Police to crack down on tour agents scamming tourists

Police have announced plans to crack down on tour operators who are allegedly scamming tourists visiting Maldives, after several complaints were filed by tourists who have been targeted in these scams.

The reports of the tourist scams will be unwelcome for an industry which is already struggling to remain on top of its niche market of small island tourism as it faces fluctuating arrival rates, a decline in traditional markets, potential tax increments and a deteriorating image as political instability grows.

According to the police, some tour operators are defrauding tourists by charging large amounts of money in advance to pay for reservations, without actually making the payments to the resort.

“A lot of problems are created when the tourists arrive in Maldives after making the payments to the travel agencies and discover [the agencies] have not paid the resorts,” Deputy Head of Crime Specialist Command Mohamed Riyaz told press on Saturday.

Although the reported cases are uncommon and several were successively resolved, Riyaz noted that the police have started investigations into the tourist rip-offs as they are being “repeated”.

Police are taking administrative action against four agencies suspected of defrauding tourists, while investigations are pending in six “serious” cases, according to the Deputy Head of Crime Specialist Command.

He added: “The licence of agencies not paying advance money to the resorts will be terminated and their bank accounts will be frozen under the criminal investigation.”

The police have also requested tour operators to refrain from such scams that have the potential to “deeply harm” the tourism industry of Maldives, which contributes almost 80 percent to the national income.

“Operated from bedrooms”

Speaking to Minivan News, the Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO) and Maldives Association of Tourism Industries (MATI) – associations which represent tour operators and resort owners, respectively – revealed that the roots of the scam runs deeper.

MATATO’s President Mohamed Khaleel contended that there are “no legal restrictions to the fraudsters who want to run these scams”.

“Anyone can go to the Economic Ministry and set up a company. Get a travel agent licence, set up a website and start bringing tourists. Over the past two years, we have raised several concerns in various platforms about these paper companies defrauding the tourists and resorts,” Khaleel explained.

Police yesterday confirmed that the tour operators suspected to be complicit in the tourist rip-offs were registered, liscenced and had their own online booking service. However, the police did not reveal the identity of the companies as the investigation is pending.

However, MATATO’s President claims that out of nearly 500 registered and licensed tour operators and agents, only 50-70 are  professional agents “committed” to the industry.

“Others don’t even have offices, they just put a name board on the street and operate from bedrooms. No commitments. They take money from tourists, close it down and go open another agency again,” he added.

MATI’s Secretary General Mohamed Ibrahim Sim echoed similar concerns, recalling several instances where resorts have faced difficulties in collecting payments: “Some tour operators with outstanding payments have declared bankruptcy and disappeared. We have not even been able to trace some of them back.”

Both Sim and Khaleel emphasised the establishment of legal frameworks to provide legal protections to the industry and to prevent “a few fraudsters from tainting the image of whole tourism sector”.

“The solution lies in establishing better legal frameworks where the tour operator, resort operator and the customer is protected,” Sim argued.

“We have to enforce these laws and regulations. Beacause of the new innovations in the sector, the dealings between the resort and the tour operators are changing very quickly. We need to keep up with them in terms of an updated legal framework, where laws and regulations are revised and revamped consistently as the technology changes everyday. If we do not keep up with it, we are going to face these problems.” he further noted.

Meanwhile, MATATO’s President Khaleel observed that they are working on a draft of Local Travel Agent Regulation and Code of Conduct to gap the loopholes in the system and facilitate in protecting the industry. However, it is yet to be approved from the ministry and necessary laws need to be amended as well, according to Khaleel.