MATI criticises plunge in tourism marketing budget

The Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) has called for the government to reconsider its budget for tourism marketing in 2013, warning that the country faces increasingly tough competition from neighbouring countries.

The Maldives has budgeted MVR15.5 million (US$1 million) for tourism marketing in 2013, MVR 63 million (US$4 million) less than 2012, MATI noted.

“This is the least amount allocated for marketing in the last eight years,” observed the statement, signed by the industry body’s Chairman, tourism pioneer Mohamed Umar Manik.

MATI noted that Mauritius has allocated 10 million euros (US$13 million) for tourism marketing, while the Indian and Sri Lankan industries were rapidly improving, and questioned the Maldivian government’s regard for the industry and the people working in it.

“Unlike neighboring countries the economy of the Maldives is mostly based on tourism,” the statement observed.

President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad blamed parliament for “deliberately cutting the budget for political motives”.

“They failed to keep the best interest of the nation and people in mind. The toll of these budget cuts will be felt by the people. The Majlis acted very irresponsibly,” he said.

Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation (MMPRC) head Mohamed Maleeh Jamal said the country’s destination marketing effort “can’t be compromised.”

“In order to showcase the tourism offerings of the Maldives to the world and maintain our competitive edge we need around US$13 million,” he said.

“Destination marketing activity is an investment, it’s not recurrent expenditure as some may think. The return on the investment is in the form of better image, investor confidence, higher occupancy, high yield tourists, longer duration of stay and importantly higher revenue to the government. I hope parliamentarians who slashed destination marketing budget be more responsible in their actions,” Maleeh said.

Tourism promotion efforts last year included a US$250,000 (MVR 3.8 million) advertising deal to promote the country’s tourism industry on the BBC through sponsorship of its weather service, as well as a signing £93,000 per month (US$150,000) contract with public relations group Ruder Finn to try and improve the country’s image following February’s controversial transfer of power.

Despite the increased expenditure, tourism growth slowed to just 0.7 percent in 2012, compared to 15.8 percent in 2010 and 9.1 percent in 2011.

The government’s forecast for economic growth in 2013 is 4.3 percent.


Police to crack down on tour agents scamming tourists

Police have announced plans to crack down on tour operators who are allegedly scamming tourists visiting Maldives, after several complaints were filed by tourists who have been targeted in these scams.

The reports of the tourist scams will be unwelcome for an industry which is already struggling to remain on top of its niche market of small island tourism as it faces fluctuating arrival rates, a decline in traditional markets, potential tax increments and a deteriorating image as political instability grows.

According to the police, some tour operators are defrauding tourists by charging large amounts of money in advance to pay for reservations, without actually making the payments to the resort.

“A lot of problems are created when the tourists arrive in Maldives after making the payments to the travel agencies and discover [the agencies] have not paid the resorts,” Deputy Head of Crime Specialist Command Mohamed Riyaz told press on Saturday.

Although the reported cases are uncommon and several were successively resolved, Riyaz noted that the police have started investigations into the tourist rip-offs as they are being “repeated”.

Police are taking administrative action against four agencies suspected of defrauding tourists, while investigations are pending in six “serious” cases, according to the Deputy Head of Crime Specialist Command.

He added: “The licence of agencies not paying advance money to the resorts will be terminated and their bank accounts will be frozen under the criminal investigation.”

The police have also requested tour operators to refrain from such scams that have the potential to “deeply harm” the tourism industry of Maldives, which contributes almost 80 percent to the national income.

“Operated from bedrooms”

Speaking to Minivan News, the Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO) and Maldives Association of Tourism Industries (MATI) – associations which represent tour operators and resort owners, respectively – revealed that the roots of the scam runs deeper.

MATATO’s President Mohamed Khaleel contended that there are “no legal restrictions to the fraudsters who want to run these scams”.

“Anyone can go to the Economic Ministry and set up a company. Get a travel agent licence, set up a website and start bringing tourists. Over the past two years, we have raised several concerns in various platforms about these paper companies defrauding the tourists and resorts,” Khaleel explained.

Police yesterday confirmed that the tour operators suspected to be complicit in the tourist rip-offs were registered, liscenced and had their own online booking service. However, the police did not reveal the identity of the companies as the investigation is pending.

However, MATATO’s President claims that out of nearly 500 registered and licensed tour operators and agents, only 50-70 are  professional agents “committed” to the industry.

“Others don’t even have offices, they just put a name board on the street and operate from bedrooms. No commitments. They take money from tourists, close it down and go open another agency again,” he added.

MATI’s Secretary General Mohamed Ibrahim Sim echoed similar concerns, recalling several instances where resorts have faced difficulties in collecting payments: “Some tour operators with outstanding payments have declared bankruptcy and disappeared. We have not even been able to trace some of them back.”

Both Sim and Khaleel emphasised the establishment of legal frameworks to provide legal protections to the industry and to prevent “a few fraudsters from tainting the image of whole tourism sector”.

“The solution lies in establishing better legal frameworks where the tour operator, resort operator and the customer is protected,” Sim argued.

“We have to enforce these laws and regulations. Beacause of the new innovations in the sector, the dealings between the resort and the tour operators are changing very quickly. We need to keep up with them in terms of an updated legal framework, where laws and regulations are revised and revamped consistently as the technology changes everyday. If we do not keep up with it, we are going to face these problems.” he further noted.

Meanwhile, MATATO’s President Khaleel observed that they are working on a draft of Local Travel Agent Regulation and Code of Conduct to gap the loopholes in the system and facilitate in protecting the industry. However, it is yet to be approved from the ministry and necessary laws need to be amended as well, according to Khaleel.


Two Chinese nationals found dead in 48 hours

Two Chinese nationals vacationing on two different resorts in the Maldives have been found dead within 48 hours in suspected snorkeling accidents, raising this month’s tourist death toll to three.

A Chinese woman identified as Shuhui Li, aged 58, was pronounced dead after she was pulled out from the waters of Lily Beach resort on Thursday afternoon, while a Chinese man identified as Ding Hai, aged 30, was found dead whilst snorkeling at the newly-opened Ayada resort the following afternoon.

Confirming both incidents, Police Sub-Inspector Hassan Haneef said the two reportedly drowned while snorkeling and police are conducting an investigation into both incidents.

He noted that the body of the Chinese man has been moved to the Male’ mortuary inside the Galolhu district cemetery, while the woman’s body was sent to China on Friday through “formal channels” after the police finished examining it.

Lily Beach’s Front Office Manager Yuri Chang told Minivan News that the woman was vacationing with her family on the resort.

“She was snorkelling and we found that she was not moving any more. So we got her out of the water and found her heart had stopped,” Chang said. She was pulled out of the water by her son-in-law and a resort staff member, she added.

Public Relations Manager for Ayada, Ramesha Samarasinghe, said the resort “regrets to confirm the tragic demise of one of its in house guests.”

“After preliminary investigations, it is believed that the extreme surface currents coupled with high winds led to the accident that occurred within the lagoon last evening. The victim was reported to have been snorkeling without a life jacket within the western lagoon, when he became distressed,” Samarasinghe said. “The victim’s wife raised the alarm and sought the help of resort staff who responded by jumping into the lagoon to aid other nearby swimmers to pull the victim out of the water. Immediately, the medical team on site began CPR whilst arrangements were made to transport the guest to a local hospital.

“The victim was rushed by speedboat to the closest medical facility in Gaddhoo with the resorts medical staff continuing their efforts to resuscitate him en route. However all our efforts failed to save the life of the deceased,” Samarasinghe said.

The resort’s management “extends their deepest condolences to the family and friends of the deceased. The management is conducting a thorough investigation into this incident with the help of the local authorities. All efforts have been made to transport the wife and the victim back to their home country as quickly as possible.”

The first tourist found dead this year was 49 year-old French national Alan Marshall, who went missing from Club Med resort while swimming and was later found dead near Paradise Island resort on January 8.

Chinese fatalities rise

Tourist deaths – usually while snorkeling – are disproportionately higher among Chinese tourists, which now account for a majority of Maldives tourist arrivals, compared to the traditional European market.

Mohamed Ibrahim ‘Sim’ from the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) pointed out in an earlier interview with Minivan News that Chinese guests in particular needed to be made more aware of the dangers of snorkeling in the Maldives, “because it is a totally different environment than what they are used to.”

“While UK tour operators passed on advice and information to tourists, China was a relatively new market and the operators need to be made aware also,” Sim said in September 2010, following the death of a 48-year old Chinese woman who had been snorkeling at Paradise Island Resort and Spa. She was the sixth Chinese tourist to die that year.

In mid-August 2010 a Chinese couple vacationing in the Maldives disappeared from their resort after going for a swim.

The 38 year-old woman and 40 year-old man were staying with their 13 year-old daughter on the Hilton Irufushi Beach and Spa Resort in Noonu Atoll.

On March 14, police received a report that a Chinese national, Rui Dai, died while snorkeling at Holiday Inn Kandooma Resort, South Malé Atoll.

Earlier that same month another Chinese man died while snorkeling at Chaaya Lagoon Hakurahura Island Resort, less than a day after a German tourist died in a snorkeling accident at Embudu Village Island Resort.

A 36 year-old Chinese tourist was also found dead off the coast of Sun Island Resort and Spa in January 2011.

Many resorts and Chinese tour operators have reacted to the higher incidence of casualties by issuing life-jackets to Chinese guests on arrival. However, despite efforts to adapt to a market which in 2011 brought over 100,000 visitors to resort beaches and house reefs, Sim observed that “things still have not changed” as Chinese fatalities remain higher compared to European market.

“I do not think it’s going to change until the Chinese tour operators are able to educate the tourists visiting Maldives. They are not aware of the physical conditions here. Sometimes the [sea] currents are too high, and the Chinese are not aware of it”, he added.

Sim explained that it is difficult to monitor each tourist’s activity once they arrive on the resort. Therefore, he suggested that the best measure would be to ensure the tourists are educated about the local conditions prior to their arrival.

“We must set up guidelines for what tourists need to be educated about before coming to Maldives, and implement a way to monitor it”, Sim said. “Because once they arrive it is difficult to monitor each tourist or couple’s activities on a resort, and they would not like that either, because they want the privacy.”

Sim noted that the return visitors will be familiar with the Maldivian environment, while a rise in Mandarin-speaking resort staff will help bring down the fatality rate.

“I think in the long term the situation will work out,” Sim said.


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.


MATI continues civil court case to determine legality of spa ban

Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) has revealed it will continue its case at the Civil Court questioning the government’s right to close resort spas, while the government yesterday lifted the nationwide ban on spas and massage parlors.

The controversial circular issued by the Tourism Ministry on 29 December 2011 ordering that spas be shut down was cancelled by a civil court injunction last night – a few hours after President Mohamed Nasheed ordered that the spas be re-opened to prevent further damage to the economy.

The government had earlier asked the Supreme Court to provide clarity on the legality of operating spas and the sale of alcohol and pork, as the constitution requires Maldives to comply with the tenets of Islam.

Speaking to Minivan News, MATI Secretary General Sim Ibrahim Mohamed pointed out that the court’s ruling was temporary, and that the spas would only remain open while cases in the Supreme and Civil courts on the matter await verdicts.

MATI claims that an agreement between the resorts and the government was violated.

“Spa facilities are approved by the Ministry of Tourism, and promoted by MMPRC (Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation). We are trying to find out if the government had the authority to close the spas in the first place,” he explained.

He insisted that the government’s decision had incurred “irrevocable damage” to the tourism industry and had become a “legal issue to which we are trying to find legal clarity.”

However, in the event that the court rules against the government’s actions, Sim was unsure if the government would be required to compensate for losses to the industry.

MATI’s lawyer and Former Attorney General Azima Shukoor observed that the resorts would be able to sue the government for damages, if the case is ruled in favor of MATI.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has released a statement today quoting Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem, who claimed that the Government’s decision to re-open the spas operating in the country reflects the emerging national consensus that the Maldives should continue to follow the moderate and tolerant religious path it has pursued ever since Islam was introduced 800 years ago.

”Naseem expressed hope for a positive ruling from the Supreme Court on the matter,” the statement read. ”The Supreme Court ruling, once and for all, would settle the question of whether the Maldives wants to remain a modern, tolerant Muslim country founded upon democratic values and human rights, or would chose to become otherwise.”

According to the statement Naseem reassured investors with business interests in the Maldives and foreign tourists visiting the country that the government would remain steadfast in ensuring economic security and stability while upholding the fundamental values of democracy.

The Foreign Ministry added due to the judiciary’s delayed verdict, and given that public support for the moderate, tolerant Islam traditionally practiced in the Maldives had risen over the extremist rhetoric, the government had decided to remove the temporary spa ban.

”Naseem stressed that the government’s decision [to reopen spas] was backed by a clear majority of Maldivians who wished to continue to follow the path of moderation,” the Foreign Ministry stated.

As the government and public awaits a ruling from the top court, President Mohamed Nasheed said yesterday that the ultimatum on spa operations “woke the nation from its slumber and sparked a healthy debate about the future direction of the country”.


MATI sues as government seeks Supreme Court legal counsel on spas, pork and alcohol

The government has asked the Supreme Court for a “consultative opinion” on the legality of spa operations and sale of pork and alcohol in resorts, claiming that legal clarity is needed to properly address the current controversy involving Islam and the tourism industry.

The government last week ordered resorts to shut down their spa operations, and announced it was considering a ban on pork and alcohol. The announcements were made in response to five demands made during a demonstration organised by a coalition of NGOs and opposition parties on December 23 to ‘Defend Islam.’

Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) meanwhile filed a case at the Civil Court yesterday challenging the Tourism Ministry’s order to shut down massage parlors and health spas in resorts.

Speaking to local media, Attorney General Abdulla Muiz said, “We believe that the people have expressed genuine concerns over the circular issued by the Tourism Ministry ordering resorts to close down their spas.

“Investors will have confidence when they are clear of the judiciary’s position on these issues.”

The Attorney General was unavailable for comment at time of press.

Although the import of alcohol and pork to the Maldives is allowed under a regulation, there is no regulation or set of guidelines specific to spa operations in resorts.

The State, however, claims that Article 15(a2) of the Goods and Services Tax Act clearly stipulates that spas are legally accepted in the Maldives as tourism goods.

Under the article, “goods and services supplied by diving schools, shops, spas, water sports facilities and any other such facilities being operated….at tourist resorts, tourist hotels, tourist guest houses, picnic islands, tourist vessels and yacht marinas authorised by the Tourism Ministry” are tourism goods.

Officials at the Supreme Court and President’s Office were unavailable for comment today.

MATI Secretary General Sim Ibrahim Mohamed was unable to comment on the case in the Civil Court, but said that the government’s decision had incurred “irrevocable damage” to the tourism industry and had become a “legal issue to which we are trying to find legal clarity.”

“We are trying in the lower courts while the government has filed at the Supreme Court to see what this is about. We need to know whether the Maldives can legally provide tourism services within the confines of the constitution,” he explained. “A lot is riding on the court verdicts.”

Sim conceded that the verdicts would not close the discussion. “As to whether the public or the opposition parties will accept the verdict is not for us to say. They will have to weigh their own agendas against what is good for the economy at the moment,” he said.

Former Attorney General and lawyer representing MATI, Aishath Azima Shukoor, said the case addressed two key points: that the government’s decision to close the spas violates the contracts it holds with resort operators, and that the timing is unconstitutional.

Shukoor pointed out that the contracts between the government and resort operators include a clause entitling the operators to the peaceful operation of land leased. She maintained that the government had violated the agreement by closing operations without presenting any substantial reports, investigation or evidence justifying the action.

MATI has also applied for an injunction. If granted, resort spas would be allowed to operate until the court case is concluded.

Shukoor said MATI was hoping for a hearing on Wednesday, January 4, but that nothing has been confirmed.

Complaints that the tourism industry compromises the Maldives’ status as a 100 percent Muslim nation have brewed for some time, but the protests in “defense of Islam” in December 2011 threw officials into the crucible of religion, politics and tourism currently before higher and lower courts.

Article 10 of the Maldivian constitution states that “Islam shall be one of the basis of all the laws of the Maldives” and prohibits the enactment of any laws “contrary to any tenet of Islam”.

Although members of the coalition defending Islam originally called for the closure of “the spas and massage parlors and such places where prostitution is conducted”, as well as a reversal of a policy which permits the sale of alcohol on areas declared “uninhabited islands” – such as in Addu City and Fuvahmulah were the government plans to build city hotels – the government’s all-or-nothing response has driven those members to alter their position.

After telling a gathering of thousands that “The only road we must follow is based on Allah’s callings,” Jumhoree Party Leader and tourism tycoon Gasim Ibrahim sued the government when it closed spa operations in five of his Villa Hotels resorts over allegations of prostitution.

Upon realising that the protests had prompted the UK to issue a travel advisory, and after refusing to answer an inquiry about rumors that Taliban members had entered the country to participate in the protest, religious Adhaalath Party said it “calls on the international community to visit Maldives without any fear, assures that there is no terrorism in the Maldives, and that it will never give space to terrorism in this country.”

The statement further assures the international community that Maldivians are capable of protecting tourists.

Speaking to Minivan News today, Adhaalath Party chief spokesperson Sheik Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed did not wish to comment on an ongoing court case but called on the government to take national decisions slowly.

“Maldivian people have no problem with the tourism industry. The Maldives is the best country in the Islamic world with dealing with non-Muslims. Doctors, teachers, all are living here in Maldives and we have nothing against them. The thing is social problems are increasing daily, and people are concerned,” he said.

Minivan News asked whether it was worth risking the tourism industry in the name of Islam.

“Everyone knows the tourism industry is the backbone of our national economy. That’s why no one wants to damage any side of the tourism industry in the Maldives. I am 100 percent sure there is no prostitution in the tourism industry here. It is very professional, it is the most famous tourism industry in the world and is accepted by the international community. Why would we want to attack ourselves?”

Shaheem recommended that the industry foster alcohol-free resorts to develop the nation’s economy and add variety to the tourism sector. “In 2011 there was a project with a company from Dubai trying to do an alcohol-free resort. And I know there are resorts not selling pork,” he observed.

Minivan News asked whether it was acceptable for the government to support resorts which do sell alcohol and pork.

“This is a religious issue, and it is in the Supreme Court, so I can’t talk about this issue,” Shaheem said, adding that he could not say whether the court verdicts would settle the matter.

The Tourism Ministry announced earlier this week that it was considering revising the ban on spa operations in resorts.


DQP requests action against President, Tourism Minister as Maldives image shifts from glam to grit

Minority opposition Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) has requested Maldives Police Service to take immediate action against President Mohamed Nasheed and Minister of Tourism Mariyam Zulfa for ordering all resorts to close down health spas.

In a letter, DQP alleged that the government officials were conspiring to damage the Maldives’ image as a popular holiday destination.

The party’s statement added that the government’s “irresponsible” action is making headlines in the international media.

Police confirmed that they had received the letter, and would deliberate the matter.

DQP officials had not responded to inquiries at time of press. DQP Leader Hassan Saeed told local media this week that the government’s actions were causing “irreparable damage” to the tourism industry, from which “it would not be easy to come out of even after 25 years.”

An official at the President’s Office however argued that the opposition should bear responsibility for the fallout from December’s mass protest to ‘Defend Islam.’

“The opposition has been whipping up, and in some cases financing, extremism for months and spreading lies saying the government wants to introduce other religions. They can’t now complain about the economic damage they are ultimately responsible for.”

While resort reviews and booking services still make the first page of a Google search on the Maldives, headlines noting spa and resort closures amidst religious extremism and political turbulence have lately joined the mix.

Today’s Google searches for “Maldives”,”Maldives spa” and “Maldives resort” pulled a news feed exclusively addressing the political-religious whirlwind of the last week in which the government announced it was closing resort spas and considering a ban of pork and alcohol in response to popular demands favoring Islamic policies.

Over 229 articles are listed from leading outlets including UK’s The Guardian, India’s The Hindu, global Agence France Presse (AFP), and the BBC.

In keeping with the Maldives’ fame as a tourist destination, the headlines are eye-catching.

Global feed Associated Press (AP) ran the headline “Maldives closes hundreds of luxury resort spas,” while Sydney Morning Herald vigorously announced that “Sex claims force luxury resorts to close spas”.

Zimbabwe Metro simply stated “Maldives bans all spas after religious protests”, and Argophilia Travel News sardonically wrote, “Maldives spa ban: ulterior motives perhaps?”

Clicking beyond the headline, readers worldwide find content ranging from skeptical to sensationalist.

In their reports, America’s CNN today reported that “honeymooners and international hotel owners” were caught in “an acrimonious showdown over religious between the government and opposition parties”, while Mail & Guardian Online pointed out that the Maldives “reputation as a paradise holiday destination has come under pressure from a minority of religious fundamentalists who are growing in influence.”

Rather than ignoring the demands of the ‘Defend Islam’ demonstration on December 23, CNN observed that “the government raised the stakes” by issuing an order to close all massage parlors and spas.

Tourism accounts for approximately 70 percent of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) indirectly; a significant portion of resort profits are earned from spa services.

Although the stories do not always present an accurate picture of the situation, they are ubiquitous.

Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) Secretary General Sim Ibrahim Mohamed said the industry “has serious problems with people not understanding what is going on.”

Sim said that the situation was generally “murky, with one thing leading to another and another”, and added that “most of our communication is in Dhivehi–press conferences, press releases, notifications, debates. It’s very difficult for the international community to report accurately because they don’t understand our language.”

Stepping back from the details, Sim explained that tourists trying to book a relaxing holiday are not soothed by a media storm at the destination, particularly when it involves certain hot-button words.

“Fundamentalism, radicalism, extremism–since 9/11 these have been very sensitive words. And they don’t go very well with tourism.” Sim added that the industry has suffered “many booking cancellations” in the past several weeks.

The media flurry is also being addressed by those inside resorts. The blog Maldives Resort Workers, which allows resort employees to express their opinions on a carefully-manicured industry, noted in the post “The media circus continues” that Maldives’ formerly polished profile is gradually becoming dark and contorted as the issue drags on.

“What is not so funny in these political manuevering is: the negative publicity this generated across the media despite the high value tourism we have. The administration clearly needs to dismiss their spin doctors who didn’t warn them about this media storm,” wrote one commentator.

Religious Adhaalath Party, one of the parties which had organised the mass protest against the alleged anti-Islamic agenda of the current administration, has also expressed concern that the media coverage is “damaging” the Maldivian people.

“I don’t want international media to treat Maldives poorly, I want them to do their job carefully and justly. You can’t see any country like Maldives in Islamic world, so why would we want to damage these people? These are Muslim people and they like moderate views,” said chief spokesperson Sheik Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed.

Shaheem yesterday told CNN, “We respect tourists…we are very happy with the tourism industry in the Maldives.”

Adhaalath Party previously released a statement inviting tourists to visit the Maldives and promising protection, after the UK released a travel advisory.


Moosa calls for investigation of protesters who called for religious tolerance

MDP MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik has called for an investigation of the “silent protest” for religious tolerance, held last weekend at the Artificial Beach.

The religious Adhaalath Party and NGO Jamiyyathu Salaf have also asked the police to investigate the participants.

The group, who dubbed themselves ‘Silent Solidarity’, issued a press release following the event stating that the cause of the gathering was “to make the Maldives and the international community aware of the rising religious intolerance in the Maldives, and to condemn the constitutionally-endorsed suppression of religious freedom. It is also intended to denounce the increasing use being made of Islam as a tool of political power.”

The actual protest, held on International Human Rights Day, turned into a bloody affair when controversial blogger Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed was struck on the head with a stone. The other 15-30 protestors were also attacked.

Moosa has said that the protests should be treated in the same way that slogans calling for the murder of non-Muslims, published “by accident” yesterday on the Maldivian website, are being investigated by police.

The website is currently organising a protest to “defend Islam” on December 23. The ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) recently announced its intention to hold a counter-rally on the same date.

According to Haveeru, Moosa said the rising number of religious activities are the “first in a series of events conspired to create chaos in the Maldives”. He insisted that the protest threatens national security, and admitted that MDP’s decision to protest against the religious rally would create further problems.

Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair today said that those organising the public demonstrations to protect Islam had a “hidden agenda”, and had “increased the scale of danger to public order”.

According to a statement published on the President’s Office website, Zuhair claimed religious scholars Sheikh Adam Shameem bin Ibrahim and President of Adhaalath Party Sheikh Imran Abdullah had publicly associated their names and images with the website. He believed that their reputations as respectable scholars were at risk over the affair.

Although the violent slogans were removed and said to be the result of hacker activity – at one staged blamed on intelligence officials – Zuhair called the removal “meaningless, because newspapers and internet websites are usually published as daily editions.”

The publishers have not refuted their violent objectives by simply removing the slogans published on their inaugural edition, he added.

Head of the National Security Committee and Thodoo MP Ali Waheed noted that the cases were of national interest and would be put on the agenda soon.

Moosa further claimed that the religious agitation was a reaction to the country’s successful tourism industry. “The Maldives’ tourism industry’s growth has attracted the foreign eye”, and foreigners are joining hands with locals to create national instability, he claimed.

Secretary General of Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) ‘Sim’ Mohamed Ibrahim said the recent political and religious activity has not affected foreign investment or tourism.

“By and large, the Maldives is peaceful and a good place to invest,” he said.

He said MATI is not taking a stand on the issue.

“All people have the right to express themselves according to their constitutional rights. All we are saying is that you have to present a balanced picture of what’s going on. There is enough written about the Maldives for people to decide for themselves” if and how to invest, he said.

Foreign travelers and investors are not concerned about the politics on Male’ and other islands, Sim explained.

“The question for them is, how safe are their investments and how safe are they on resorts,” which Sim said “exist by themselves.” He added that an investor’s chief concern is whether the Maldives’ legal system enables or protects his/her business.

“The Maldives’ system still makes it very difficult for foreigners who want to invest,” Sim observed. Under the current system, investors wade through “layers and layers of bureaucracy” involving multiple ministries and councils.

“You would assume that foreign investment could be handled by the Ministry of Economic Development, or that a Foreign Investment Services bureau would allow someone to do everything in one go,” Sim suggested. “But often, people are referred to a website for information. Now, it takes time for paperwork to be processed, and too many people are needed to make a decision. It’s very discouraging to an investor,” he said.

Formerly, foreign investment was handled under Invest Maldives. Since the company drifted into an inoperative stasis following the successful GMR bid, Sim said no other government group has actively promoted foreign investment in the Maldives.

“MMPRC [Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation] is in charge but it is hard to see them carrying the Maldives’ banner and selling the various products Maldives offers,” he claimed.

“Environment is the main selling point for the Maldives, and you don’t need to do much to sell that. But someone needs to build confidence and value among investors.”


Tourism magnates endorse proposed economic reforms

Prominent businessmen and magnates of the tourism industry endorsed the government’s economic reform agenda and introduction of direct taxation last night.

Speaking at a launching ceremony for the “Fiscal and Economic Reform Programme,” Mohamed Umar Manik, chairman of the Maldives Association of the Tourism Industry (MATI), observed that a sustainable source of government revenue was necessary for providing public goods and services.

“Today we have democracy in our country, but democracy can only be strengthened if we are able to deliver,” said the Chairman of Universal Enterprises. “To do this, our government must have sources of income. A detailed reform agenda has been proposed for this. In my view, it is an ideal reform programme.”

Manik congratulated President Mohamed Nasheed and “those who framed the reform agenda.”

Following consultation with the government over the proposed taxes, MATI said in a statement earlier this week that the absence of a taxation system in the country “similar to tax regimes successfully implemented in other countries” was a serious impediment to development and economic growth.

Old ways of thinking

Waheed DeenPreceding the MATI chairman, Mohamed Waheed Deen, philanthropist and owner of Bandos Island Resort, argued in an impassioned speech that a taxation system was essential for democracy to deliver rising standards of living.

“This should have been done and finished 30, 40 or 50 years ago,” he said. “I sincerely thank our young President for beginning this effort today.”

A taxation system had to be introduced “because we are using the people’s property,” Deen contended.

“How can I say that I own Bandos?” he said. “It is not mine. It belongs to the Maldivian people.”

Taxation was the means for a more equitable distribution of wealth, Deen said: “Who wouldn’t want to send their child abroad for higher education? But can we facilitate it for them today?”

The government’s economic reform programme was necessary because “we do not want to keep the gap between rich and poor in this country anymore,” Deen asserted.

“What is the main reason a country becomes impoverished?” he asked. “I believe that one of the main reasons is refusal to tell the people the truth by many successive governments, many kings, until we have come to this point.”

In the Maldives’ long history, Deen continued, the public were indoctrinated to not criticise the government and given to understand that “only a particular group, from a particular family, could rule.”

Deen speculated that “the biggest challenge” the government’s economic reform agenda would face will be “changing people’s mentality.”

“This is the biggest problem facing our country today: [one side says] ‘everything is going right’ [while the other says] ‘nothing is going right,’” he explained. “So we have to educate our people, especially the councils.”

Deen also cautioned against unprincipled opposition to the government: “We could stay angry, hateful and disapproving and say ‘go on, run the government’ but sadly – remember this well – any harm this government suffers, the people will suffer many times over.”

Waheed Deen began his remarks by quoting the Quran 3:26: “O Allah. Lord of Power (And Rule), Thou giveth power to whom Thou please, and Thou strip off power from whom Thou please: Thou endow with honour whom Thou please, and Thou bringeth low whom Thou please: In Thy hand is all good. Verily, over all things Thou hast power.”

“Fruits of freedom”

MATI Secretary-General ‘Sim’ Ibrahim Mohamed meanwhile concurred that Maldivians could onlySim Ibrahim “taste the fruits of political freedom” by liberalising and modernising the economy.

Following graduation from the ranks of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), said Sim, the country could no longer rely on loans and foreign aid.

“In a fundamental sense, taxes are what the people give to the government they elected to manage their affairs,” he said.

Contrary to popular opinion, Sim continued, MATI had been advocating a taxation system as the organisation believed a sound fiscal policy was essential for “day-to-day planning of business matters as well as national affairs.”

In addition to fiscal responsibility, he added, new legislation and strengthening of the judicial system was also needed to foster investor confidence while stalled development of new resorts should be restarted to spur employment and private sector growth.

Sim concluded his remarks by appealing to “everyone who has to pay taxes, please pay taxes.”

“Bold initiative”

Sunland Travels Director Hussein HilmyIn his speech, Sunland Travels Director Hussain Hilmy reiterated that the Maldives’ “economic policy and legal framework needs to undergo modernisation and reform.”

“We in the business community welcome the bold initiative being undertaken by your administration to carry out a programme of comprehensive economic and fiscal reform,” Hilmy said.

He added that businesses were “delighted” with the government’s policy of a “shift away from import duties as a major source of government revenue.”

Hilmy observed that for successful tax administration, “transparency, accountability, predictability and effective combating of corruption” were necessary “preconditions.”

While the local tourism industry “has been the main engine of growth in the Maldivian economy for the last 40 years or so,” Hilmy warned that “tourism as we all know is an extremely volatile industry subject to sudden shocks and highly sensitive to fluctuations in global economic conditions.”

He suggested that a successful tax system should therefore “ensure the competitiveness of Maldivian tourism in the global market place.”

“We in the tourism industry also welcome your efforts to reduce public expenditure and wastage and create a more efficient and lean government,” he continued. “I can assure that lest there be any doubt that there is full confidence on the part of the tourism industry in the proposed reform programme and we have every confidence that this programme will be able to deliver the kind of success that we all wish and the kind of prosperity that we all are looking for.”