MMA to conduct survey on spending by Maldivians traveling abroad

The Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA) will be conducting its annual survey on spending by Maldivians traveling abroad from December 25 to 31.

The ‘Maldivians Travelling Abroad Survey’ survey will be conducted at the arrival hall of the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA), the central bank explained in a press release yesterday.

“The survey will mainly gather information about Maldivians spending money abroad for various purposes,” the press release stated.

“Among the information gathered will be the main purpose of the trip, the travel destination, ticket price, cost of food and accommodation, cost of medical treatment, travel expenses, and overall expenses for the whole trip.”

A statistical report would be compiled based on the collected information, it added.

The MMA noted that name, address, and other personal information would not be gathered for the survey and urged cooperation from all Maldivians returning to the country during the survey period.

Last year’s survey – conducted among 65 percent of locals traveling abroad – revealed that Maldivians spent MVR2.9 billion (US$191 million) overseas in 2013.

Maldivians spent US$70 million on medical treatment, US$64 million on holiday expenses, and US$47 million on education, the survey found.

Of the 6,184 respondents, 2,597 people traveled to neighbouring Sri Lanka, followed by 2,473 visitors to India, and 618 visitors to Malaysia.

Of those who traveled to Sri Lanka, holidaymakers spent US$1.7 million while other spent US$2.2 million for medical treatment.

Similarly, Maldivians who traveled to India for medical purposes spent US$2.1 million.

While Maldivians who sought medical treatment in Malaysia spent US$496,872, Maldivian holidaymakers spent US$714,408.

The survey also found that Maldivians spent US$48 million on airfare during 2013.


Week in review: April 13 – 19

The disposal of around 120 animals confiscated from people’s homes stole the headlines this week, amid confusion as to why the decision to destroy the animals was made, and by which institution.

As part of a joint operation conducted on Saturday (April 12), relevant government authorities instructed police to confiscate all pets suspected of having been illegally imported.

These animals were promptly destroyed by the MNDF, while the fate of the slow loris – endangered in more ways than one – remained unclear as interested adoptees continued to face financial and bureaucratic obstacles.

Bureaucratic obstacles continued to hinder President Abdulla Yameen’s attempts to place his nephew in the role of Prosecutor General as the Majlis failed to return enough votes to approve Maumoon Hameed’s nomination.

Home Minister Umar Naseer this week lamented the ‘oversized democracy inherited by the government, suggesting bureaucracy was thwarting his anti-drug camaign.

The government’s attempts to centralise control of the nation’s mosques through amendments to the Religious Unity Act met with greater successful as the president ratified the changes shortly before departing to Japan on an official state visit.

Prior to boarding the plane to Tokyo, Yameen told the press that he had been unable – and unwilling – to meet the demands of Indian company GMR for an out-of-court settlement regarding the terminated airport development deal.

It was revealed that the government will now await the outcome of the arbitration proceedings, expected within the next two months after hearings concluded this week.

Yameen’s trip to east Asia saw the Japanese government thanked for its generous history of developmental assistance in the Maldives as well an open invitation for private investors to continue the tradition.

Back on the home front, President Yameen acknowledged that the distribution of government positions among coalition partners had generated some tension, after rumblings of discontent from coalition leader Gasim Ibrahim.

No such discontent was found in a survey conducted by the Tourism Ministry this month which found 98 percent of tourists would recommend the Maldives as a holiday destination.

Eighty percent of those surveyed reported having holidayed within an hour of the capital Malé, a trend Addu City Council hopes to change with the establishment of a guest house promotion board in the country’s southernmost atoll.

The heavy concentration of tourists in Kaafu atoll brought the opposite response from Malé City Council, who passed a resolution opposing the development of Kuda Bandos – the only local picnic island available to the overcrowded capital’s residents.

Meanwhile, the Department of Heritage hopes to draw the attention of visitors to the Maldives’ cultural treasures, organising an exhibition of the country’s coral mosques as attempts to make UNESCO’s world heritage list continue.

The Ministry of Environment maintained that the country’s natural heritage can still be preserved if the world commits to a 1.5°C cap on global temperature rise, with Minister Thoriq Ibrahim pledging to increase renewable energy to 30% in the next 5 years.

Elsewhere, the High Court is now considering over a dozen election-related complaints following last month’s Majlis poll – though the arguments posited by Kaashidhoo MP Abdulla Jabir received short shrift from the Elections Commission’s lawyer.

Jabir’s Maldivian Democratic Party announced it would hold an event to mark Labour Day next month while taxi drivers failed to present a united front in protests against new regulations due to be implemented this week.

DhiFM remained steadfast in its defiance of the Maldives Broadcasting Commission – responding to criticism for posting upside down pictures by posting a similar image of the commission’s chair.

Corruption charges were pressed this week against controversial Supreme Court Judge Ali Hameed, while the Anti Corruption Commission asked the state to pursue charges against a former state minister for undue expenditure on sports activities.

Minivan News also took time this week to talk discuss the future of hydroponics in the country’s agriculture as well as interviewing the Maldives’ first female DJ.


98 percent of tourists would recommend Maldives to others, visitor survey reveals

With additional reporting by Daniel Bosley

The Maldives Visitor Survey 2014 has revealed that 98 percent of tourists would recommend the Maldives as a holiday destination to others.

The survey was conducted by the Ministry of Tourism and other industry stakeholders from March 18 to April 5, the results of which were released yesterday (April 14) at the Nasandhura Palace Hotel.

Results of the survey showed that a significant percent (31%) of tourists to the Maldives are repeat visitors. The majority of the tourists visit the Maldives with either a partner (55%) or with family (28%).

A separate survey earlier in the year, conducted by online reservations group Agoda, revealed the Maldives to be regarded as the ideal honeymoon destination by those surveyed.

Of the significant nationalities represented in this month’s survey, more Japanese and Indian visitors were on their honeymoon than any other group, with the rest citing rest and relaxation as their main reason for visiting.

The prominent role the internet plays in the industry – as the media for source of information and travel booking – was further revealed in the recent survey, as 25 percent of the respondents said they learnt about the Maldives via the internet and 53 percent said they booked their holiday online.

The Maldives’ natural environment which includes underwater, beach and the weather were the main (52%) motivators for visits to the Maldives.

More Japanese and Chinese visitors cited the country’s reputation as the reason for their visit than any other national group, while Russian and Indian respondents were the most interested in the privacy provided.

85 percent of those surveyed stayed in one of the country’s 105 single island resorts, which still dwarf the size of the safari boat (numbering 160) and the, quickly growing, guest house sectors (79).

The visitor survey was conducted at the departure terminal of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport from 18th February to 5th March 2014. Questionnaires were prepared in 7 languages, with a sample size of 1,800.

45 percent of respondents reported travelling by speedboat to their resort, with 80 percent reaching their destination within an hour – figures which highlight the concentration of resorts in the central atolls, a situation the government has been urged to amend in favour of development in the out atolls.

Continued growth in the tourism industry was revealed by authorities in February, with tourist arrivals growing by 17 percent between 2012 and 2013 – surpassing one million visitors for the first time.

Statistics from the Tourism Ministry show that 331,719 Chinese tourists visited the Maldives last year, which was a 44.5 percent increase from the previous year.

Chinese tourists accounted for 29.5 percent of all tourist arrivals in 2013, with the industry’s contribution to national GDP estimated to be as high as 80 percent.

The current government hopes to expand bed capacity in order to achieve the current Tourism Masterplan’s projection of 1.75 million arrivals by 2021.


Environment Ministry begins e-waste survey

The Ministry of Environment has on Saturday started conducting a survey – titled e-waste survey – to study waste material that does not decompose even over long periods of time, and to raise public awareness on the matter.

The survey, which is being conducted in capital city Male’, is carried out with the assistance of Center for Higher Secondary Education, Maldives National University, Maldivian Red Crescent, and individuals.


NGOs begin child abuse survey on Thinadhoo and Fuvahmulah

The Maldivian Red Crescent and Canadian Red Cross have begun compiling a survey on the islands of Thinadhoo and Fuvahmulah to help determine public understanding of incidents of violence against children and young people, local Media has reported.

As part of a three year Violence Prevention Project being conducted by the NGOs on the back of fears of an increase in reported cases of violence against children, the survey will be used to assist efforts on educating members of the public over abuse of young people.

According to the Sun Online news service, the survey is expected to be completed and sent to local authorities by September 30.


Planning statistics show surge in unhealthy eating

Statistics for Maldives household food expenditure show a disturbing shift towards an “adverse dietary pattern”, with increased intakes of high-fat and sugary products, the Planning Department has revealed.

Health experts in the country have blamed the unhealthy diet of Maldivians for the high prevalence of cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disorders such diabetes among Maldivians, which account for almost 50 percent of the all deaths in the country. The comparative figure for the US is 25 percent.

According to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey, the structure of the Maldivian diet has shifted towards a “higher energy density diet with a greater role for fat and added sugars in foods, greater saturated fat intake, reduced intakes of complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber, and reduced fruit, vegetable and fish intakes.”

Eating less vegetables, fruits and fish

Overall, household expenditure on all the food groups has increased except for fruits and nuts, fish and vegetables.

The food expenditure on fruits and nuts reduced by 41.8 percent in the Maldives, although the percentage of the decline was higher among atolls, where a 45 percent reduction in fruits and nuts was recorded compared to the 30 percent decline in the capital Male’.

Within this group, food expenditure on bananas, tender coconut, papayas, coconut and apples declined by 50 percent or more in in 2010 compared to 2003, while the statistics further flagged a growing trend of substituting natural fruits with preserved or canned fruits.

“The household food expenditure on fruit cocktail and other canned and preserved fruits has increased over the period significantly,” the report read.

Household expenses on vegetables meanwhile recorded a 4 percent decline nationally, although an 18 percent and 33 percent increase was recorded in the atolls and Male’ respectively.

The Planning Department explained that expenditure on vegetables such as breadfruit, curry leaves and green chilli had reduced significantly, while spending on vegetables such as cabbage, onion and other fresh vegetables had “increased significantly.”

The department concluded: “If the changes in the prices are taken into account, in real terms, there is a decline in the household expenditure on fruits and vegetables. It is likely that there is an under-reporting of the consumption of own-produced fruits and vegetables such as breadfruits, green chili, curry leaves, coconut, papaya, etc, particularly in the atolls, as there is a difficulty valuing them in monetary terms.”

In the fish category – the traditional source of food for Maldivians – a net decrease of eight percent was recorded nationally in 2010.

In the same period, the spending patterns shows that eating fish declined by 23 percent in the atolls and in Male’ by 28 percent.

According the Planning department, the decline has most likely been caused by the decline in the overall fish catch since 2007 – therefore, shifting the people’s demand to the available alternative, imported meat.

“The household expenditure on frozen chicken and chicken products increased by 105 percent while the demand for sausages has increased by 306 percent,” the report observed.

“Sugar high”

According to the planning department, the food category that showed a “huge increase” in expenditure was sugar, jam, honey, syrups, chocolate and confectionery.

The major food products in this category that had a huge increase in the household expenditure included ice-creams, accounting to a staggering 4,630 percent increase in 2010, while chocolate increased by 1,071 percent, jelly by 1,332 percent and honey by 719 percent.

Although the planning department’s report does not specify, demand for caffeine, and energy drinks made with high fructose syrups or added sugar is on the rise among young.

Studies have concluded that added sugar is one of the greatest factors in the rise in obesity and other health conditions such as diabetes, tooth decay, poor nutrition and elevated triglycerides.

Furthermore, recent studies have also found eating too much sugar can make people forgetful and potentially cause permanent brain damage.

Meanwhile, spending on spices, short-eats and other snacks such as chicken rings, potato chips, popcorn – high in saturated fats –  increased substantially over the period.

Health concerns

Growing consumption of high-fat and sugary products, combined with behavioral risk factors such as physical inactivity and tobacco use,  has put a high number of people at the risk of non-communicable diseases such as heart and blood-related diseases, diabetes mellitus and other degenerative and chronic diseases, according to health experts.

Statistics from Health Mininstry show that in 2009, a total of 459 people (39 percent) died from circulatory system diseases which includes strokes, placing it at as the most common cause of death among all age groups, followed by respiratory diseases (12.3 percent).

Speaking to Minivan News, Internist Dr Ahmed Razee noted that consumption of healthy foods such as vegetables and fruits never reached the “preference levels” in the Maldives.

“Spending on vegetables or fruits have not declined. In fact, the truth is that it never increased,” Dr Raazee argued. “Junk food is commercially marketed and made available easily while the same thing has not be done for the vegetables and fruits,” he added.

Meanwhile, with unhealthy eating habits more people are in the having high levels of cholesterol and blood glucose, resulting in a higher risk of endocrine abnormalities leading to strokes and metabolic disorders among young people, said Dr Raazee, who has a special interest in diabetes and kidney diseases.

In an earlier interview to Minivan News, Public Health Programme Coordinator for the Center for Community Health and Disease Control (CCHDC), Dr Fathmath Nazla Rafeeq, also observed that malnutrition in the country was “quite alarming” considering the number of medical advances made in the country over the last few years.

Her comments, made on World Health Day, related specifically to fears over the national promotion of healthy diets, including issues of vitamin deficiency in expectant mothers and children, to the consumption of high-calorie junk food and energy drinks by young people.

According to figures published in 2009 by the World Health Organisation (WHO), 17.8 percent of children under five years of age were found to be underweight in the Maldives according to international standards for ascertaining health in young people. The same figures found that 6.5 percent of children were classed as overweight in the country. 20.3 percent of children in the same age group were found to be suffering from ’stunting’, a term describing children suffering growth retardation as a result of poor diet and infection.


Maldives “too expensive” say tourists

With most of the tourists ranking Maldives as an expensive holiday destination in a 2011 survey, the industry is reminded of the longstanding need to explore means to change that perception, as it faces new challenges in sustaining the growing China market while European arrivals drop.

The “Maldives Visitor Survey 2011” compiled by the private consulting firm Commerce, Development and Environment (CDE) in collaboration with Tourism Ministry, depicts the tourist’s perspective on industry related products and services, reason for visiting and expenditure.

Nearly 3000 tourists who arrived in Maldives in April 2011 were given questionnaires, which were collected for analysis before their departure.

Too expensive

According to the report released today, 46 percent of the tourists believed accommodation is too expensive despite the high rankings for services at the place of stay.

Soft drinks, alcohol were also rated expensive by 42 percent, while food, water and souvenirs received a similar ranking from 41 percent of tourists polled.

Transport by sea and air, including sports activities, meanwhile made it to the top three on the “value for money” category.

The report indicates that 53 percent of the tourists spent a minimum of US$1000 during their stay in Maldives, while the expenditure trends show an increase.

However, speaking at the launching ceremony, tourism tycoon “Champa” Hussain Afeef demanded more accurate figures on expenditure, with comparisons to rival small island tourism destinations.

He also contended that the Maldives is “not an expensive country”, and that this was a mere “perception”.

“We have very top end hotels to come to” he said, which offers high quality products targeted to the tourists arriving from the traditional European market.

He insisted that resorts still offer beds at US$250 rate and prices have not increased since the commencement of Tourism Goods and Services Tax (TGST).

Tourism Minister Mariyam Zulfa agreed with Afeef.

“The current perception is coming about from the availability of current high end products,” adding that the prices cannot be lowered.

The government was moving towards boosting mid-market tourism, Zulfa observed. “This will provide more value for money, comfortable accommodation affordable to more people who want to visit Maldives,” she said.

Adapting to the Chinese market

The need to adapting to the Chinese market, which is dominating 15 percent of arrivals and plugging the gaps left by a decline in traditional European market, was highlighted by the survey team and the government.

Special Envoy Ibrahim Hussain Zaki, who launched the survey report today, reiterated that China is the dominating market and “products need to be changed to adapt to China market”.

“Otherwise we will not be able to sustain the market,” he said.

However, some resort operators inclined towards relying on the traditional European market.

“We need to find a strategy to maintain our traditional original market,” Sun Travel and Tours Chairman and MP Ahmed Siyam said, raising concerns over the long term dependence on Chinese market.

“We noticed arrivals from Taiwan increased in 2002. But after five years it dropped. And now we don’t see a single Taiwanese tourist here,” he claimed. “We must ask why Chinese are coming to Maldives. They don’t like the sun. They don’t like the beach or the diving.”

Negative publicity

The survey team observed that the Maldives is chosen as a destination mostly based on material published on internet, or from word of mouth. Therefore, it is critical to safeguard the reputation as a holiday destination, report recommends.

Shiyam meanwhile pointed out that the industry is threatened by increasing “negative publicity”, which has reportedly mounted due to the mass religious protest on December 23, 2011, and the short-lived nationwide spa ban imposed following protesters’ calls to close down the spas and massage parlors claiming that they doubled as brothels.

Shiyam claimed that the spa was one of the most enjoyed activities and their closure would create serious concerns. “We need to isolate tourism from politics to ensure sustainable tourism growth,” he asserted.

According to the report, snorkelling was enjoyed by 41 percent of tourists while diving and spa treatments received the same ranking from 17 percent tourists.

It also stated that one in four visitors return to the Maldives.

The main attractions include the Maldives natural environment, sun and peacefulness. Over half of the tourists rated the Maldives natural environment, quality of products, security and hospitality better than other similar destinations such as Seychelles, Mauritius, Thailand, Indonesia and Fiji.

However, the tourists were looking for improvement in cafes, restaurants, visits to capital Male and shopping, and fewer transfer delays.


“Overdue” national drug survey active across Maldives

The first “scientifically robust national survey” of drug use in the Maldives is kicking off with training for employees and volunteers this week. The survey was contracted by national research organisation Inova Pvt Ltd, in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Family.

The survey examines the drug use habits of Maldivians ages 15 to 64, and is a contributing factor of the program, “Strengthening the National response to Combat Drug Abuse in the Maldives”, which began in July under the remit of the United Nations (UN) and the Maldivian government.

United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), the All Indian Institute and the European Union are providing funding and expertise, and 13 local NGOs are assisting the project, particularly within island communities.

International Project Coordinator for UNODC, Sarah Waller, said the survey would add structure to the Maldivian government’s sparse drug policy.

“The survey should generate a better understanding of where treatment gaps in the community are, in order for the government and civil society to target appropriate evidence-based treatment and interventions in their drug-treatment planning. At the moment, it’s a bit of a guess how services are set up. This will enable to the government to provide a much more targeted response to the issue.”

The survey is being conducted according to two methods.

On islands, ‘enumerators’ employed by Inova will gather and process data by conducting household interviews.

Waller said many enumerators come from the recovering community, and staff from Journey are providing specific training to those who have little to no experience in drug use and abuse.

“Many have likely never interacted in the past with drug users. The first few days of training are about building awareness and sensitisation around drug users, around the Maldives’ treatment systems, and around the patterns and trends of drug abuse here,” Waller said.

Another method will be applied on Male’. Volunteer ‘respondents’ will serve as the middle man, gathering survey participants from Male’s more dense and urban community and connecting with them enumerators.

“The methodology for Male’ is quite different from what is given out on the islands,” said Waller. “The method, Respondent Driven Sampling (RDS), is more appropriate to the community on Male’. This approach identifies initial seeds in the community, and those seeds generate additional seeds. So you’re really generating responses through one initial seed.”

Respondents will be rewarded with coupons according to their efforts gathering participants. Waller emphasised that the compensation had been carefully designed to protect the survey’s validity.

“The evidence base suggests that incentivizing the driving of seeds to identify more individauls to take part in the study can enable a much more representative and accurate sample. When it comes to incentivizing recovering or abusive populations, there are ethics that need to be considered regarding that incentive. In particular with doing research amongs drug users, there have to be ethics whereby monetary incentives aren’t sufficient enough to encourage the workers to use them on drugs.”

Minivan News spoke to Journey volunteer member Imlaaq Shareef about the survey’s methods.

“It’s an advanced form of snowballing. First, the respondents will bring one or two and give a reward, maybe three coupons. Then they’ll bring another three addicts, and get a reward for that. So from one respondent the team will get more and more samples,” said Shareef.

When asked if the survey was likely to be accurate, Shareef doubted that all participants would initially be honest.

“But in the survey there are a lot of recovering addicts who are volunteering, and they’ll be able to identify the community here,” Shareef observed. “This is a small place, so, even the person who is doing drugs the most secretively somehow some people will know about it. So we can reach for them. I think by this survey, we can get a good estimate.”

In Shareef’s opinion, the survey is overdue.

“It should have been done earlier. Day by day, the number of IV users is getting high, and drug users are getting high, the number of sex workers are increasing. And in most cases, sex workers are addicts because it’s the easiest way for a girl addict to get money to buy her drugs. There is no choice for these girls, and most do not enjoy it,” said Shareef.

In addition to having an information shortage, the Maldives is struggling to plug the gaps between drug rehabilitation and law enforcement.

“There are very few rehabilitation service providers here,” said Shareef. “The problem is, once people get out of rehab they have to sign up for community service and stay here for a year or so. If they relapse during that period, it’s a big case. They might end up in court or jail. So most people are afraid of taking a treatment, because of the loopholes in the law.”

Shareef complained that a drug reform bill has been stalled in Parliament.

“Even very recently, at Journey, we put out a petition that was signed by nearly 8,000 people and sent it to the Majlis to pass the drug bill. But they don’t give a damn about it. They are just concerned about the Rf20,000 they are getting. I wonder what kind of risk they are taking,” said Shareef.

Parliament accepted the bill in March 2010 and sent the legislation to committee for further review.

Shareef said the bill would significantly improve drug addicts’ recovery process.

“A user should never end up in jail. It has been scientifically proven that addiction is a chronic brain disease. So why should they end up in jail? It’s a big problem,” Shareef said.

Waller said the survey could provide a base line for developing a sufficient drug management infrastructure.

“The data can assist government in how and where to apply the information, and what communities need in terms of service. There is certainly an affinity between the two,” she said.

The project’s final report is due for release in February 2012.