Tourism workers’ association commits to “prolonged” strikes if Maldives vote delayed

The Tourism Employees Association of the Maldives (TEAM) has threatened “prolonged” strike action at resorts across the Maldives should the second round of the presidential election not be held as scheduled on September 28.

In a statement released today, TEAM – an industry body representing some 5000 workers across the country’s luxury resorts – said the Supreme Court order issued Monday (September 23) delaying the run-off vote “destroys the principles of democracy we have embraced and voids articles of the constitution.”

“Given that a majority of our members desire the second round of elections to be held on September 28, we call on the Supreme Court and relevant state institutions to uphold the constitution, to aid the election and not to hamper it,” TEAM stated.

“With due respect, we would like to inform the relevant authorities that if this does not happen, that if [the election] is delayed, it will adversely affect our members, and we will not hesitate to hold a prolonged strike to strengthen democracy and uphold human rights.”

TEAM’s statement came a day after the resort industry body, the Maldives Association for Tourism Industries (MATI), issued a statement warning of “irreparable consequences” to the Maldivian economy unless the run-off election is expedited.

“It is absolutely important to expedite the election and settle the issue or else there would be irreparable consequences to the Maldives, and especially to tourism which is the backbone of the economy. Therefore, it is important for everyone to see the importance of this in the interest of the country at large,” said MATI Chairman M U Manik, one of pioneers of the country’s 40 year-old tourism industry.

MATI’s statement was issued following Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) candidate Mohamed Nasheed’s call for tourism workers – predominantly MDP – to strike should the run-off election scheduled for September 28 was delayed.

Nasheed emerged as the front runner in the first round of polls – held September 7 – with 45.45 percent (95,224 votes), followed by Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) candidate Abdulla Yameen who received 25.35 percent (53,099 votes).

JP candidate and resort tycoon Gasim Ibrahim narrowly missed out on the run-off with 24.07 percent (50,422), and contested the results at the Supreme Court alleging electoral fraud despite unanimous positive assessments of polls by local and international election observers.

The ongoing Supreme Court case has now heard the closing arguments from representatives of the JP and Elections Commission, with a verdict scheduled for the next hearing.

Industry significance

The tourism industry is indirectly responsible for upwards of 70 percent of the Maldives’ GDP, and a substantial majority of Maldivian resort workers support the MDP.

Results from resort ballot boxes in the first round revealed overwhelming support for the MDP’s candidate, even at many properties owned by Nasheed’s political opponents such as Vice President Waheed Deen’s Bandos Island Resort (51 percent MDP).

The trend was particularly notable at prominent international chains in the luxury tourism sector, famous for providing relaxing and idyllic escapes for honeymooners, including Sheraton Maldives Full Moon Resort and Spa (58 percent MDP), Dusit Thaani Maldives (73 percent MDP), Conrad Maldives Rangali Island Resort (62 percent MDP), and One and Only Reethi Rah (75 percent MDP).

Tourism Minister and PPM Deputy Leader Ahmed Adheeb meanwhile told local media this week he would not allow politicians to sacrifice the tourism industry and its workers, and appealed to staff not to strike.

“They plan and involve the tourism industry every time there is political turmoil, every time things do not happen as they want. They called for a tourism boycott in international media. There were effects from that. We are seeing the same thing now. We cannot allow any politician to involve the tourism industry in politics. We cannot allow politicians to sacrifice the tourism industry and its workers every time things are politically turbulent,” he told newspaper Haveeru.


Maldives Pavilion at Venice Biennale split in “mini-coup d’etat”

The political strife gripping the Maldives has permeated the country’s first pavilion at the Venice Biennale art show, catalysing a behind-the-scenes split that ultimately factionalised the pavilion in what one side contends was a ‘mini-coup d’etat’.

What was initially intended to be an innocent story highlighting the creative climate change advocacy occurring through the pavilion’s artistic expression, instead revealed infighting and controversy stretching back to February 2012.

The official Maldives Pavilion exhibition is curated by a joint Arab-European collective of artists called the Chamber of Public Secrets (CPS), and commissioned by current Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Ahmed Adheeb.

The overarching theme of the Maldives’ pavilion, entitled “Portable Nation: Disappearance as a Work in Progress – Approaches to Ecological Romanticism”, is about how the survival of the nation, Maldivian people and cultural heritage are threatened by catastrophic climate change impacts, such as rising sea levels.

The unofficial pavilion, located 200 metres up the road, is the Maldives Exodus Caravan Show, curated by Danish artist and former resident of the Maldives Søren Dahlgaard and initially commissioned by former Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Maryiam Zulfa.

Deputy Curator of the Exodus Caravan Show, Elena Gilbert, told Minivan News that the some of the artists “recognising the necessity and urgency to focus on the current political and cultural unrest of the Maldives, and to provide solidarity with the majority of the population against the dictatorship”, split from the pavilion following February 7’s controversial transfer of power.

The rebel pavilion, Gilbert said, “presents a selection of works and
 performances from Maldivian and international artists in regards to an expanded conversation of climate.”

Dahlgaard told Minivan News he “initiated the original idea to have a Maldives National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2010, then presented this idea to former President Mohamed Nasheed and former Minister Zulfa,” Dahlgaard told Minivan News this week.

“In December 2011, Zulfa commissioned me to organise/curate this project – there was no money from the Maldivian government involved in this, I was to raise the finances for the project myself,” said Dahlgaard.

“But now the Maldives National Pavilion is a deeply problematic project, which represents the current coup regime. The artists are now puppets of the regime, whether they are aware of it or not,” he added.

Dahlgaard met with former President Mohamed Nasheed in Copenhagen, Denmark this April and discussed the Venice Biennale ‘proxy-coup’.

“Nasheed laughed when I told him about the coup of the Maldives National Pavilion by Khaled Ramadan, the CPS Danish-based Lebanese curator,” recounted Dahlgaard, “because this is of course peanuts in comparison to the fight Nasheed has gone through and is going through for democracy in Maldives.”

‘Hijacked’ pavilion

Dahlgaard explained that he wanted the project to be a collaborative effort and met with many people experienced with Biennales and large exhibitions, and said ultimately Khaled Ramadan and the CPS decided to join the project.

However, the partnership between Dahlgaard and Khaled began to fall apart following the controversial transfer of power which rocked the Maldives in February 2012.

“Khaled has hijacked the project and is now working closely with the coup regime and representing them in Venice,” said Dahlgaard. “Most of the artists in the Pavilion have not been told this story.”

“After the coup in Feb 2012, we decided to continue the planning of the project, since we were hoping the democratic party would be back in power by June 2013, in time for the opening of the Venice Biennale,” he said.

“If this was not the case, the plan was to clearly state that the Maldives National pavilion was representing the democratic Maldives and did not acknowledge the current coup regime,” he continued.

“You have to be aware of the situation you are part of, and this includes the political situation. The political context is very important… even a flower painting is political in the current context of the situation in Maldives,” he explained.

“So you can not ignore that, especially when dealing with an issue like climate change.”

Dahlgaard alleged  that instead of leaving the project, “Ramadan wanted to take control… But the only way he would do this was to jump into the pocket of the current regime in Maldives.”

“Khaled first went to the Venice Biennale office and told them that the commission I had was from the previous government, creating an issue around this so the Biennale Foundation would want a new letter,” said Dahlgaard.

“Then he proceeded to the Maldives, where he stayed for more than two months trying to get an appointment with people at the Ministry of [Tourism and] Culture,” he continued.

According to Dahlgaard, he and Ramadan were supposed to travel to the Maldives together in March 2013, but claimed Ramadan stopped communicating with him in late January.

“I don’t know what Ramadan said to Adheeb and the present Culture Ministry, probably along the lines that ‘Soren Dahlgaard is the son-in-law of [former Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmed] Naseem, is connected to President Nasheed, and therefore representing the opposition now’,” alleged Dahlgaard.

“Or that we had been talking about having a pavilion that would have free expression and be a platform for voices from the ground.”

Ultimately the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture issued a new letter of commission on April 8, 2013, declaring that “Dahlgaard is no longer associated with the Maldives Pavilion by any means” and “obliged” CPS and their representative Ramadan to “send regular reports on their activities to the ministry”.

The previous letter, issued by the ,inistry on March 5, 2013, confirmed that Dahlgaard alone was to be the “official organiser and curator” of the Maldives Pavilion.

“It’s a coup dictator regime that can say whatever they want [and] Adheeb is a horrible gangster,” alleged Dahlgaard.

“He only learned about the project when Khaled Ramadan came to Malé to explain to him that this is a big international cultural prestige project.”

Dahlgaard told Minivan News he believes the situation is “not about two guys having a power struggle”.

“I don’t want or need power or to be the boss; I was not kicking him out,” Dahlgaard said.

“I have nothing to hide and the truth must come out. I am not scared of Khaled’s crazy accusations,” he added. “I have no wish to damage anybody’s reputation. I will however defend myself against untruthful attacks from Khaled Ramadan.”

Nasheed knew nothing about the Biennale: Ramadan

CPS curator Khaled Ramadan and the producer of his documentary film, Abed Anouti, claimed former President Mohamed Nasheed “never knew anything about the pavilion not even till this very moment”.

“I met Mr Nasheed as an Arab journalist and I am sure he has no idea at all about the Maldives Pavilion at the Venice Biennale,” Ramadan said in a letter, sent to Minivan News and the Inter Press Service (IPS) following the publication of articles he felt were “full of errors and misinformation”.

Former President Nasheed told Minivan News on June 10 that “Soren has been working on [the pavilion] for a long time and has in many instances come to me and we have had many discussions about it. The last I heard about was when I was last in Denmark and it’s good he has been able to get the show on the road.”

No dispute

“The pavilion has never been part of any political dispute in the Maldives. It was independently curated from A to Z and different art councils from around the world financed the works of the invited artists,” Ramadan told Minivan News via email.

“In relation to the Venice Biennale, governments do not usually outsource such assignments,” he explained.

“Due to the prestigious nature of the biennale, governments commission professional curators by inviting them to help promote local artists and cultures.”

Ramadan claimed that the “entire project, concept, title, construction of website, design of social media, formulation and design of PR material, and all applications are the outcome of the CPS members, NOT Soren Dahlgaard in any respect.”

“He is incapable of contributing to any of the mentioned products,” Ramadan added. “Mr Dahlgaard has never been an inspiration to any of us in the group due to our academic backgrounds and level of art conduct.”

He alleged Dahlgaard “cheated his way into serious art arrangements like the Venice Biennale by obtaining a letter of commissioning via corrupt contacts and not according to qualifications.”

After the Venice Biennale office contacted the CPS about the March 2013 letter from the Maldives’ Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, which stated Dahlgaard was to be the sole organiser and curator of the Maldives Pavilion, “we immediately contacted the [Maldives’] Minister of Culture asking for an explanation,” said Ramadan.

He claims the letter Dahlgaard provided the Venice Biennale was a “corrupt letter” which Minister Adheeb “didn’t know anything about”.

“Therefore the minister ordered the total removal of Dahlgaard from the project… following an internal inquiry,” said Ramadan.

He said that the CPS’ collaboration with Dahlgaard ended when the Minister Adheeb “discovered that Mr Dahlgaard was misusing the Ministry’s name and was planning a secret pavilion”.

Contentious IPS article

The split at the biennale was first noted by an article on the Maldives Pavilion published on the Inter Press Service by journalist Ferry Biedermann.

Biedermann wrote that the pavilion, once the initiative of former president Mohamed Nasheed, “was almost abandoned after he resigned under hotly contested circumstances in February 2012.”

“The new government, with plenty of other issues demanding its attention, lost interest and allowed a joint Arab-European collective of curators, calling themselves Chamber of Public Secrets, to take over the pavilion and mount a show under the banner Portable Nation,” the journalist wrote.

He cited Maren Richter, an Austrian associate curator: “They did not care. They did not mind. They don’t believe in the power of art to affect anything anyway.”

Following the publication of the IPS article, referred to by Minivan News in an earlier story on the pavilion controversy, Ramadan and Anouti wrote a letter to both publications accusing Biedermann of “misuse and misinterpretation of our artistic intentions” to “score a journalistic sensation”.

“Our work in the Maldives Pavilion is an independent and positive project that focuses on climate issues in global context while addressing the Maldives as a case study,” the pair stated.

“The article by Ferry Biedermann published at IPS is full of miss information. Mr Ferry NEVER interviewed anyone from the Maldives Pavilion, his claims stand for his own account. He has no sound recording, email correspondence, footage or even photos from the curators of the pavilion to support his claims,” they alleged.

Minivan News put the allegations to Biedermann, who replied he was “puzzled more than anything else by how brazen Mr Anouti is in his attack from the very first line.”

“Unfortunately for him, he immediately makes the grave mistake of saying something that can be easily disproven; of course I have sound recordings and email exchanges to prove that I talked to Ms Richter and communicated by email with Mr Ramadan.

“They would never deny that. If they, as curators, do not belong to the Maldives pavilion, then who does?” he said.

Image courtesty the Maldives Exodus Caravan Show


PPM would pursue oil exploration, foreign investment: Abdulla Yameen

The potential for developing a domestic oil industry was launched as a campaign issue during a speech on Monday (January 14) by Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) presidential prospect, MP Abdulla Yameen.

Yameen proclaimed “when the PPM comes to power” it will conduct oil exploration, attract foreign investment and create 26,000 tourism jobs.

However, the Maldives’ environmental image and commitments are no obstacles to oil industry development, according to Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb – currently standing for nomination as the PPM’s vice president.

Adheeb told Minivan News the Maldives was “a big nation, and places not in marine protected zones or tourism areas could be explored for oil, like in the less developed north.”

“Oil exploration is a term and [we] cannot conclude something with out the details. Regulations and more planning need to be done,” he said.

The ‘Draft Maldives Fourth Tourism Master Plan’ released January 9 by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture emphasises the need for climate change mitigation, adaptation, and renewable energy as part of its five-year strategic plan.

“The tourism sector is expected to contribute to the carbon neutral goal by introducing measures over the next eight years for energy efficiency and replacing fossil fuel with renewable energy,” the report states.

The plan contains various strategic actions aimed at “developing and enforcing” management plans for [marine protected areas] and sensitive environments. This includes “implementing a low carbon program for the tourism industry”.

“A long-term focus on adopting reliable and affordable energy from renewable resources (like sun, wind, sea and biomass) provides an opportunity to enhance our tourism development model, already well known for its sustainable practices. A low carbon path for development has been identified as key development strategy in Maldives as a whole,” the report notes.

“[Economic] diversification is in line with the tourism master plan,” Adheeb told Minivan News.

“[The] first priority should be tourism [however] the economy needs to be diversified and protected,” he said.

Yameen pledges oil exploration

During the launch of the PPM ‘Team Yageen’ campaign, Yameen declared his platform would focus on foreign investment and the creation of job opportunities, local media reported.

“Given the current economic situation, local businessmen alone cannot create enough job opportunities. We must welcome foreign investors for the benefit of our nation,” Yameen said, according to Haveeru.

Yameen’s proposals include searching for oil, prioritising the tourism industry, and creating a cargo transit port.

Previous oil exploration attempts in 1980 found the cost of retrieving the oil was too high compared to the US$20 (MVR 308) price per barrel at the time. However the present price of US$125 (MVR 1925) per barrel made further exploration feasible.

“It is very possible oil might be found in the Maldives,” Yameen said.

“[The PPM] have a very close relationship with tourist resort owners. The [economic] benefits of the tourism industry are creating job opportunities through the [tourism goods and services] tax,” he added.

Team Umar’s stance

‘Team Yageen’s opposition for the PPM leadership, ‘Team Umar’, played down the proposal.

PPM Interim Vice President Umar Naseer said it was not acceptable for people in responsible portfolios of the government to talk about things that they could not do while they were in power.

Yameen’s proposal to search for oil in the Maldives was not new, Naseer claimed, noting that Yameen had plenty of time during the Gayoom administration to pursue such an agenda.

”Fifteen years is enough time for someone searching for oil to find it. ‘Team Umar’ will not make empty talk; if we are to search for oil, then we will find it and sell it,” said Naseer.

”These words are not new to us. If they had been new words they would have impressed ‘Team Umar’ as well,” he added.

Government biosphere and renewable energy commitments

The development of an oil industry in the Maldives would be an apparent reversal of President Mohamed Waheed’s declaration during the Rio 20+ UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012 that the Maldives would “become the first country to be a marine reserve”.

During the conference, Waheed highlighted the 2012 establishment of the first UNESCO Biosphere reserve in Baa Atoll, as well as the Maldives’ commitment to carbon neutrality and sustainable development.

“Our tourism sector is a sustainable one, relying on the preservation of our magnificent coral reefs, beautiful beaches and our rich and diverse marine life,” Waheed stated.

The Maldives is meanwhile participating in the 3rd General Assembly of International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, which started this week (13 January 2013).

Minister of Environment and Energy Dr Mariyam Shakeela has also highlighted the ongoing renewable energy activities undertaken by the Maldivian government and the necessity of renewable energy for mitigating climate change.

Shakeela recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Diesel Replacement Project of the Clinton Climate Initiative’s Clean Energy Initiative, a program of the William J Clinton Foundation.

The focus of this program is to enact “projects and policies that directly reduce greenhouse gas emissions” including renewable energy projects to reduce dependency on diesel fuel.


Photography pioneer dismisses claims development has spoiled Maldives “paradise” potential

Photographer Michael Friedel, one of the most prominent names associated with capturing images of the Maldives over the last forty years, has dismissed criticism that rapid national development has ultimately spoiled the destination’s “paradise” mystique.

German national Friedel has spent forty years photographing the changing societal and architectural landscape of the Maldives since the inception of its tourism industry back in the 1970s.

Speaking to Minivan News at the opening of a special exhibition in Male’ this week dedicated to his photography, Friedel conceded that the impact of his work had attracted criticism due to some “bad developments” intense global publicity brought to the country.

“There are people who have said I spoiled paradise, but the country has always been involved in the global market. The country has to sell something to get something and rice doesn’t grow here,” he said yesterday (January 6).

Friedel, who first arrived in the Maldives in the 1970s, is described by exhibition organisers as a major pioneer in capturing images of the country for intentional media.

His photography has been published in international magazines and newspapers, as well as being found locally on postcards and five different stamps that have been sold in the country.

“Most of the bad developments in the beginning did come from the outside, but the country has got it under control now,” Friedel claimed. “In the early days, Italians would just shoot fish with spear guns just to show how many they had caught, not to eat and people were also hunting turtles just to sell the shells. But after two years, these things were banned.”

When Friedel first arrived in the Maldives in the early 1970s, he said the country was relatively unknown to rest of the world.  However, after pictures he had taken of the country were published in Germany’s Stern magazine, he said major press organisations around the world wanted copies.

“Most countries in the world were well known in the 70s, but Maldives was not. So when I first took these pictures, I was lucky to have so much interest from international publications,” he said.

Friedel argued that while the whole world had changed over the last 40 years, the scope of these developments was far more noticeable in the Maldives.

“This used to be a country where nobody came to and it was extremely isolated. The British had an agreement here, and they had one officer stationed on a little island. Most other countries were influenced by colonialism, but the Maldives were not,” he said.

“The whole world has changed in 40 years, but here it was more because the country was untouched.”

Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Ahmed Adheeb, who officially opened the exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Male’, praised Friedel as a “pioneer”. He added that his work helped introduce the Maldives to glossy international magazines and travel media, defining the image by which the destination is still sold to this day.

“Michael has been one of the key players to promote the Maldives and through his pictures he brought the country into the lime light,” Adheeb claimed. “This all started back in 70s and 80s when our tourism budget was zero. We appreciate everything he has done, through his pictures we see where we were then to where we are now.”

The exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Male’ showcases 58 of Friedel’s photographs taken in the Maldives from between 1973 to 1977 as part of celebrations marking 40 years of tourism in the country.

The exhibition will run from January 6 to January 13.