hanifaru Bay, which has previously created challenges for local conservationists and resort operators.

However, the resort general manager said it was “a bit too early” to assess the significance of the UNESCO designation to the local environment and population of Baa Atoll.

“There are a lot of conservation organisations here with opinions on how to manage the site, but it’s taking a long time to reach agreements. I have myself expressed concerns that it is taking too long to devise how the areas should be used,” the resort head said.

The general manager added that the next meeting of local stakeholders to decide a plan for managing the biosphere for the next year had been scheduled for March, further setting back potential benefits for the industry and conservationists.

“By March, one quarter of the year will already have gone. There is definitely strong potential here for the reserve, but by then, the manta season may be over and we will still be waiting to vote on a plan for how it will work,” the source added.

Tourism impacts

Beyond the establishment of high-profile sub-aquatic spas and restaurants in the country, some resorts are opting to play up the emergence of nearby protected marine parks and reserves.

Within the seclusion of the country’s northerly Noonu Atoll, the Hilton Iru Fushi resort is one property that in recent years has been working with the country’s first Marine National Park (MNP) at Edu Faru in a bid to play up the surrounding natural appeal of the area for guests.

The MNP’s management told Minivan News last year that after signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the previous government in August 2011, guests staying at certain nearby properties like the Iru Fushi resort were cautiously welcomed to explore the protected underwater habitats.

“The project is still in its early development stages and we are working towards having an official opening ceremony at the end of 2013,” said a representative for the MNP at the time.  “The level of protection is yet to be determined in collaboration with the government and experts in the field.”

A representative for the MNP claimed last year that balancing tourist interest in the area with the need to preserve coral and other inhabitants would always create “ecological challenges” for its operations, but it was working to overcome them nonetheless.

“The MNP will rely on marine-based tourism such as scuba diving and snorkelling,” the MNP spokesperson said at the time  ”We strive to achieve a balance between recreational use and preservation of ecological values that form the MNP and the biological carrying capacity and prevent overuse of the site.”

Meanwhile, back in November Deputy Tourism Minister Mohamed Maleeh Jamal claimed destinations like Baa Atoll were helping the area become a “premium destination within a destination”, adding further value to properties located in an area of strong natural interest.

Along with the potential benefits of operating as a marine reserve, Maleeh claimed that the country’s status of being a protected marine reserve would not itself impact on the type of tourism developments being sought in the Maldives.

These plans have included ambitious proposals such as the construction of five man-made islands to support leisure developments including a 19-hole golf course in the Maldives.

Maleeh said he did not think these type of projects would be threatened by the Maldives protected reserve status, with developers still being required to work within existing environmental laws that impose several restrictions on the amount of development possible on each island.

“All plans are required to undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and resort developers are very good at working within these parameters,” he said.

In September 2012, a marine biologist working in Baa Atoll reported the discovery of the remains of a baby shark and endangered sea turtle barbecue on the uninhabited island of Funadhoo, one of the country’s 14 priority nesting beaches legally protected under Maldivian law.

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Maldives mulls tourism future as China reaches quarter of all arrivals

China has accounted for just under a quarter of all visitors coming to the Maldives for the first nine months of 2012, contributing substantially to a 3.4 percent increase in arrivals compared to last year despite declines in established European markets.

The Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture has said the figures indicated that the country remained on track to meet its aim of welcoming a million visitors in 2012.

Tourism authorities also said that despite the growing importance of China to visitor numbers, European markets remained the main overall contributor to the Maldives tourism sector.  As the country looks to commemorate 40 years since the introduction of the travel industry, officials have said that even declining custom from markets like the UK has begun showing positive trends in terms of demand for more lucrative high-end holidays.

According to the statistics, between January and September 2012, there were 691,608 tourist arrivals in the Maldives.  During September 2012, 76,806 visitors travelled to the Maldives – an increase of 6.9 percent over the same time last year.

In terms of regional demand, the ministry figures showed that European arrivals fell by 2.9 per cent between January and September to 376,674 people over the same period in 2011.  A five percent increase in traffic from Central and Eastern Europe was ultimately insufficient to offset double-digit declines in travellers from northern and southern European countries.

Arrivals from the Eastern Mediterranean region were also up between January and September by 10.4 percent to 5,191 people. In the region, tourists from Turkey and Israel coming to the Maldives increased by 7.6 percent and 21.8 percent respectively over the same period.

During September 2012, European arrivals overall fell 3.2 percent to 33,975 over the same time last year.

The statistics showed that the Asia Pacific region has continued to drive growth in visitors to the Maldives, with 275,343 arrivals between recorded January to September 2012 – an increase of 10.2 percent.

According to the figures, arrivals in September alone from the Asia Pacific region reached 38,483, up 17.5 percent on the same time last year.

Key to this regional growth has been demand from China, which for the first nine months of 2012 accounted for 24.5 percent of all tourism arrivals to the Maldives.

In the Americas, total arrivals from the region rose 12.3 percent to 18,375 for the first nine months of the year, with Brazil Canada and the US all posting growth. The US was the region’s largest market over the period with visitor numbers up 10 percent to 10,899 people.

Visitors from the Middle East were also up for the first nine months of the year by 54.6 percent over the same time in 2011, amounting to 16,211 people. However, visitor numbers for the region fell by 3.3 percent during September when compared to the same period of time in 2011.

Arrivals from Africa between January and September this year were up by 9.8 percent to 5,005 compared to the same period this year.

For every month of 2012 since February, resort occupancy has been down on a single figure basis, a trend continued into September with occupancy at the country’s island tourism properties falling 5.5 percent over the same period last year.

Occupancy rates have also fallen for hotels, guest houses and safari boats when compared to the nine month period between January and September 2011, according to the statistics.

Encouraging figures

Deputy Tourism Minister Mohamed Maleeh Jamal told Minivan News that the figures were encouraging for the industry. Maleeh stressed that this encouragement was not representative just of growth in Asia, but also due to the performance of key markets like Germany and Switzerland.

“Some 55 percent of traffic [during 2012] has still come from Europe,” he said.

However, even in markets like the UK, which for the first nine months of the year saw visitors fall by 13.7 percent to 67,987, Maleeh claimed the decline failed to reflect a changing customer demand for high-end holidays in the country.

Having recently returned from visiting London for the World Travel Market 2012 travel fair, Maleeh said that industry insiders and travel operators he had spoken to at the show identified a shift in the UK market towards more lucrative higher-cost packages.  He added that with the overall economic situation in Europe still uncertain, it was important to keep an industry presence in the region.

“We will be keeping a presence in these markets and wait for them to bounce back.  Countries like Germany and Switzerland have shown good growth,” he said.

Master plan

Along with celebrations to commemorate 40 years since the introduction of tourism, the ministry has said it also expects to unveil its fourth official tourism master plan by year-end. The document is anticipated to outline developments across the industry – dealing with the expansion of biospheres and other “value-adding” focuses – as well as an integrated plan to promote the destination internationally.

“We are working on the fourth tourism master plan in line with groups like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank to focus on a destination strategy,” Maleeh said.

Following February’s controversial transfer of power, the incoming government of President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan sought to utilise public relations groups and advertising to try and offset the impact of negative news headlines resulting from the change in government.

This focus has included agreeing a US$250,000 (Rf3.8million) advertising deal to promote the country’s tourism industry on the BBC through sponsorship of its weather services, as well as signing a £93,000 per month (US$150,000) contract with public relations group Ruder Finn to try and improve the country’s image internationally.

Having previously claimed that the “hard days” were over for Maldivian tourism, Maleeh said he hoped the government – currently facing increasing pressure to reduce its fiscal deficit by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – would provide a sufficient promotional budget to support such plans.

“The Maldives should be present in two to three of the largest news sources, these are CNN, the BBC and the National Geographic channel,” he said.  “These are frequently watched by major investors. Tourism is vulnerable and we need to have continuous engagement and visibility, if not, it can be a case of out of sight out of mind.”

While unable to outline the exact scope of the new master plan, Maleeh said that as President Waheed this year announced a strategy to make the Maldives the world’s largest marine reserve within the next five years, the commitment could prove particularly beneficial to tourism.

“Since the foundation of tourism 40 years ago, the environment has always been hugely important to the Maldives. After 40 years the country is still pristine making us very popular with tourists and we welcome any actions to encourage maintaining this,” he said.

Maleeh added that the foundation of reserves in the country at destinations like Baa Atoll was helping the area become a “premium destination within a destination”, adding further value to properties located in an area of strong natural interest.

Along with the potential benefits of operating as a marine reserve, Maleed claimed that the country’s status of being a protected marine reserve would not itself impact on the type of tourism developments being sought in the Maldives. These plans have included ambitious proposals such as the construction of five man-made islands to support leisure developments including a 19-hole golf course in the Maldives.

Maleeh claimed that he did not think these type of projects would be threatened by the Maldives protected reserve status, with developers still being required to work within existing environmental laws that impose several restrictions on the amount of development possible on each island.

“All plans are required to undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and resort developers are very good at working within these parameters,” he said.

In Baa Atoll, which has been awarded the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Biosphere Reserve status, several resort operators have said they remain uncertain as to the direct impact protected marine areas may have on their operations.

Reethi Beach Resort General Manager Peter Gremes has previously told Dhonisaurus that while obtaining the UNESCO reserve status last year was a “prestigious” accolade for properties in the atoll, it was unlikely to impact visitor numbers on a significant basis.

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Police make drug busts in three atolls

Police have arrested a number of individuals with illegal narcotics during the past two weeks in Baa Atoll, Addu City and Raa Atoll.

According to police media, a male suspect aged 21 was arrested with 11 packets of hash oil in an operation conducted in Baa Atoll Dhonfanu on October 18.

In a second arrest in Baa Atoll two days later, a female suspect aged 24 was taken into custody with nine packets of hash oil on October 20 from a launch traveling from Male’ to Baa Atoll Thulhadhoo. The arrest was made based on information received by police intelligence and the drugs were found in the suspect’s hand bag.

Both cases are being further investigated by the Baa Atoll Police Station.

On October 23, two male suspects aged 29 and 40 were taken into custody from an uninhabited house in the Maradhoo district of Addu City. The men were caught using drugs and were arrested with 20 rubber packets of suspected heroin as well as drug paraphernalia.

The arrests in Addu City were made based on information received by police intelligence. Both men tested positive for opiates at the Gan Police Station.

Meanwhile, a female suspect aged 20 was arrested on Thursday, October 25 from a boat traveling from Male’ to Raa Atoll Meedhoo. Based on a tip-off to police intelligence, the suspect was arrested from the boat when it arrived in Meedhoo and was taken to the Raa Atoll Ungoofaru Police Station.

Illicit narcotics were found in her possession when she was checked at the police station.

In the same atoll, a male suspect aged 33 was taken into custody yesterday (Friday, October 26) in Raa Atoll Dhuvafaru during an operation conducted by the Dhuvafaru Police Station. A rubber packet containing suspected drugs was found in the suspect’s shorts when he was searched at the police station.

The Dhuvafaru Police Station on October 23 began a special operation to curb crime and traffic violations during the ongoing Eid holidays.

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President opens Dharavandhoo airport in Baa Atoll

President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan and the First Lady Madame Ilham travelled to Baa Atoll yesterday to officially open Dharavandhoo airport.

Waheed gave a speech highlighting the importance of catering to tourist in the atoll which last year became the country’s first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

He also discussed the importance of developing the Maldives’ transport infrastructure  and aviation capacity.

Local media reported that helium balloons were used to remove the cloth covering the airport’s sign, marking the official opening.

Waheed had travelled the twenty minutes to Baa atoll from Ibrahim Nasir Interational Airport (INIA) in Male’ where, this morning, a giant helium balloon could be seen reading ‘Go Home GMR’, by the Indian company’s office.

The development of INIA by GMR – the largest in the country’s history – has been beset by controversy since it was agreed by the former administration with current government-aligned parties calling for the airport’s nationalisation.

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Maldives eyes underwater festivals and bio-reserves among dive innovation efforts

This story was originally published on Minivan News’ spin-off travel review site, Dhonisaurus.

Diving has been a long-standing part of the Maldives’ attempts to appeal to tourists as a tropical island holiday paradise over the last 30 years. With almost every Maldives-based resort island now providing a certified dive centre to guests, the local tourism industry has begun looking at means to bring further innovation to underwater exploration.

Beyond the establishment of high-profile sub-aquatic spas and restaurants in the country, some resorts are opting to play up the emergence of nearby protected marine parks and reserves. Other properties have even moved to hold underwater festivals in attempts bolster interest in exploring life beneath the Maldivian waters.

With an estimated 95 percent of the Maldives landmass underwater, Dolores Semeraro, PR Manager at the LUX* Maldives resort in South Ari Atoll, believes snorkelling and diving are a must-try experience for guests visiting the country.

Underwater festival

In order to try and better play up the appeal of diving to guests of all experience levels, the LUX* Maldives resort this month hosted what is claimed to be the country’s first ever underwater festival. The event had a central focus on underwater photography, as well as the chance to spy some of the Maldives’ most exotic – not to mention attention grabbing – wildlife in the form of whale sharks and manta rays.

Experts including photographer Junji Takasago and free diver Jean-Jacques Mayol joined the resort’s Resident Marine Biologist Chiara Fumagalli during the week to oversee the festivities and provide special programmes and presentations on diving and photography.

To Semeraro at least, while Maldives tourism is often associated with resorts offering high-end, beach-side indulgence and relaxation, the country’s reefs and dive spots are a hugely important contributor to the destination’s overall mystique.

“Events like the underwater festival highlight positively the destination from this point of view and it is incredible to see how interested our guests are in subjects such as whale sharks, snorkelling, coral reefs and so on,” she said.

The festival, which ran during a seven day period this month, concluded on May 20 with a prize giving ceremony for underwater images captured by guests during the week that were judged to be the best.

The resort said the festival was designed to cater for a wide variety of guests; ranging from accomplished underwater explorers, to holidaymakers looking for a more sedate spot of high-brow after-dinner entertainment.

LUX* Maldives therefore promised guests in attendance during the festival a number of special programmes such as free diving courses, the chance to learn special free diving breathing techniques, and illuminated outings for night time reef exploration. Presentations and screenings by marine experts in attendance during the festival were also conducted.

According to Semeraro, after six months of planning, the festival passed with favourable reactions from both media and attendees. She claimed that on average, two full boats of divers were heading out daily with underwater photographers, or to take part in the free-diving and apnea (special breathing) programmes.

When addressing some of South Ari Atoll’s more unique dive sites available to the festival’s attendees, Semeraro claimed that the Kudarah Thila and Digurah Thila sites were among the area’s most notable and popular destinations for underwater exploration.

“It’s hard to choose the key dive sites, they are all amazing,” she claimed. “South Ari Atoll showcases a few dive sites of world-wide renown.”

Semeraro stressed that the resort had committed itself to try and make the festival inclusive even to guests unaccustomed to underwater photography or diving.

“Divers are always keen photographers while underwater. However, it can be disappointing to check your pictures and find out that they were out of focus or not properly set once back on the surface,” she said. “That is when our underwater photographers stepped in to coach divers of all levels on how to have a more confident approach to photography while diving. For the non-divers, we opened several snorkelling sessions guided by our resident marine biologist for guests who are keen on trying snorkelling/underwater photography.“

Semeraro said that all guests who stayed at the resort were invited to participate in the festivities with a complimentary discovery scuba diving session being made available for newcomers to acquaint themselves with the Maldives’ underwater environment.

Semeraro claimed that diving and reef-based events were being monitored “at all times” by its diving instructors and marine biologists.

Sustainable promotion

Amidst the outspoken attempts of former President Mohamed Nasheed to try and put the Maldives on the global map during his tenure with an ambitious carbon neutral plan, Maldives tourism authorities had previously sought to promote the destination under the banner of “Always Natural”. After receiving a mixed reception, the branding was dropped earlier this year by the new government of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan.

Alongside claims by resort operators of their commitments to bring their operations in line with international sustainability standards, the country has begun to see the formation of marine parks and other underwater reserves that may have implications for their properties in the future.

Over in Baa Atoll for example, which has recently been awarded the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Biosphere Reserve status, properties like the Reethi Beach Resort are uncertain as to the direct impact protected marine areas may have on their operations.

Resort General Manager Peter Gremes told Dhonisaurus that while obtaining the UNESCO reserve status last year was a “prestigious” accolade for properties in the atoll, it was unlikely to impact visitor numbers on a significant basis.

With the UNESCO reserve area situated on the other side of Baa Atoll, Gremes claimed that he expected a negligible impact on the number of divers already coming to his resort to explore local underwater sites.

“We have a very high occupancy rate here at the resort, so we don’t really need to use the reserve in terms of a marketing tool,” he said. “At present, discussions are still taking place on how the atoll will aim to make use of its status as well as the costs involved. A lot of unanswered questions remain on this.”

The resort manager said he did welcome increased regulation and protection measures to the waters of the atolls that would – in theory – mean much tighter restrictions on the amount of divers coming to the area at any given time.

Gremes pointed to developments in the country’s renowned Hanifaru Bay area that previously led some tour operators and local people to raise concerns about the huge traffic of visitors coming to an area deemed to be of significant natural interest.

In 2010, amidst a 260 percent increase in tourist arrivals to the area, local island authorities raised concerns about the number of safari and dive boats that were attempting to cram themselves into the bay – a small enclosed reef the size of a football field.

Increased government regulation in terms of diving and other activities conducted in the area were likely to be beneficial in the long-run for local resorts, at least according to Reethi Beach General Manager Peter Gremes.

“After some of the issues we have had with the number of safari boats coming to dive sites, this will be beneficial for us at the resort,” he claimed.

Local NGOs have welcomed the previous government’s commitments to establish and extend several protected ecological preserves in areas like Baa Atoll, despite calling for amendments to the efficiency of collaboration between different ministerial branches in ensuring eco-protection.

Environmental NGO Bluepeace said last June that government action to protect marine areas was an “encouraging development”, despite wider concerns about the efficiency of collaboration between different ministerial branches over eco-protection.

Ali Rilwan of Local environmental NGO Bluepeace said at the time that he supported government in regard to environmental protection across the southerly atoll, yet insisted the measures were more of a “first step” towards a comprehensive national preservation system rather than a finalised commitment to conservation.

Yet Baa Atoll is not the only stretch of the country’s waters to be afforded greater enforcement in protecting its reefs.

Within the seclusion of the country’s northerly Noonu Atoll, the Hilton Iru Fushi resort has began working with the country’s first Marine National Park (MNP) at Edu Faru in a bid to play up the surrounding natural appeal of the area for guests.

According to the MNP’s management, after signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the previous government in August 2011, guests staying at certain nearby properties like the Iru Fushi resort are cautiously being welcomed to explore the protected underwater habitats.

“The project is still in its early development stages and we are working towards having an official opening ceremony at the end of 2013,” said a representative for the MNP.  “The level of protection is yet to be determined in collaboration with the government and experts in the field.”

As a marine reserve, the MNP’s management team have said they continue to work on outlining exact policies for resort guests coming to the area.  A representative for the MNP told Dhonisaurus that balancing tourist interest in the area with the need to preserve coral and other inhabitants would always create “ecological challenges” for its operations, but it was working to overcome them nonetheless.

“The MNP will rely on marine-based tourism such as scuba diving and snorkelling,” the MNP spokesperson said.  “We strive to achieve a balance between recreational use and preservation of ecological values that form the MNP and the biological carrying capacity and prevent overuse of the site.”

In bringing guests to the site, the Hilton Iru Fushi resort has presently been set strict guidelines by the MNP on how guests can visit the site.

At present, guests are able to enter the house reef of the reserve for snorkelling and diving expeditions on the basis of private, non scheduled tours consisting of a small number of people.

Additionally, boats used to transport guests are also not permitted to anchor with the MNP area over concerns about the potential damage to the coral.

“At this stage, we prevent guests going ashore the islands within the MNP until we adequate knowledge about the specific biological values and vulnerable species and habitats and how they can best be protected,” said the MNP spokesperson.  “Therefore, we will have to seek more advice to develop appropriate management strategies for the marine-based tourism industry.”

In terms of costing, the MNP’s management said that as a non-profit organisation, the scheme would be run on grants and donations.  A sum of US$10 will be donated to the MNP project by guests who visit the site, the project’s management added.

Master plan

Marine parks and bioreserves are currently said to be among the “wide number” of options being considered by Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Ahmed Adheeb to try and diversify the appeal of the country’s tourist properties.

Adheeb claimed that the exact nature of there diversification plans was as yet undecided.  Authorities are now trying to devise a fourth Tourism Master Plan outlining developments in the country’s travel industry.  The third master plan was concluded last year.

“My predecessor, [Dr Mariyam Zulfa] explored a number a number avenues in terms of diversifying tourism here,” the tourism minister said.  “We have been provided with a large number of options.”

Adheeb claimed that with a fourth Tourism Master Plan expected to be completed later this year, discussions were currently taking place with industry stakeholders and bodies like the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) on what direction future developments in the country should take.

“Before making decisions we need to know what is the current situation with the tourism industry here.  We need to see what the industry feedback is as well,” he said.  “What I can say right now is that we are already seeing bio-reserves and marine parks being set up here in the country.  Some of these have already by endorsed by the UNESCO.  A lot of value can be added to the market from these programmes.”

Adheeb stressed that it was also important to account for shifts like the growing interest in the Maldives from Asian markets like China when devising future plans to develop the industry.

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Baa Atoll to host Bodu Beru tournament

Baa Atoll and Four Seasons will host a Bodu Beru tournament in honor of Baa Atoll’s recent designation as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.

The ‘Baa Youth Bodu Beru Challenge’ will take place on 17 and 18 November 2011 on Kamadhoo. The competition is open to Bodu Beru groups with 16 to 26 members aged 15 to 25 from the 13 islands of Baa Atoll.

Four Seasons has teamed up with Male-based cultural arts institution Varutha for the event. The institution was founded in 2007, when the ‘Meenaz’ bodu beru group noticed the need for a formal, organised means of sustaining Maldivian arts culture.

Varutha dancers will lead a 10-day workshop from September 23 to October 3. Two drummers from each competing group will have the opportunity to hone their skills and explore new bodu beru beats and methods.

Bodu beru is said to have made its first appearance in the Maldives in the 11th century AD, allegedly by sailors in the Indian Ocean. Bodu beru groups typically consist of 15 performers, including three drummers and a lead singer. Using a small bell, a set of drums known as the ‘bodu beru’, and an onugandu – a small piece of bamboo with horizontal grooves, which is scraped – performers create a lively rhythm for dancing.

Varutha’s co-founder, Sham’aa Abdullah Hameed [Anna], expressed appreciation and support for the youth arts event.

“The tournament reflects our shared mission to reconnect local youth with their rich cultural heritage by restoring, developing and incorporating tradition into the rapidly evolving Maldivian music scene. We’re looking forward to a successful workshop and an exciting two days of competition.”

Landaa Giraavaru’s General Manager and Regional Vice President, Armando Kraenzlin, said UNESCO’s recognition of the environmental value of Baa Atoll inspired the competition.

“UNESCO World Biosphere Reserves rely on optimum social, economic, and cultural conditions for environmental sustainability. We’re delighted to be working with Varutha to help strengthen the respect for cultural values amongst the Baa Atoll youth, while giving them an opportunity to contribute to their home island’s own sustainability.”

The winning team will receive Rf 100,000 (US$6485) towards a community project, and Rf 10,000 (US$650) for themselves. The team will also be invited to an awards ceremony on Landaa Giraavaru island on 28 December.

Team Application Forms and full Tournament Rules and Regulations can be downloaded at www.facebook.com/baa.boduberuchallenge.

All applications must be submitted via email by 30 September 2011 to [email protected]

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Wikileaks releases details of Maldivian national’s detention in Guantanamo

Recently-released Wikileaks cables reveal that the Maldivian government in 2004 assured the United States that former Guantanamo prisoner Ibrahim Fauzee would not be able to leave the Maldives.

In a cable dated 2 August 2004, then Deputy Foreign Minister Hussain Shihab told then-US Ambassador Jeffrey Lunstead that the Maldives was “prepared to cooperate fully with [the US] in dealing with the detainee,” and at a minimum, the Maldivian government would put Fauzee under “close surveillance” and “on a watch list to ensure that he could not leave the country.”

The cable added: “Shihab noted that with the Maldives as an island nation, this would be effective in preventing him from traveling, unless, Shihab said, ‘he is very good at rowing.'”

Fauzee, of Thudhaadhoo island in Baa atoll, was originally arrested in Karachi, Pakistan during a raid on his landlord’s house. Files accessed through a collection of Wikileaks documents at UK’s The Guardian said the raid “just missed a group of Al Qaeda members who had gathered at the home for a meeting.”

Fauzee was then sent to Afghanistan, where he was handed over to US forces. According to a US Department of Defense file published by UK’s The Telegraph, Fauzee was identified as a “medium threat to the US, its interests, and its allies” when he arrived at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba on August 5 2002.

The Telegraph Online published a document from the Department of Defense, dated 11 November 2003, suggested that suspicion of terrorist involvement was based on Fauzee’s recent travel and expenditure record. “[Fauzee] has traveled extensively in spite of his limited income and has failed to explain adequately the source(s) of the funds he used for travel. Detainee also attended a fundamentalist madrassa.”

The New York Times also published a document from the Combatant Status Review Board dated 13 December 2004. The document claims that Fauzy was detained at Guantanamo because his telephone number was discovered in another terrorist detainee’s pocket. The number was allegedly associated with “a Sudanese teacher who assisted Arabs traveling to training camps in Afghanistan.”

The cables

According to the cables, Maldivian Permanent Secretary Ahmed Shaheed requested that the United States share any intelligence it had gained from Fauzee on 5 November 2002. The cable noted that the Maldivian government “may have made similar requests via other channels”, but there is no evidence of any response to these requests.

“Shaheed specifically asked for any information on ties Fauzee may have with other Maldivian nationals,” read the cable. “In this regard, Shaheed also requested that the Maldivian government be permitted to conduct its own intelligence interview of Fauzee.”

Eighteen days later, cables show that Shaheed wrote to US officials requesting Fauzee’s release.

By August 2003, Maldivian government personnel were granted a visit to Guantanamo and an interview with Fauzee. The government’s assessment found Fauzee an unlikely threat, and after further investigation the Maldivian government requested his release on 5 November 2003.

No action was taken, although cables indicate at least one more request for Fauzee’s return was made on 11 May 2004.

By late 2004, the US government had agreed to return Fauzee to the Maldives under certain conditions. A cable dated 13 December of that year shows the Maldivian Foreign Ministry was interested in cooperating with these conditions, which included humane treatment upon release.

“Following the release of Mr. Ibrahim Fauzee from US military detention in Guantanamo Bay and upon his return to the Maldives, the Government of Maldives undertakes to treat him humanely in accordance with the laws, and its international obligations.”

The Maldivian government also agreed to enter Fauzee “into relevant national and international watch lists and to apply every measure consistent with its laws to keep him under surveillance, to monitor his movements, and if necessary and appropriate, to restrict them, in order to prevent him from actively engaging in terrorism related activities or associating himself with terrorist organizations.”

On the same date, the US Combatant Status Review Board offered Fauzee a chance to contest his status as an enemy combatant.

Three and a half months later, the US government determined Fauzee “to no longer be an enemy combatant.” Fauzee was extradited to the Maldives on 11 March 2005, where he is currently president of local religious NGO, the Islamic Foundation.

Fauzee is the only Maldivian on record to be detained at Guantanamo Bay. After his release from Guantanamo, Fauzee discovered that his vital documents, which Pakistani authorities had seized during his arrest in 2002, were not in his possession. Since May 2005, the Maldivian government and Human Rights Commission have requested their return from the US government. Fauzee told Minivan News today that his documents were returned to him, but declined to comment on the release of the Wikileaks cables.

The cables were released on Friday, September 2 along with tens of thousands from countries with which the US has difficult relationships, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Files on Guantanamo prisoners were among those released. Since the release, the Wikileaks website has crashed repeatedly due to high traffic.

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UNDP hands over pearl culture project to Thulhaidhoo community

A joint venture to develop pearl culture in Thulhaidhoo, Baa Atoll, established by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture has been handed over to the island’s co-operative society.

The pearl culture project was first launched in 2008 after Thulhaidhoo’s islanders began expressing interest in the developments and the possible commercial opportunities available through such a scheme.

Dr Aiminath Jameel, acting Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture, joined senior officials of the UNDP in a special ceremony to hand over the project to local islanders.

During the ceremony, certificates were awarded to islanders who had completed training workshops concerning pearl culture management.

”We are surrounded by water, so we can benefit and improve our lives if we learn more about the sea,” said Dr Aiminath. ”I’m very glad that islanders of Thulhaidhoo have took the initiative and co-operated in the pearl culture project.”

Dr Aiminath noted that Thulhaidhoo was an island that has always been famous for handicraft.

”My advice to those who achieved the certificates is to make good use of what they learnt instead of keeping it filed,” she said, while praising the Marine Research Centre of the Fisheries Ministry and the UNDP for their work on the project.

Chairperson of Thulhaidhoo co-operative society, Mohamed Ali Manik, said the group would aim to deliver the knowledge of pearl culture to the next generation and urged all the islanders to take part in the project.

”This co-operative society is aimed to all the islanders,” Manik said. ”I urge everyone, especially young people to take part in the pearl culture society.”

After the ceremony, jewelry such as necklaces and rings made of pearl sourced from around Thulhaadhoo were viewed as a demonstration of the potential opportunities available from the project.

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