Millions in environmental fines owed to government

The government is owed at least MVR45 million (US$2.9 million) in unpaid fines for environmental damage, an official audit has revealed.

The owner of a Thai fishing vessel that ran aground on the reef near Shangri-La Villigili Island Resort in November 2011 has failed to pay an MVR42.1 million (US$2.7 million) fine, according to the audit report of the then-Ministry of Housing and Environment for 2011.

The State Electricity Company (STELCO) still owes R3.3 million (US$214,000) following an oil spill in which a pipe buried under Malé’s ring road Boduthakurufaanumagu burst in March 2011, the report said.

The pipe leaked large quantities of oil into the track swimming area, frequented by schoolchildren and the public.

normal_Emerald_Reefer,Pan,19960501,ROTThe Thai fishing vessel, Emerald Reefer, was meanwhile beached for two months in the Muli Kolhu reef. The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) said at the time that the reef was “destroyed” and was unlikely to recover in the near future.

Under environmental regulations, the boat’s owner was given 25 days to remove the boat before incurring a fine of RF700,000 (US$45,000) per day that the boat remained grounded.

EPA Director General Ibrahim Naeem told Minivan News today that both fines have not been collected to date, adding that the agency was coordinating with the relevant authorities.

The Emerald Reefer fine was “pending” due to legal issues, he said.

“Those are the just the fines from 2011. There are lot more fines that haven’t been collected,” he said.

The audit office meanwhile recommended taking action in accordance with public finance regulations to collect the outstanding fines.

The fines were imposed during the final months of the administration of former President Mohamed Nasheed, who resigned in February 2012, later saying he had done so under duress in what amounted to a coup.

In 2012, the then-President Dr Mohamed Waheed shifted the departments dealing with the environment – including the EPA – to the newly formed Ministry of Environment and Energy.

Among other cases highlighted in the report, the auditor general noted that the ministry spent nearly MVR70 million (US$4.5 million) for three infrastructure projects despite the funds not being allocated in the 2011 budget.

The projects involved installing revetments in Shaviyani Feevah, road construction in Haa Dhaal Kulhudhufushi, and harbour construction for three islands in Addu City.

The ministry also paid a 30 percent advance payment to the contractor in the road construction project in violation of public finance regulations, the report said.

Aside from the flagged issues, the report stated that the ministry’s expenses in 2011 were legal and in line with public finance laws as well as the budget approved by parliament.

The new auditor general – appointed under controversial circumstances in November – has yet to release any reports on ministries under the current administration or the Waheed administration.


Shangri-La to open Maldives’ first full size golf course

The Shangri-La Villingili resort in Addu Atoll is due to open the first full-sized golf course in the Maldives on March 27.

The nine hole course sits on seven-and-a-half hectares of previously undeveloped land at the southern end of Villingili Island.

Most holes par three and average 123.4 yards in length, and are set amongst the island’s natural veggetation including of palms, pandanus and other tropical plants. The course includes a clubhouse, refreshment bar and a pro shop.

“It’s a recreational course, not a professional course,” explained Shangri-La’s Assistant Communications Manager, Cristina Acenas. “It is accessible to beginners but advanced golfers will also enjoy it.”

Challenged about the environmental impact of a nine hole golf course on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the resort was quick to respond.

“The golf course uses salt tolerant Paspalum grass for its greens which thrives on available grey water and natural environmental factors existing in the Maldives,” Acenas explained. “Seashore Paspalum is used on golf courses worldwide and is said be the most environment-friendly among the types of grass used for golf courses.”

“A salt tolerant plant growing in sandy substrate is not going to need many nutrients, so it’s not so bad,” suggested a marine biologist consulted by Minivan News.

“The main worry would be using well water to irrigate the course, which would impact the island’s freshwater lens and other vegetation on the island,” she said.

Acenas explained that treated grey water from the island’s sewage treatment plant would be pumped into an irrigation dam constructed on site, “so no fresh water or fresh desalinated water is used to irrigate the greens, minimising waste and the carbon footprint associated with operating a full-sized golf course.”

A second concern raised by the marine biologist was the potential for run-off to wash fertiliser into the ocean, disrupting the nutrient balance of delicate reef ecosystems.

“They do have to be careful that nutrients don’t leech into reef,” she observed. “An increase in nutrients can great algal overgrowth that outcompetes corals and impacts reefs. It’s good they’re using a low nutrient plant, but they will need to keep a check on it.”

Acenas said that fertilisers used to maintain the course would be organic and used sparingly.

“It has been determined that the selected Paspalum turf cultivar will thrive well in the conditions present at Villingili. The Paspalum Grass through proper cultural practices should be sustained at healthy levels with minimal use of organic fertilisers and chemicals, and has a very high tolerance to salinity, more so than most weeds. This is a much healthier approach when considering the environment surrounding the course,” she told Minivan News.

The site will be subject to a biannual terrestrial monitoring by environmental consultants to assess fauna, flora and the impact of the course on their habitat, Acenas noted.

The golf course is located near a turtle nesting habitat (August – October), “and turtles can be seen coming to the surface all year round on this side of the island, especially on the ocean side from holes six to nine,” she added.

The marine biologist Minivan News spoke to observed that a golf course was probably a better nesting environment for turtles than a built up area because the course would lack light sources, which can cause females to become disorientated after laying eggs and crawl inland, rather than back out to sea.

Approval for the course was granted by the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Housing and Environment, following following an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) submitted to the Environment Protection Authority (EPA).

The Maldivian government in March 2010 signed a contract with Dutch Docklands of the Netherlands to develop a floating golf course and hotel in the Maldives.

Then Deputy Minister for Environment, Mohamed Shareef, said the floating golf centres would be “much better and more environmentally friendly than reclaiming land.”


Sale of Holiday Inn to be completed in November

The sale of the Holiday Inn business in Male’ to the Hong Kong-based Shangri-La group is to be completed by the end of November.

The current management were “working closely” with the new owners to “ensure a smooth transition”, said the hotel’s General Manager Michael Melzer.

Holiday Inn’s resort at Kandooma would be unaffected, he said.

The hotel will meanwhile be rebranded from the InterContinental Hotels Group’s mid-scale Holiday Inn brand once the hotel is handed to Shangri-La, presumably to the group’s business hotel brand Traders.

The landmark hotel was opened in September last year, the first international hotel chain to open in Male’.

Staff were informed in October of the decision by the owners, Male Hotel Associates, to sell the business to an international group. The Dhivehi Observer reported that the sum paid was US$42 million for the assets and business of the remainder of the building’s 27 year lease.

Despite opening to great fanfare the flagship Male’ hotel was quickly demonised through a series of cultural blunders, including advertising a BBQ and DJ during Friday prayers on the day of the lunar eclipse in January, but most notably its efforts to acquire a liquor license.

Liquor license denied

In November 2009 the Economic Development Ministry announced new regulations whereby individual liquor licences would be scrapped and instead issued to hotels on inhabited islands with more than 100 beds.

Adhil Saleem, state minister for economic development, confirmed in November that Holiday Inn had applied for a liquor licence, and the hotel quickly became a symbol for an anti-alcohol push by the Islamic Ministry and the government’s coalition partner, the Adhaalath Party, which appealed for no alcohol to be sold on inhabited islands.

Confusing matters, in December parliament voted 28-23 against a bill that would have outlawed the sale of alcohol on inhabited islands. Oddly, a number of MPs who argued vehemently for the bill then voted against it.

Among the MPs who opposed the legislation were Thohdhoo MP Ali Waheed, Galolhu South MP Ahmed Mahlouf, Vili-Maafanu MP Ahmed Nihan, Mid-Henveiru MP Ali Azim, Villigili MP Mohamed Ramiz, Feydhoo MP Alhan Fahmy of the DRP and Maavashu MP Abdul Azeez Jamal Abukaburu and Isdhoo MP Ahmed Rasheed Ibrahim from the People’s Alliance.

The Economic Development Ministry meanwhile argued that lax monitoring of the liquor permits had resulted in a black market for alcohol in the capital Male’.

But, the Ministry’s revised regulations were withdrawn following public pressure before it could be enforced and were sent to a parliamentary committee for consultation.

Under the regulations, tourist hotels in inhabited islands with more than 100 beds would have been authorised to sell alcohol to foreigners, but the hotel bar was to not be visible from outside or to employ Maldivians.

In February, the matter came to a head with a series of protests against the legislation, and as the primary symbol of the new regulations, the Holiday Inn reportedly received a number of bomb threats.

State Minister for Islamic Affairs and Adhaalath party spokesman Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, one of the leaders of the protest, threatened to resign his post in the ministry along with other senior people if the government approved the regulation.

Sheikh Ilyas Hussain also spoke to the protesters, warning that the former government had been changed because it had “walked in the wrong path”.

If the new government also chose the wrong path, he warned, “we might have to work to change the government.”

Gauging public sentiment, the government withdrew the controversial regulations following a meeting attended by the Maldives Police Service, Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), the Home Affairs Ministry, the Economic Development Ministry, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and several religious scholars.

At the same time the government did not reinstate the old liquor licensing system, resulting in burgeoning black market prices for the commodity – the street price for a bottle of blackmarket vodka wholesaled outside the country for US$6 rose from Rf 700 (US$54) to Rf 2000 (US$160) with the demise of the licensing system.

State Minister for Islamic Affairs Sheikh Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed said at the time that while there was scope for alcohol to be sold to non-Muslims in an Islamic state, alcohol was readily available to non-Muslims at resorts and the Hulhule Island Hotel (HIH) on the airport island.

“The tourism industry has sold alcohol [to non-Muslims] for a long time,” he explained. “But it is a concern to open bars in [wider Maldivian] society. Maldivians do not want to have bars near schools and mosques.”

Financial impact

The loss of potential liquor revenues drew speculation that the Holiday Inn would suffer financially.

Melzer said today that in his experience of managing the hotel for five months, “it has not affected us. We have very imaginative beverage menus that have been very successful, and there has not been a negative impact.”

The hotel was not in direct competition with the bar-equipped Hulhule Island Hotel (HIH), he said: “The main target of the hotel is corporate business and government travellers, and to a lesser extent the international wholesale market – particularly South Korea and Japan.”

The base business of the hotel was showing “very good progress” he said, with the main attraction “the high quality interior design, which is very luxurious and well received by international travellers from SE Asia and the Middle East. Another attraction is definitely the rooftop restaurant with its magnificent views and innovative dining concept.”

He acknowledged that one of the hotel’s key challenges “was attracting and retaining the right talent.”

“One of my areas of emphasis has been to localise positions,” he said, “but generally in the Maldives it is hard to attract local talent.”

Shangri-La, which already runs an upmarket resort property in Addu Atoll, has yet to announce its intentions for the rebranded hotel.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Holiday Inn property was being sold together with the business. The property itself will remain with the present owner of the premises.


Shangri-La ‘PlayStation’ strike dissolves after leaders dismissed

The strike at Shangri-La Villingili Resort and Spa has ended, according to Vice President of the Tourism Employment Association Maldives (TEAM), Mauroof Zakir.

157 Staffs at the Shangri-La Villingili Resort went on strike last week after four workers were dismissed for reportedly playing on a PlayStation in a vacant villa on the last Sunday. It continued throughout the week until Shangri-La management dismissed the 10 leaders of the strike and four villa host, and invited the remaining staff back to work.

Zakir claimed the strike ended when Shangri-La management sent a letter to the parents of the strikers on Feydhoo.

”They sent a letter signed by the general manager of the resort requesting that the strikers resign or the matter would be handled to the police,” Zakir said.

”Their wives, kids and parents were disappointed with the letter and pressured the staff to stop the strike and go work.”

Zakir said the strikers did not achieve all they had set out to achieve, but “it was a success that only 14 staffs were dismissed. At first they dismissed 65 staffs on the island.”

He said that strikers took a vote on Wednesday to decide if they were going to continue or end the strike.

”Ninety per cent of them voted to continue the strike,” Zakir claimed.

He said TEAM would “still work until we achieve our demands, with the help of international organisations.”

”We will take the case to the tribunal also,” he said. ”We will do as much we can.”

Shangri-La’s Communication Director Leslie Garcia denied management sent a letter to the strike leaders.

”They were dismissed in an agreement proposed by the resort management,” she said. ”They agreed to it.”


Shangri-La dismisses 14 striking staff, invites rest to return to work

Shangri-La Villingili Resort and Spa has invited striking staff to return to work, after 157 staff stopped working in protest over the dismissal of four villa hosts.

The villa hosts were dismissed after security and a duty manager discovered they had locked themselves in a guest villa with a PlayStation during a lunch break.

Senior management from the hotel chain flew into the Maldives earlier this week to resolve the situation, just as the Ministry of Human Resources and the Tourism Employees Association of the Maldives (TEAM) became involved.

A statement from the resort today said while management “acknowledges and accepts employees’ rights under Maldivian
Law, because of the serious nature of employee behaviour, 14 staff members will no longer be employed by the property.”

“The management will fill the resulting vacancies with Maldivians,” it added.

Other employees “are invited to return to work”, the resort’s statement said, adding that “initial claims that 65 employees were dismissed are untrue.”

“The resolution reflects the desire to move forward in a fair and reasonable manner considering the needs of the local community and all employees. The resort is operating as normal and no guests have been affected,” Shangri-La said.

Minivan News contacted one of the striking employees camped on Feydhoo, who said the protesters would stick to their original demands, which include a written statement from the resort reinstating the dismissed employees.

“Most of the strikers have been given first and last warnings, which means next thing they do wrong they will be dismissed,” he claimed.

The resort’s general manager went to Feydhoo yesterday and called the 14 dismissed strikers one by one to an area secured by riot police, the striker claimed, to inform them of their dismissal.

Vice President of TEAM Mauroof Zakir said those dismissed included the four villa hosts “and 10 staff who management suspects have been leading the strike.”

He noted that the protesting staff had taken a vote yesterday over whether to continue to with the strike “and the majority decided to continue.”

More than 80 staff are continuing to strike, he said, adding that the resort was continuing to operate normally “because the majority of staff are expatriate.”