Leading Swiss retail group opens training centre for Maldives fisherman

Switzerland’s retailing group Migros and the International Pole and Line Foundation (IPNLF) have opened a training centre for Maldivian fishermen.

The fishing industry news source ‘Fish Site’ reported that the aim of the newly opened Fishermen’s Community and Training Centre (FCTC) was to provide long term support for the country’s pole and line fishing communities through fisheries training and education.

According the website, the FCTC will provide free training courses for active fishermen and school leavers.

The source quoted Chairman of the IPNLF John Burton, who described the training centre as “an important milestone for the Maldivian fishing industry, an industry we are all part of, an industry that is at the heart of Maldivian way of life.’’

Government records show that, in 2012, over 120,000 metric tons of fish were caught in the Maldives, with over 10,000 fishermen registered.

“The opening of this centre marks our collective and considerable efforts in building a stronger and commercially competitive pole and line fishing industry for this country, while directly supporting the local fishermen and their communities,’’ said Burton.

Also present at the ceremony, Maldives Fisheries Minister Dr Mohamed Shainee sincerely thanked everyone supporting the program in the name of the ministry and local fishermen for partnering in the development of the fishing industry, keeping pole and line fishing a sustainable method as well as promoting it to other countries.

The FCTC is based in Gan in Laamu Atoll, and will be run by Maldives Fishermen Association.

In November 2013, The European Union declined to extend the duty-free status of imported fish from the Maldives, following the country’s failure to comply with international conventions concerning freedom of religion.

The Maldives exports 40 percent of its US$100 million fishing industry to the EU – its single largest export partner by value.

However, in an interview with Minivan News, Fisheries Minister Dr Shainee stated that this issue could be solved through bilateral relations between the countries in EU.

“The European market or consumer will be affected from this as well. There will a lot of pressure from the consumer’s side, as when prices of fish go up, it’s not just us carrying the burden, but also the consumers. So I think there will be a lot of pressure,’’ he told Minivan News.

Shainee noted that there would be a lot of pressure from the consumers in Europe, with the minister suggesting that people were more educated and wanted these types of niche products.

“Maldives is the only country that doesn’t catch by-catch fish. We are dolphin free. We are catching one by one. We are the most green fisheries industry in the world, in fact. So I am sure the consumers in the European market would like to get something from this side of the world which is more green and environmental friendly,’’ he added.


President’s Office dismisses Ibrahim Moosa Luthfee from advisory role

Ibrahim ‘Sandhaanu’ Moosa Luthfee has been dismissed from his advisory role at the President’s Office after he failed to attend for months after taking leave, the government confirmed.

President’s Office Media Secretary Masood Imad told Minivan News the decision had been taken to terminate Luthfee’s advisory role – stated in local media to be a salaried position with a monthly wage of MVR 32,000 (US$2075),  after he was found not to have returned to work for a significant period of time after taking leave.

Masood was unable to clarify if Luthfee had continued to receive wages during the period of leave, but expressed his personal belief that this would be unlikely.

“This is a bureaucratic issue and I think that it is normal to dismiss someone if they don’t come to work for four months or whatever,” he said. “In such a case, If I overstay my leave, I believe I would not be continued to be paid if I did not return to work. We haven’t been on top of this matter, but I’m sure payments would have been stopped through the bureaucratic system we have.”

According to Sun Online, Luthfee, who was previously sentenced to life in prison back in 2002 under the government of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, had resided in Switzerland before returning to the country in August of last year for a “holiday”.


“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.


President meets with major human rights NGOs in Geneva

President Mohamed Nasheed met with officials from major human rights NGOs in Geneva as part of his European tour.

The meeting was attended by Mark Thompson from the Association for the Prevention of Torture; Julie De Reveiro from Human Rights Watch; Jan Borgen from Amnesty International; Wilbur Taylor from International Commission of Jurists; and Mohamed Mustapha Kabbaj from Nord-Sud XXI, a Swiss-based NGO aiming to “provide a voice…to people not normally represented in international forums”.

The meeting focused mainly on extending NGO support in the Maldives and strengthening the role of civil society in their respective areas, especially those dealing with protecting and promoting human rights.

President Nasheed said the country was undergoing major changes and said strengthening the role of civil society in Maldives is a priority for the government.


President meets Vice President of Swiss Confederation

President Mohamed Nasheed met with Vice President of the Swiss Confederation, Mortiz Leunberger, yesterday afternoon at the Federal House in Bern.

The meeting focused on establishing stronger bilateral relations between the two countries and possible areas of further cooperation.

President Nasheed noted that there is already a well established relationship in the tourism sector.

The president also expressed his interest in working with Switzerland to secure a legally binding agreement at COP16 climate change summit in Mexico later this year.

President Nasheed thanked Vice President Leunberger for Switzerland’s support in a Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) waste management project in the Maldives, and hoped this would be the first of many Swiss-Maldives development initiatives.


President departs on four-nation European tour

President Mohamed Nasheed has departed this morning on his four-nations European tour.

The president is to visit Germany, Iceland, Switzerland and Finland.

President Nahseed will meet with political and industry leaders, as well as investors and climate experts in all four countries.

The president is scheduled to visit ITB Berlin, an international travel and trade show held yearly in Berlin.

He will also hold a lecture on climate change at the Freie Universität Berlin hosted by the Environmental Policy Research Centre. The Freie Universität is one of the leading research universities in Germany, and ranks among the best in the country.

President Nasheed will then attend a public lecture in Iceland, followed by a speech at the Seminar and Policy Debate organised by the Finnish Institute of International Affaris (FIIA), which produces topical information on international relations with the EU.