Additional reporting by Neil Merrett.
Calls for a tourism boycott of the Maldives have exploded across Chinese social media networks, after allegations of discrimination against guests from China at one resort became widely circulated.
On March 1, dismissed Chinese employees of the Beach House Iruveli resort – formerly Waldorf Astoria – posted allegations on the Chinese forum Tianya that guests from the country were receiving inferior treatment to Europeans, despite paying the same prices.
The staff alleged that this discrimination extended to removing kettles from the rooms of Chinese guests, to prevent them making instant noodles in their rooms and thereby forcing them into the resort’s restaurants.
Despite claiming that 90 percent of the resorts guests were Chinese, the resort assumed Chinese guests should be able to speak English and was unwilling to hire Mandarin speakers who were able to communicate with the guests, the dismissed staff alleged.
“We watched our compatriots suffer unfair treatment but could do nothing,” wrote the employees, in Mandarin.
Chinese staff at the resort who voiced concern were dismissed and sent back to China, the staff alleged, and in some cases were made to pay their own airfare out of their owing wages.
One of the staff members began a “revolt”, according to the post, and refused to agree to the terms of his dismissal from the “Human Resources Ministry”, labelling it “unfair treatment”.
The Chinese staff members said they are ultimately forced to resign “after the Ministry of Personnel and Security began 24-hour surveillance, confiscating our phones, blocking our internet and controlling our [communications] with the outside world.
“We were treated like criminals to be monitored, and felt our safety was threatened. We simply could not imagine things would develop to the point where our heart is filled with panic, we tried every way to appeal to the outside world for help.
“Later, with a friend’s help, we called the Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka, and Ambassador Hu was able to guarantee our safety,” the staff wrote.
The staff said they were too exhausted by that stage to argue with the deductions on their wages imposed by the Human Resources department, as the just wanted to the experience to “end as soon as possible” and return home.
“We do not want this kind of discrimination, not this unfair treatment. Our Chinese tourists spend money here not to be frowned upon, to be discriminated against as second-class guests. We want fair treatment and truly five-star service.
“For those who discriminate against Chinese guests, I hope you will sincerely apologise to the Chinese people,” the post concluded.
In response to the allegations of the dismissed staff, Beach House Iruveli issued a statement confirming that a group of five Chinese staff members “resigned on their own accord on February 18, 2013.”
“We continue to operate a dedicated staff of Chinese Villa Hosts at the resort who are solely responsible for looking after the specific needs of our Chinese guests. Our resident Chinese staff are happy and fulfilling their duties as per the high standards of the resort and guest expectations,” the statement read.
“The Beach House Iruveli did remove some damaged kettles from rooms as part of routine maintenance due to the fact that these kettles were damaged by guests by cooking food. However, nespresso machines are always available in all rooms as part of full amenities and also dispense hot water to all guests,” stated Haydee Cruz, the resort’s Director of Sales and Marketing.
“The Beach House Iruveli has a policy to allocate a Villa Host to the respective language spoken by the guests. In this regard, we have Chinese Villa Hosts for Chinese speaking guests. We have not received any guest complaints regarding the alleged discrimination from a specific group of former employees relating to a difference of treatment and continue to only receive positive comments and appreciation from our Chinese guests,” Cruz said.
“The Chinese market is very important for us and are always warmly welcomed to the Beach House Iruveli. As a result of the defamatory accusations against The Beach House Iruveli our legal representatives have been engaged,” Cruz added.
By Sunday, the employees’ post had been forward over 91,000 times across the Chinese blogosphere, according to one report from the International Herald Tribune, and sparked calls for a Chinese tourism boycott of the Maldives in Chinese media.
One Bejing-based travel agent specialising in the Maldives told the South China Morning Post that many Chinese tourists had started cancelling their plans to visit the country.
Discriminatory treatment was “very rare” at resorts in the Maldives, the agent explained, however “after the incident, my clients now all make a new request when booking resorts: no discrimination.”
Chinese tourists now dominate tourism statistics in terms of arrivals, accounting for almost a quarter of all visitors to the Maldives in 2012.
Despite the high numbers – more than double the Maldives’ traditional UK market – many resorts regard Chinese guests as relatively ‘low-yield’ due to lower spending on extras such as food and drink, and instead use their numbers to boost occupancy rates during the off season.
A Chinese boycott now would hit the tourism sector in the Maldives just as the industry goes into its off-peak period.
Meanwhile, the sector’s once explosive double-figure growth fell to just 0.7 percent last year, falling from 15.8 percent in 2010 and 9.1 percent in 2011.
The market has also proved very sensitive to political upheaval, and was the first targeted for a ‘reassurance’ mission by the Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation (MMPRC) following the events of February 2012 and the cancellation of several charter flights.
A few Maldivian travel agencies who work closely with the Chinese market told Minivan News at the time that “quite a lot of Chinese customers are very concerned of this situation. Some of them are hesitant to make reservations now,” said Emy Zheng, a Chinese national working at Villuxa Holidays. She noted that only a few bookings were been cancelled, while others have tried to postpone their holiday.
Government responds to boycott claims
Minister of Tourism Ahmed Adheeb said no formal complaints had been received by Maldivian authorities over alleged discrimination at the country’s resorts.
However, Adheeb asked that in future, any tourists who had such complaints about their treatment file such concerns with the tourism ministry and other relevant authorities rather than through the press and social media.
“We have not received any complaints of discrimination like this, but we do take such incidents seriously,” he said, claiming that the Iruveli allegations appeared to have been raised by disgruntled former resort staff.
“What seems to have happened is that a staff member has been dismissed from this resort and has a lot of hate for the company,” Adheeb said.
“China presents a new market that has seen rapid growth I think since 2009. We are working to try and adapt at the best level possible and we have seen Chinese staff now working at resorts and even Chinese restaurants are being set up to cater for guests,” he added.
Since the inception of the Maldives tourism industry 40 years ago, Adheeb claimed that there traditionally had been teething problems for the resort industry in adapting to new markets, but that these had always been overcome with time.
“In the early days [of tourism], there were some tensions between German and Italian tourists at resorts, but we always have figured out how to adapt to this,” he said.
“Looking at some of the letters the ministry has received, we used to get complaints from resorts about noise created by Russian tourists. However they are now often the most preferred guests in the country. Travel trends are always changing.”
While expressing sadness at allegations raised in Chinese media, Adheeb said expressed his belief that particularly with China being the largest tourism market for the Maldives, the tourism industry was not biased or discriminatory.
“We [Maldivians] are not biased or discriminatory by nature. There is perhaps a little bias with Asians in the region similar to us, but not to the Chinese,” he added.