Tourism Ministry revokes permit of tour operator Atoll Paradise over fraud allegations

The Maldives Tourism Ministry has suspended the permit allowing local tour operator Atoll Paradise to take holiday bookings, following allegations the company – now under police investigation – has defrauded customers and international travel agents.

Tourism Ministry Senior Legal Officer Faseeh Zahir told Minivan News that the government had temporarily revoked Atoll Paradise’s licence to operate as a travel agent, and fined the company MVR 1 million (US$65,000).

“We have received several complaints from customers and foreign travel agents in recent months that bookings have been cancelled [by the company], but no refund has been given,” he said. “There are allegations of fraud and of the company not acting according to regulations. This is not just a case of one guest, we have received several complaints.”

Faseeh said that although the company’s permit to operate as a travel agent had been temporarily revoked, Atoll Paradise would still be required to honour all existing bookings.

“However, from today, Atoll Paradise is not allowed to take any new bookings from clients,” he said.

According to Faseeh, the Tourism Ministry has received several complaints of alleged fraud by Atoll Paradise over the last two months as authorities have sought to hold talks with the company.

He said the ministry had noted some “misconduct” by the company and decided based on complaints received to both fine and revoke Atoll Paradise’s permit until all alleged outstanding payments and grievances had been settled.

With the ministry not itself being an investigative authority, Faseeh added that police had also been informed of the Atoll Paradise case.

Police Chief Inspector Hassan Haneef confirmed that an investigation was now expected to begin into the company’s operations following the allegations of fraud.

According to Faseeh, any decision to return Atoll Paradise’s permit would depend on the outcome of the police investigation, as well as whether the company could resolve the complaints against it from clients and travel agents.

Award success

Atoll Paradise is one of the Maldives’ largest locally-owned tour operators, with the company in May winning several accolades including the Maldives’ and Seychelles Leading Tour Operator at the World Travel Awards (WTA) Indian Ocean ceremony.

The company was also awarded the title of the World’s Leading Luxury Boutique Tour Operator at the 2012 WTA ceremony.

Atoll Paradise’s office in Male’ was not responding to calls at time of press. The company had also failed to respond to email enquiries at time of press.

Ministry focus

The Tourism Ministry said today that Atoll Paradise was not the first local tour operator to have its permit revoked by the government over allegations of misconduct.

Ministry Legal Officer Faseeh said that ministry had last year revoked the license of one local operator accused of acting outside the law.

He urged guests intending to book a Maldives holiday through a local operator to be aware of their rights and ensure they had been provided with a booking agreement specifying terms of cancellation. Resort bookings in the luxury honeymoon destination can reach many thousands of dollars.

Faseeh said local tour operators were required to communicate and agree terms for cancelled bookings, as well as communicating them to the client upon confirming a booking.

He added that guests wishing to seek clarification on a booking or travel agency could directly contact the ministry or industry body, such as the Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO), via e-mail.

Any complaints against a tour operator could meanwhile be registered through the Tourism Ministry’s website here.


European decline could stall tourism in 2013: MATI

As the economies of America and the European Union (EU) become more vulnerable in the coming years, the Maldives tourism industry will see a decline in business, the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) has predicted.

Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) yesterday claimed that decline in European traffic to the Maldives was due to economic stability in that region.

MATI Secretary General ‘Sim’ Ibrahim Mohamed pointed out that total tourist arrivals has not declined; in 2011, the Maldives set a new record of nearly one million.

“Occupancy rates in resorts have gone up following the arrival of Chinese tourists,” Sim told local media. “But the number of tourists arriving from Europe and other western countries has declined and we are threatened by the economic instability that Europe is experiencing.”

Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA) has lately released data indicating that tourism comprised a majority of state revenue in 2011. The State Budget for 2012 was created on this assumption, and leans heavily on expected revenue from tourism in the coming year.

Although the tourism industry has recovered impressively from devastating Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, Sim predicted progress would stall mid-2013 due to “global economic changes as economies of countries like America and the European Union become more unstable and vulnerable.”

However, the Maldives promises to remain atop its niche market of small island tourism. While Mauritius and the Seychelles are leading competitors, Sim affirmed that within the small island niche “we are unbeatable, and I believe it will stay that way.”

According to Simon Hawkins of the Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation (MMPRC), close correlation between a tourism industry’s marketing and arrivals is a strong indicator of success.

In 2011, Hawkins said, the Maldives destination board spent US$2 million on marketing and received close to one million tourists.

Comparatively, Mauritius spent US$13 million and received one million tourists.

“We’re six-and-a-half times more cost effective than Mauritius, and 30 times more cost effective than Indonesia,” said Hawkins. “We are batting very much above our weight, but that’s because the product is brilliant.”

Sim added that the Maldives product did not need to be reinvented during the European recession to suit the growing Asian market.

“Chinese tourists are like any Western tourist,” he explained. “When the Russians began coming to the Maldives they had some different expectations, but now they are used to what we offer. The Chinese will be the same.”

In 2011, Chinese tourists comprised a majority of total arrivals. However Minivan understands from conversations with resorts managers that while they come in high numbers they are not generally high spenders – while resorts make a bulk of their revenue from the bars, restaurants and spas, officials have noted that Chinese tourists’ primary expenditures are on board and transportation.

Minivan News inquired whether the 2013 presidential election would impact tourism.

“Political parties have matured, and the people have matured. They are accepting democracy,” Sim said. “2013 will be much better than when we started our multi-party system in 2008.

“Democracy is not a beauty pageant, it has ups and downs and hustle and bustle, and I think people understand that,” he observed.