Kuda Bandos will be accessible to locals after resort development, says government

Malé area picnic island Kuda Bandos will remain accessible to the public even after its development as a tourist resort, Deputy Minister of Tourism Hussain Lirar has said today.

“The island was given for development as per regulations and laws to be developed as tourist resort. But the developer has decided to allow public access to the island for picnics,” Lirar said.

Malé City Council yesterday passed a resolution against the development of Kuda Bandos, with Mayor Mohamed Shihab arguing that the island ought to remain as a picnic island as there was no other nearby for the capital’s 100,000 plus citizens.

“[Kuda Bandos] has remained the only picnic island for a very long time. Now people of Malé are losing that as well,” he said. “All nearby islands are being given as resorts,” Councillor Shamau Shareef today told Minivan News today.

Members of the council yesterday met senior members of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) including its leader, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Gayoom yesterday expressed his concern over the matter through his official twitter account, saying that hoped the news was not true.

Councillor Shareef reported that the response from the PPM leadership was positive and that they had assured the matter would be discussed with the government.

Council members will also meet leaders of other political parties to discuss the issue.

Picnic islands

Traditionally, picnic islands were leased at a very cheap rate for ‘tourism-related purposes’ by the government without any regulation as to how they were valued. Over time, however, the islands came to be utilised as any other tourist location, without being subject to the same taxes.

One example of this is Kaafu Kudafinolhu picnic island which was leased for five years to the Villa Group for an annual fee of just US$1,500 in 1998.

In 2010, the government allowed picnic islands to extend their leases by fifty years and to re-develop the islands into resorts by giving an extra fee to the government – twenty percent initially, the rest within a three year period – without a bidding process.

By 2013, procedures created under the Tourism Act allowed a company with at least a 10 percent share held by the state to develop a resort from land set aside for tourism use, such as a picnic island.

This regulation was criticised as excluding small and medium businesses by requiring joint venture partners to have a minimum financial worth of US$300 million, and to make a minimum initial capital investment of at least US$100 million.

Kuda Bandos itself was initially leased to former Vice President Waheed Deen – also the owner of Bandos Island resort- for an annual fee of US$6,000. Under his stewardship, the island has been made available exclusively for locals on Fridays, Saturdays, and public holidays.

The island was opened for bids in November 2012, with Waheed Deen – the sole bidder – winning the lease again for an annual fee of US$180,582, reported local media.

At the time, Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb said that a joint venture company would be established with the government to develop the island, though it is yet unclear if Waheed Deen is developing the resort with the government.

A wider issue

The response to the potential development of Kuda Bandos can be compared to reaction that met the decision to lease Kaafu Thanburudhoo for resort development in 2012.

Local surfers soon started a campaign to end exclusivity, and to allow free access to the island’s unique surf breaks.

After the campaign gained international support, the government last month amended the regulation on determining the borders of islands leased for tourism. Surfing areas and other tourist attractions near such islands are no longer considered part of it, even if they fall within the given borders.

One surfer who led the campaign as then president of the Maldivian Surf Association told Minivan News that the Thanburudhoo and Kuda Bandos cases were part of a bigger problem.

“This really should not be about just Kuda Bandos. That island is not enough to cater for the huge population in Malé,” said Ahmed Fauzan

“It is part a bigger problem – the same thing is going on with public spaces like parks being leased for businesses, even within Malé.”

He said that the issue is already spreading to other central atolls, with the majority of the islands being given away for tourism.

“It is part of our culture to go on picnic to the nearby island – we still have that right. There should be proper planning and consultation with locals. Just giving away every single bit of island and reef just like that is unsustainable and wrong,” said Fauzan.

More than sixty islands in Kaafu atoll are developed – or under development – with no uninhabited islands excluded.