Miss France pageant a Maldivian tolerance test for tourism, says MATI chief

While perhaps cliché to suggest that visually-immaculate beauty pageant participants can help change the world, Secretary General of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) ‘Sim’ Mohamed Ibrahim believes hosting the Miss France 2011 competition is at the very least a positive development for travel in the country.

Speaking to Minivan News, Sim said that beyond providing a touch of glamour to the Maldives, hosting such a high-profile international event highlights the wider aim of expanding the country’s appeal to guests of varying religions, politics and attractiveness.

Part of this year’s Miss France event, thought to be one of the European nation’s biggest annual televised spectacles, will be held at the Coco Palm Bodu Hithi resort in the North Malé Atoll before moving on to Caen, Normandy for a crowning ceremony to be held on December 4.

Having originally started back in the 1920s, this year’s contest sees 33 participants from across France staying at the resort between November 11 to 18 to partake in a number of photogenic activities such as water sports, Maldivian cooking, exploring local natural curiosities and even filming a music video.

Although the concept of women parading around in haute couture and swim wear is seemingly at odds with the more conservative day-to-day values expected of women living in the Maldives, concerns over cultural sensitivity appear to be missing the point for the industry. Sim says he hopes Miss France 2011 will be the the first of many events that will reshape perceptions of tourism in the Maldives by encouraging greater acceptance of the industry among local people.

Sim claimed that amidst concerns over growing religious fanaticism in the maldives, displaying greater tolerance towards a large number of events and guests welcomed to the country was vital to the overall survival of the country’s lucrative holiday business.

Unless a sufficient replacement source of income can be located, Sim said, the country is likely to continue looking to similar high profile events to boost its image as a secluded desert island escape for global travellers.

“It [Miss France] has found its way to the Maldives, there are likely to be many more [high profile] events to come,” he said.

Although still a moderate Islamic nation, beyond the potential credence of hosting a bevy of French beauties at one of the country’s resorts, Sim suggests that trying overcome the intolerance creeping into some sections of Maldivian society remains a key aim for both the travel industry and government.

Having been a Muslim nation for hundreds of years, fears of growing extremism in the Maldives are, according to Sim, a more recent development for a nation that has generally tried to peacefully coexist with neighbours and foreigners.

Whether to the benefit or detriment of the Maldives, Sim says that the Miss France event also highlights the need to diversify the country’s appeal beyond hotel stays to meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions – collectively termed ‘MICE’.

As a striking counterpoint to the country’s hosting of Miss France 2011, the Maldives garnered a different sort of global attention earlier this year after holding peace talks between members of Afghanistan’s parliament and various other political and armed groups linked to the nation’s ongoing insurgency.

President’s Office Press Secretary, Mohamed Zuhair, confirmed back in May that that all in involved the peace talks had valid passports and visas. The talks, which did not directly involve the Maldivian government, were reported to have taken place at the country’s Paradise Island Resort.