“Maldives lied”: New7wonders controversy continues in South Korea

A documentary regarding New7Wonders, aired on South Korean national broadcaster KBS, has drawn on the Maldives’ experience with the foundation and ignited controversy in the country regarding the nature of the competition.

Korea’s Jeju island was announced as one of the winners in the competition, along with the Amazon rainforest, Vietnam’s Halong Bay, Argentina’s Iguazu Falls, Indonesia’s Komodo, the Philippines’ Puerto Princesa underground river, and South Africa’s Table Mountain.

Votes were collected online and via paid SMS and phone voting in the various countries, in collaboration with telecom sponsors. Final vote counts for the winners were not revealed, however New7Wonders maintains that the process is “uniquely democratic”.

Following the airing of the program in South Korea, founder of the Swiss-based New7Wonders operation and self-described filmmaker, museum curator, aviator and explorer, Bernard Weber, visited the country to denounce it.

“Only a few reporters were able to attend the conference due to the short notice,” noted the Korea Herald.

“Since the announcement [about Jeju] was made, however, media outlets and activists here have been raising suspicions concerning the foundation’s identity, the money Jeju spent to be chosen and whether it was fair for government officials to take part in the voting multiple times,” the paper reported.

During the press conference, President of the Jeju Tourism Organisation Yang Young-keun revealed that Jeju residents and tourism officials spent 20 billion won (US$18 million) on international phone voting for the competition.

“With the tourism industry accounting for more than 80 percent of Jeju’s economy, 20 billion won does not seem like an unreasonably large amount of money,” Yang added.

Park Dae-seok, an official at Korea’s National Committee for Jeju New7Wonders of Nature, was also quoted as stating that “with Jeju’s 500,000 people, it would have been impossible to have the island named the New Seven Wonders and it is only fair to allow multiple voting in this sense.”

The Maldives’ cabinet announced it was withdrawing from the competition in May 2011, after claiming to have received unexpected demands for cash not explicitly specified in the original contract, in order to continue to “compete meaningfully” in the competition.

Indonesia followed suit, with the country’s tourism authorities announcing the withdrawal of Komodo from the running. In both instances, New7wonders insisted that the Maldives and Komodo remained in the competition while seeking new promoters in both countries.

Demands included ‘sponsorship fees’ (‘platinum’ at US$350,000, or two ‘gold’ at US$210,000 each) and the funding of a ‘World Tour’ event whereby the Maldives would pay for a delegation of people to visit the country, provide hot air balloon rides, press trips, flights, accommodation and communications.

In a comment piece published on Minivan News, New7wonders spokesman Eamonn Fitzgerald responded that the authority to withdraw a participant from the campaign “is a decision for New7Wonders alone, not for any government agency.”

“With the Maldives still a finalist, the critical choice to be made by the key decision-makers in the Maldives is whether to support the campaign or not,” Fitzgerald said at the time.

“I think that it would be a good idea for all the leaders in the Maldives to be active participants in the campaign for the simple reason that it makes good business sense. After all, this is why so many countries, with their public and private sectors, are enthusiastically involved in this global event.”

Voting controversy

Besides Jeju in South Korea, other winning countries responded energetically to the campaign, notably developing countries with large populations desperate to boost tourism revenue.

Vietnam’s central bank in November 2011 sent an urgent communication to the country’s financial institutions, urging them to force their employees to vote for Vietnam’s Halong Bay in the New7wonders competition.

According to the UK’s Financial Times, staff at one of Vietnam’s state-run bank were set quotas of 600 paid SMS votes each.

“Vietnamese officials, perhaps mindful of the growing importance of tourism to the economy, are going the extra mile to try to secure victory, pulling on the many control levers available to the pervasive Communist party,” the FT reported.

However some Vietnamese tourism officials cited by the FT raised concerns about the country’s expenditure on paid voting to win the competition, suggesting that the money and time “would be better spent cleaning up the worsening pollution in Halong Bay, raising safety standards on tour boats after two fatal sinkings in recent years and improving the overall environment for tourism.”

President of the Philippines, Noynoy Aquino, also urged his population to hit the phones and vote for the Puerto Princesa Underground River.

“In the Philippines we have no less than 80 million cellphone users sending nearly 2 billion text messages every day. All we need is one billion votes, so that is half a day,” Aquino said, during the river’s campaign push – a commitment of US$58 million, at PHP2.50 (US$0.058) a vote.

In the Maldives, the Swiss foundation approached telecom provider Dhiraagu seeking US$1 million in sponsorship to be its telecom partner in the Maldives, a figure that dropped by half when the company complained that the price was too high.

In a recorded interview with Korean journalists, obtained by Minivan News, Bernard Weber defends the sponsorship as “not a requirement, but a proposition.”

New7Wonders Director, Jean-Paul de la Fuente, interjects: “The Maldives people basically lied. They said if they did not bring sponsors we had threatened they would be expelled from the campaign. That’s a lie. There was no conditional sponsorship, and the proof is that five of the seven winners had no sponsors.”

Fuente continued: “The reason the Maldives person lied is because he had a personal financial interest in another business. What he did was show selected documents that clearly said there was no condition. When he resigned an alternative civic group tried to become a new committee, and he threatened them not to become a new committee.

“Unfortunately the Maldives was until recently a dictatorship, and maybe they still have some of the bad habits of a dictatorship. But we are absolutely clear that the Maldives lied,” Fuente said, and identified Managing Director of the Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation (MMPRC), Simon Hawkins, as “the main problem.”

In response, Hawkins told Minivan News today that “the only financial incentive and gain was to save the country over 500,000 US dollars for ridiculous charges from a disreputable organisation, and I succeeded. The Cabinet did their own investigation and reached their own conclusions, which was the same as ours. I also fail to see how Mr Weber can say that we were lying with the concrete evidence against him.”

Following the Maldives’ withdrawal, New7wonders approached the Maldives Association of Tourism and Travel Operators (MATATO) to take over from the MMPRC as the organising committee of the Maldives’ campaign – a move opposed by the MMPRC, as “the democratically elected Government of the Maldives is the only legitimate authority to act in the name of the Maldives and its people”.

Secretary General of MATATO, Maleeh Jamal, said at the time that the association was considering taking over the event in the government’s stead, as the studies offered by New7Wonders promised an “enormous return on investment”, and “US$500,000 for such an award would be quickly recovered. Although the money was a concern, we had a fair chance of winning,” he said at the time.

Asked today whether the MMPRC had threatened MATATO not to continue in the competition, Jamal said he did not wish to comment: “It was a huge controversy and now the whole saga is over,” he said.

Business model

The studies referred to by MATATO were also referenced by Fitzgerald in a letter to Minivan News following the cabinet decision to withdraw:

  1. Study published by Pearson of London in April 2010: US$5 billion overall in economic, tourism and brand image values for the participants and winners in the man-made New 7 Wonders of the World campaign;
  2. Study published by Grant Thornton of South Africa in April 2011: US$1.012 billion each in economic and employment value for the first five years for being successful in the New7Wonders of Nature;
  3. New study published by JDI of South Korea in May 2011: up to US$1.837 billion each per annum in economic benefits for being successful in the New7Wonders of Nature.

The New 7 Wonders of Nature was the second competition of its kind to be held by the foundation. The first, concerning man-made wonders of the world, awarded the title to Chichen Itza in Mexico, Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, Colosseum in Rome, Great Wall in China, Machu Picchu in Peru, Petra in Jordan, and the Taj Mahal in India. The Pyramids of Giza in Egypt – one of the original 7 wonders, was eventually awarded an honorary title after the Ministry of Tourism complained.

Following Indonesia’s decision to withdraw Komodo, Indonesian blogger Priyadi Nurcahyo Faith collected 15 years of tourism statistics for three of the winning attractions in the first competition, as well as national tourism arrivals, and graphed them in an attempt to correlate the effect of winning the competition.

Visitor numbers to 2007 New 7 Wonders winners. Source: Priyardi's Place

Machu Picchu recorded high growth in (overseas) visitors between 1998 and 2000 of over 20 percent a year. Visitor numbers slumped over 16 percent in 2001, returning to 40 percent in 2005. By 2006, visitors had plunged to 1.14 percent. In 2007 – the year Machu Picchu was announced a winner of the New 7 wonders competition, it had risen to 14 percent, slowing to 12 percent in 2008. In 2009 growth plunged 5 percent, worsening to 18 percent in 2010. Overall arrivals to Peru increased 41 percent in 2004, and 14 percent in the year of the competition. Arrivals dropped 4 percent in 2009.

The Taj Mahal in India showed a broadly similar trend. Foreign visitors increased dramatically 62 percent in 2005, before plunging 17 percent the following year. In 2007, visitor numbers grew 19 percent, but in 2008 the increase was less that 1 percent. Visitors dropped almost 17 percent in 2009. The increase in tourism arrivals to India as a whole continued a downward trend from 13 percent in 2005 to 7 percent in 2008.

Petra, which recorded both foreign and domestic visitors, saw a significant spike in 2007 of over 60 percent, building on a broadly positive trend from a dramatic increase of 93 percent in 2004. Visitors increased 38 percent in 2008, dropped nine percent in 2009, and increased 34 percent in 2010.

At the same time, overall visitors to Jordan dropped 3 percent in 2007, despite almost 19 percent growth the year before.

The blogger’s conclusion was that the New 7 Wonders contribution to visitor numbers was difficult to correlate amid other factors – but was likely “not so significant”.

The controversy surrounding Indonesia and the Maldives’ withdrawal from the competition, and most recently the growing attention in South Korea, has sparked interest in the foundation’s business model.

A ‘New7Wonders Foundation’ is registered in the Swiss canton of Zurich as a charitable foundation, however the New7Wonders own website describes it as “a major, global-scale proof of a business concept based on mass virtual online dynamics creating concrete economic positive outcomes in the real world”.

The Maldives Tourism Ministry initially paid a US$199 participation fee and signed a contract not with the foundation, but rather a commercial arm of the operation: New Open World Corporation (NOWC), which listed its address on the contract as a law firm in the Republic of Panama.

The fate of the money paid to NOWC by tourism authorities, sponsors and telecom partners in unclear. Funds raised, the website states, are used “to set up and run the global New7Wonders voting platform, to run the first campaign that chose the Official New 7 Wonders of the World, to run the current campaign electing the Official New7Wonders of Nature, to run the New7Wonders organisation, [and] to create a surplus for distribution.”

Swiss law does not require charitable foundations to disclose how much they pay executives, unlike the UK, and no filings, declarations of assets or record of funds distributed are available on the foundation’s website.


‘Celebrants’ are the victims here, not the Swiss: Guardian

“Thousands of couples across Europe and the US who have married or renewed vows in Asian ceremonies must now be wondering what was really said as rings were passed and kisses were exchanged,” writes William Sutcliffe in the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

“However pleasant the officiators may have seemed, however sincere the tone of the ceremony appeared, it is clear now that literally anything could have been passed off as a blessing or a chant. Of course, this should always have been clear, but such is the determination to believe in some vague ideal of Eastern mysticism that most people who buy into these ceremonies presumably dismiss any legitimate scepticism as somehow “Western” and inappropriate.

“All hotels are reliant on a theatre of deference and respect. In expensive hotels in poor countries, where cocktails are served by waiters whose daily wage is less than the price of one of the drinks they serve, the gulf between what the staff think of the guests and how they are obliged to behave is likely to be at its largest. Only rarely does the fourth wall in this drama ever come down. This video is a truly spectacular example.”

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Comment: Culture and misfortune

The Vilu Reef Beach & Spa Resort disaster reminds me of the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, I read in June. It has a story, about how Korea Air became one of the safest airline (almost overnight) from being the worst. The author explained, justifiably, without emphasis on the number of accidents or the technical issues behind, rather how our culture (Asian culture) was responsible for the misfortune events that occurred before the Korean government took responsible measures. The specifics of the case related to a concept defined by the Dutch Geert Hotstede. Our Vilu Reef case, I feel is very similar to Korea Air story.

The story unfolds into pointing the conversations between pilot and the co-pilot of a specific flight, recorded in a black box. When the conversation was critically analysed, the Korean government accepted how much a role their culture had taken in the death of thousands. This was serious, but Koreans learned and corrected.

According to Hotstede, there are five major variables of life in a society. Where I feel we are at, on these scales are irrelevant. These are questions each and everyone has to confront in life!

Maldivians, as I have perceived, have preferred explicit rules, of the quiet sort, accepting uncertainty as a fact of life. We accept without questioning and we limit our boundaries. We are of a culture where employees remain with the same employer for a long period of time.

We are not of the culture where rules are flexible or implicit, or where activities are more of the informal. That being the majority, I observe there is a minority amongst us who are at the other end of the spectrum. They are either have convictions in hypocrisy or hidden. A recent estimate by an International NGO said two percent.

The composition of the collectivist thought far outweighs the individualist. The Individualist thoughts progress more quickly in wealthy communities. What the observation though, is a collectivistic counter-fight at its extreme, to a wealth enjoyed unequally. I wonder if the Individualist has the same ideology towards sexual relationships – the multiplier index for the divorce rate. I would think so.

The Long & the Short Term orientation varies according to people’s expectations from future. Some agree with responsibility to the future, while some stay with history and present. Persistence/Perseverance, thrill, thrift and shame is acceptable to the futuristic mind.

Reciprocation of favours and gifts is non-compulsory. Some stand to claim history being futuristic, when it has always proven otherwise. Else time stops. However, stability is more prone to the short-term oriented. On the other hand, instability during early gear-shifts is summoned to futuristic changes and therefore more associated to short-term orientation. A futuristic citizen understands the costs of instability and bears it responsibly.

The masculinity & femininity index measures, without any consideration of its literal value, how strong a value we put on relationships and quality of life as opposed to competitiveness, assertiveness, ambition and the accumulation of wealth.

The feminist elaboration is deliberate. Relationships can strive, with longer and healthier features although softer, even with the Individualistic. Difference acceptance is a survival vitality. Femininity and Individualistic is not therefore mutually exclusive. This index seems to exhibit a dependency on other indexes as well.

Power distribution and its acceptance varies from the consultative, democratic, and equal treatment regardless of position, as to paternalism or autocracy. Positions command power in less democratic approaches, and subordinates acknowledge and accept power of hierarchical positions, compromising critique and contribution. Power distribution doesn’t explain the motives of the people, rather a practice.

One may ask if these indexes relate to the current event, I would love to counter-argue that it very much is so. Ignorance is not bliss for me.

Reflecting on the contents of the video, how did one become accustomed to abusive language such as words like “Nagoobalhu” or swine to mirror a human? These are not just aesthetics but deep rooted in ourselves. I can vouch for hearing such crude language on our streets on a daily basis. Even close friends refer to each other with these words. The embarrassed nimbly tries to ignore it while the receptor tries to outsmart being addressed as such with equivalent or more abusive language.

We need to ask where we are, how and why we arrived at this point. It’s time we tried to measure our scales.

The book was an insightful read, although some stories were very slow in ripening. The gist of my note is that we need to take responsibility to what has happened on Vilu Reef. We need to reflect deeply on the incident and understand the deep rooted issues within. We need to study them, acknowledge them, apologize to those who were hurt, rectify and start over where necessary.

How critical an analysis should our Ministry of Tourism, Arts & Culture consider when developing the regulatory framework, policies and laws to implement and monitor standards?

Should we not investigate the psychological implications that led to such behavior – is there a role for the Ministry of Health here? Can we study the trends in human development in the context of the Maldivian environment?

How should the education system be overhauled to lay the educational foundation for the development of the children towards growing up to be responsible young adults – is this a responsibility of the Ministry of Education?

When can we start listening to our children? Can parental education be introduced to ensure that the children and youth are supported with social, personal, and other skills required to be part of the growing up community, encouraging critical thinking and promoting freedom of expression?

Should we not study how employment regulations affect the rights of geographically-restricted staff with limited means to reach legal assistance? How do we integrate conditions for employees welfare to meet his social, educational, personal and spiritual needs in a purely working environment such as a resort – what about Ministry of Human Resources, Youth & Sports?

How can the religious education embrace a more holistic and human rights based approach that can instill values in Maldivians – define the role of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs? What about ethics and values of our society including the business community? Shouldn’t Ministry of Economic Development be concerned about why foreign investors think twice before venturing with a local partner?

It is time for serious national action, for we cannot let this be repeated. Or we will hurt ourselves, again and again. We shouldn’t allow this to be swept under the carpet, after a short lived juicy-story-hype, with political veils. The government shall not just condemn it but take responsibility for rectification. Reports have to be published. The government should be questioned over its steps of rectification.

Punishing is not just a solution. Pointing a finger is not a solution in singularity. Apology without corrective action is not a solution. The solution is within us, which we cannot neglect to admit anymore. We need to learn our issues – issues of principle. We need to fix it and fix it soon.

The repercussions are a serious cost to each and every Maldivian. I believe it is the worst of its kind Maldives has had to face in its history and scars will remain for a long time. Reconciliation with the world, with nations and with religions and cultures is pre-requisite to restore Maldives.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Police arrest ‘celebrant’ as President expresses disgust over false wedding ceremony

The Maldives Police Service have arrested two men involved in the infamous ‘wedding’ ceremony at Vilu Reef Resort and Spa, in which the ‘celebrant’ and up to 15 complicit members of staff degrade and humiliate a Swiss couple in Dhivehi.

One of the men arrested was identified as Hussein Didi, a food and beverage assistant at the resort who acted as celebrant and who was filmed unleashing a torrent of hateful abuse at the oblivious couple.

Under Maldivian law non-Muslims are not permitted to marry in the Maldives, but many resorts offer ‘renewal of vows’ ceremonies.

“The court decided yesterday that [the men] should be kept in police custody during the investigation,” said Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam.

The men have not yet been formally charged, “but this is a very serious issue related to our economy,” Shiyam said. “Once we complete the investigation the Prosecutor General’s Office will decide the charges.”

President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed has meanwhile announced that the government will introduce strict guidelines for the conduct of tourist wedding ceremonies.

Speaking during his weekly radio address, President Nasheed said he was “disgusted” by the incident and described the behaviour of those involved as “absolutely disgraceful”.

He called on staff working in tourist resorts – indirectly responsible for 80 percent of the country’s economy – to be “vigilantly professional”, as such behaviour could cause “enormous damage to the country´s tourism industry.”

The government would leave “no stone unturned to ensure that an incident like this never happens again,” Nasheed said.

Meanwhile Maldives Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed issued a state apology to the couple, who have not been identified but are believed to be from Switzerland.

“The Maldives is a world-class tourist destination famed for its warm welcome and excellent customer service. Episodes such as that captured on video have no place in our tourism industry or in our society more broadly; and are alien to our cultural and religious values,” Dr Shaheed said.

The Maldives is grateful that the couple in question chose to renew their vows in one of our resorts and we cannot escape the fact that, on this occasion, because of the disrespectful and unacceptable actions of a few individuals, we have let them down.”

The Maldives Diplomatic Service had been instructed to contact the couple “and issue a face-to-face apology,” Dr Shaheed said.

“We will also be compensating them for any distress caused by this unfortunate incident. The Foreign Ministry will also be writing to our counterparts in Switzerland to offer our intense regret and to indicate the steps that the Government is taking to deal with the situation.”

Furthermore the government was seeking to hold talks with the Maldives tourism industry “in order to have assurances that this was an isolated incident,” the Foreign Minister added.

“If we do not receive such reassurance, we reserve the right to take all remedial steps necessary, legislative or otherwise, to ensure that episodes such that which occurred in Vilu Reef Resort never happen again, and do not tarnish the positive image of the country built up over so many years.”