Tourism ministry seizes environment regulatory powers

The parliament has granted powers to the tourism ministry to authorise developments on resorts in a move critics say will weaken the environment protection regime, and pave the way for corruption.

Amendments to the tourism law passed today transfers to the tourism ministry the Environment Protection Agency’s (EPA) powers to evaluate environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and authorise projects such as land reclamation. The agency functions as an independent body under the environment ministry.

Voting on the bill submitted by government-aligned MP Mohamed Ismail took place amid continuing protests by opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MPs.

It was passed with 41 votes in favour after Speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed asked for a show of hands.

If the amendments are ratified, resorts will have to seek authorisation from the tourism ministry for any development that could “permanently alter” the island, plot of land, or lagoon’s environment. The ministry must evaluate an EIA report before issuing permission.

EPA permanent secretary Ajwad Musthafa told the economic affairs committee during its review of the legislation last week that “the independent checks and balances system will be lost” if the regulatory powers are transferred to the tourism ministry.

The move amounts to allowing the tourism ministry to “self-regulate,” he contended.

The EIA process is the “main instrument” of the environment protection regime and adheres to international best practices, he said, noting that the reports are prepared by independent and qualified consultants.

Ajwad also objected to transferring technical experts to the tourism ministry as the agency’s “institutional capacity” was built up over a long period.

EPA director Miruza Mohamed meanwhile warned that the move could reduce funding from international donors.

However, the ruling party says “making the services available under one roof would ease the burden on investors, speed up services, and improve investor confidence.”

The involvement of other ministries and institutions in regulating resorts hinders the tourism ministry and “lowers investor confidence”.

The new provisions state that “only the tourism ministry will have the authority” to conduct assessments and authorise development projects.

The tourism ministry will also have the power to impose fines not exceeding US$5 million for violations.

Transparency and accountability

Environmental NGO Ecocare warned that the move conflicts with the environment protection law – which requires the EPA to evaluate assessments – and could “pave the way for corruption”.

“Under this particular scenario we also feel that when EPA assess and evaluates EIA reports, it is a more transparent practice than leaving this to the Tourism Ministry, who carry out the evaluation and awarding of bids for tourist resorts,” Ecocare said in a press release today.

The current system put in place by the Environment Protection and Preservation Act includes checks and balances and assures transparency and accountability, Maeed Mohamed Zahir from Ecocare told Minivan News today.

With the changes to the law, an unscrupulous official at the tourism ministry can grant approval “regardless of the effect on the environment,” he said.

Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Fayyaz Ismail said at the committee last week that the tourism ministry presently “discriminates” in issuing and suspending operating licenses to resorts.

Fayyaz warned that officials could misuse the authority to approve development projects on resorts and selectively impose fines at whim.

MP Ali Fazad, a ruling Progressive Party of Maldives MP, also expressed concern with the amendments conflicting with the existing environment law as “two laws would have two [provisions] for the same thing”.

However, all ruling coalition MPs on the committee voted in favour of the bill and forwarded it to the parliament floor.

The law also introduces a new scheme to allow the extension of resort leases to 99 years for a lump sum payment of US$5 million.

The changes aim to incentivise investors, make it easier to obtain financing from international institutions, and increase revenue for the government.

To be eligible for a lease extension, a resort property must be operational with an existing lease period of 50 years and must not owe money to the government.

Under the current Tourism Act, the maximum lease period for resorts or hotels is 50 years. However, the constitution allows leases up to 99 years.

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Government proposes $5m resort lease extensions

The government is seeking legal changes to allow the extension of resort leases to 99 years for a lump sum of US $5m, and to expand the powers of the tourism ministry.

The lease extension scheme, which would represent the first time they have been lengthened beyond 50 years, aims to raise money for the government.

The bill submitted by government-aligned MP Mohamed Ismail would also transfer to the tourism ministry the power to authorise developments at resorts and conduct environmental assessments.

The changes aim to incentivise investors, make it easier to obtain financing from international institutions, and increase revenue for the government, the proposed law states.

To be eligible for a lease extension, a resort property must be operational with an existing lease period of 50 years and must not owe money to the government.

If the amendments pass, resorts will have to seek authorisation from the tourism ministry for any development on a resort that could “permanently alter” the island, plot of land, or lagoon’s environment. The ministry must compile an environmental impact assessment before issuing permission.

“Making the services available under one roof would ease the burden on investors, speed up services, and improve investor confidence,” the introduction to the legislation says.

Under existing laws, the Environment Protection Agency conducts assessments and authorises projects such as land reclamation. The agency functions under the environment ministry.

However, the new amendments state that “only the tourism ministry will have the authority” to conduct assessments and authorise developments.

The tourism ministry will also have the power to impose fines not exceeding US$5 million for violations.

The introduction says that the involvement of other ministries and institutions in resorts hinders the tourism ministry and “lowers investor confidence”.

“Flip-flopping”

Under the current Tourism Act, the maximum lease period for resorts or hotels is 50 years. However, the constitution allows leases up to 99 years.

Former Economic Development Minister Mahmoud Razee told Minivan News today that from “a commercial investment point of view it’s a good move,” but questioned the government’s “sincerity”.

“Because when they were in opposition they made a big hoohaa about it,” he said, with reference to current ruling party MPs protesting against the then-Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) government’s plans to extend resort leases from 25 to 50 years.

The move shows the government is trying to make up revenue shortfalls, said Razee, who was part of the MDP government. He said the current administration was “not curtailing expenses” but increasing the number of political appointees.

This year’s record MVR24.3 billion (US$1.5 billion) state budget includes MVR3.4 billion (US$220 million) anticipated from new revenue raising measures.

The measures include revisions of import duty rates, the introduction of a “green tax”, acquisition fees from investments in special economic zones, and leasing 10 islands for resort development.

Razee also suggested that the administration might allow resorts to pay the extension fee in instalments if the tourism industry lobbies the government.

When the MDP government offered extension of leases for 50 years in exchange for an upfront fee, Razee said resort owners were “not so eager” and “relatively few” paid the fees.

In January 2014, Maldives Association of Tourism Industry secretary general Ahmed Nazeer questioned the practicality of collecting resort lease extensions in a lump sum.

Nazeer told a parliamentary committee reviewing revenue raising measures that only 17 out of the more than 100 resorts had paid lease extension fees upfront.

Razee meanwhile criticised the government’s “flip-flopping” on economic policy, referring to its reversal of a decision to impose higher import duties on garments and motorcycles.

He noted that customs authorities are promising to reimburse importers who are paying the higher tariffs that came into force on April 1, even before amendments reversing the hikes have been passed.

In December, the government also reversed a decision to impose a 10 percent import duty on staple foodstuff such as rice, flour, wheat and sugar.

“There’s no clear-cut, defined, long-term policy,” Razee said.

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Government submits revenue raising bills to parliament

The government has submitted two bills to parliament for introducing a green tax and revising import duties to raise additional revenue anticipated in the 2015 state budget.

The President’s Office explained in a press statement on Thursday (November 13) that the government submitted amendments to the Tourism Act to introduce a US$6 per day ‘green tax’ on tourist establishments with the exception of guesthouses.

“The government decided to introduce this tax, as the Maldives is a tourist destination and the lack of a safe waste management system is adversely affecting tourism industry, to pave the way for the establishment of an adequate environment-friendly waste management system, to make Maldivian tourism an environment-friendly industry, and to provide an environment-friendly service to tourists,” the statement read.

The amendment also specifies the powers of the Maldives Inland Revenue Authority to collect the green tax, the statement added.

Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb told the press last week that the green tax would be levied in November 2015 – 11 months after the abolition of the bed-tax, which will continue to be charged at US$8 a night until the end of this month.

Adeeb insisted that the green tax would not hinder the demand from tourists – especially from Europe – who would become “champions” of the Maldivian environment by paying the tax.

While some resort owners have suggested that the combination of the bed tax with the rise in Tourism Goods and Services Tax (T-GST) to 12 percent this month has affected bookings, Adeeb vowed there would be no further hikes in T-GST during the current administration’s five-year term.

Opposition MPs have meanwhile sought assurances from the government that proceeds from the green tax would be used to finance environmentally sustainable infrastructure projects such as sewerage and coastal protection in the islands and not for the state’s wage bill.

In his budget speech to parliament earlier this month, Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad noted that MVR3.4 billion (US$220million) was forecast from new revenue raising measures, which also includes acquisition fees from investments to special economic zones (SEZs), income from the home ownership programme, and leasing 10 islands for resort development.

Import duties

The government also submitted amendments to the Export-Import Act to revise customs duties or tariffs to reflect “changes in the price of import goods in the global market,” the President’s Office stated.

The latest monthly economic review from the Maldives Monetary Authority noted that “the International Monetary Fund (IMF) commodity price index fell in both monthly and annual terms in September 2014, by 4 percent and 9 percent, respectively.”

“The monthly and annual decline in commodity prices was attributed to the decline in petroleum, metal and food prices. The price of crude oil fell by 4 percent in monthly terms and by 12 percent in annual terms and stood at US$95.9 per barrel at the end of September 2014,” the review stated.

In April, parliament approved import duty hikes for a range of goods proposed by the government as a revenue raising measure.

Jihad meanwhile told the budget committee last week that the government was considering increasing custom duties “mostly for luxury items, or items that are harmful to the environment or health.”

The cabinet’s economic council has not yet finalised the import duty or tariff revisions, Jihad noted, though he did reveal that the items under consideration include tobacco, perfume, and vehicles.

Tariffs for tobacco would be raised from the current 150 percent to 300 percent, 100 to 150 percent for cars, and zero to 10 percent for perfume, Jihad said.

Asked if higher custom duties would lead to higher prices, Jihad said the impact on the inflation rate would have to be studied for a proper assessment, which would take time to complete.

At parliament’s budget debate last week, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Eva Abdulla criticised the proposed import duty hikes, noting that the government has decided to waive tariffs for construction material or capital goods for new resorts with development stalled due to financial constraints.

The burden of higher prices of goods due to higher custom duties would be borne by the public, she argued.

Eva noted that Jihad told the budget committee of plans to increase import duty for foodstuff and petroleum products.

“Our question is why shouldn’t an income tax be introduced? When MDP submitted an income tax bill to parliament it wasn’t passed. But we are telling this government to introduce an tax and [tax] the affluent as well,” she said.

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Parliament approves government’s revenue raising measures

Parliament today passed three bills submitted by the government to raise additional revenue anticipated in the 2014 state budget.

The revenue raising measures approved today include hiking the Tourism Goods and Services Tax (T-GST) from eight to 12 percent in November, reintroducing the discontinued US$8 bed tax starting this month, and requiring resort lease extension payments to be made within two years.

While the two amendments to the Tourism Act were voted through 38-18, the amendment to the Goods and Services Tax Act was approved 39-18. The changes will take effect once signed into law by the president.

The passage of the amendment bills was greeted with applause from government-aligned MPs.

MPs of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) voted against all three pieces of government-sponsored legislation, contending that the tax hikes would adversely affect the tourism industry.

“Numbers will not match”

The government had initially proposed collecting resort lease extension fees within three months, collecting bed tax throughout this year, and raising T-GST in July.

However, the parliamentary subcommittee that reviewed the legislation consulted the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) last week and recommended revising the government’s proposals.

Representatives from MATI opposed continuation of the bed tax alongside the T-GST increase.

Appearing before the subcommittee, MATI Secretary General Ahmed Nazeer also questioned the practicality of collecting resort lease extension fees upfront.

Only 17 out of more than 100 resorts offered the opportunity by the administration of former President Mohamed Nasheed to extend leases with a lump sum payment were able to do so, Nazeer said.

Resort owners had amended their lease agreements to pay extension fees in installments during Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan’s administration, Nazeer noted, and revising agreements for a third time could present legal challenges.

Government-aligned Jumhooree Party Leader Gasim Ibrahim – who chaired the subcommittee – meanwhile told local media following the revisions that the bed tax and T-GST hike would overlap in November, after which the former would be discontinued.

The decision was made to compensate for the loss of income from the bed tax in January, the business magnate and resort owner explained.

Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad told local media last month that the Majlis’s failure to extend the bed tax would result in a revenue shortfall of MVR100 million (US$6 million) a month.

Moreover, in the wake of the subcommittee’s revisions, Jihad warned that the projected MVR 3.4 billion (US$224 million) in additional revenue – which accounts for 18 percent of the record MVR17.95 billion budget passed for this year – could not be realised in full due to the changes.

Following remarks by Progressive Party of Maldives MP Moosa Zameer at the subcommittee last week – suggesting that pro-government MPs supported abolishing the bed tax in favour of increasing T-GST – Jihad told Minivan News that the government’s stance had not changed.

“It has not changed. And if the government does not go on with the bed tax, the numbers will not match in the budget,” he said.

Meanwhile, parliament yesterday accepted for review amendments submitted by the government to revise import duties.

In addition to raising tourism taxes and custom duties, other revenue raising measures proposed by the government include raising airport departure charge for foreign passengers from US$18 to US$25, leasing 12 islands for resort development, and introducing GST for telecommunication services.

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Tourist facilities to be developed on local picnic island Kuda Bandos

Additional reporting by Neil Merrett

Tourist facilities are to be developed on Kuda Bandos, the only picnic island located near Male’ accessible to for Maldivians, following the island’s owner Vice President Mohamed Waheed Deen submitting the sole bid for its development.

Vice President Waheed Deen, also the owner of Bandos Island Resort, previously leased Kuda Bandos for US$6000 annually. However, the after the island was opened for bids on November 16, 2012  Deen submitted the sole proposal and won Kuda Bandos again for a rent of US $180,582, according to local media.

A joint venture company will be established with the Government of Maldives to develop the island, including “certain tourist facilities”, Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Ahmed Adheeb told local media.

The new facilities will “modernise the island” and increase government revenue, according to Adheeb.

“We don’t want to renew the agreement every two years. Now it is to be handed over through the Tourism Act and the rent will be paid just the same as the resorts,” said Adheeb.

Currently Maldivians have exclusive access to Kuda Bandos, which is located next to Bandos Island Resort, on Fridays, Saturdays and public holidays, when local families are able to travel to the picnic island for a day of relaxation on the beach.

Adheeb claimed that even after Kuda Bandos is developed Maldivians will have full, unrestricted access to the picnic island.

“After development, safari boats can go there with tourists. It will be developed so that everyone will have the opportunity,” said Adheeb. “The tourist facilities will be established to make it easier for the tourists who visit.”

Maldivian picnic island access

Despite Adheeb’s claims that Maldivians will have “unrestricted access” to Kuda Bandos, the former Secretary General of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI), ‘Sim’ Mohamed Ibrahim, believes that developing the picnic island for foreign tourists will still limit locals’ ability to enjoy the island.

“There are less places for Maldivians to go. The problem would be solved if Mr Deen created a small island in front of Kuda Bandos [for locals]. It’s not ideal but it should serve the purpose,” Ibrahim told Minivan News today (July 18).

Whether Maldivians will have unfettered access to the sole remaining picnic island near Male’ once it is developed remains to be seen, Ibrahim does not think Maldivians enjoying the island together with tourists should be an issue.

Specifically, safari boats coming to Kuda Bandos with alcohol or foreigners sunbathing in bikinis “is a grey area”, according to Ibrahim.

“It is up to a person to decide what he wants to do or not, I don’t understand why this would be a problem,” he said.

“The question of [drinking] alcohol is not a problem, the issue doesn’t arise, because Maldivians as Muslims don’t drink,” he continued.

“[And] why would there be a problem with foreigners sunbathing in bikinis, if a lot of Maldivians are working on and visiting resorts [every] day?” he asked.

“It happens on Bandos [Island Resort] or any other resort for that matter,” he added. “As it is there is nothing to prevent Maldivians from going to resorts or accessing their facilities.”

Picnic island development

A new tourism regulation entitled the “Procedure to Follow Where the Government Undertakes Joint Venture Investment in Islands or Land”, allows a company with at least a 10 percent share held by the state to develop a resort from land set aside for tourism use, such as a picnic island like Kuda Bandos.

Land used for water sports or diving would also be included once the lease for the area is acquired by a joint venture company.

Published in the Government Gazette Volume 42, number 17 – dated January 28, 2013 – the regulation requires any joint venture partner working with the state on a tourism projects to have a minimum financial worth of US$300 million and make a minimum initial capital investment of at least US$100 million.

Tourism Minister Adheeb told Minivan News in April that the regulations applied to land such picnic islands that were effectively being used “almost as a resort”, such as areas licensed to serve alcohol to tourists, something not allowed on islands designated as “inhabited”.

“The only difference [to these islands] is that tourists cannot sleep there for the night,” he said. “Now they can stay there the night, but [operators] have to pay land rent. It is to stop the concept from being abused.”

However, an island owner involved in the country’s burgeoning mid-market holiday sector has slammed new regulations imposing financial restrictions on tourism joint venture projects with the government, claiming the legislation outright excludes small and medium-scale investors.

These recently implemented amendments to the Tourism Act served to “shut the door” on small and medium-sized investors, alleged the island owner, speaking to Minivan News on condition of anonymity.

“The real issue here would be that only those with very high net worth can be venture partners with government. Very, very few tycoons are in that wealth bracket,” the source said.

“[Former President] Nasheed’s government tried to be inclusive in offering business opportunities. This regulation is exclusive and shuts the door for medium to small-size investors to partner with the government,” the source added.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture has announced a public tender to lease several other islands across the country for development as resort properties.

Through the tender, applicants will bid for a 50 year lease to develop one of several islands including, Kunnamala in Noonu Atoll, Kudafushi and Fasmendhoo in Raa Atoll, Vanabadhi and Kani in Thaa Atoll, Dhigudhoo in Gaafu Alifu, and Ismehela Hera in Seenu Atoll.

Additionally, seven parties have expressed interest to develop tourist resorts on the islands of Madifushi in Meemu Atoll, Keradhdhoo in Gaafu Alifu Atoll, and Ismehela Hera in Seenu Atoll.

While Ismehela Hera was also included as one of the three islands the Tourism Ministry invited bids for in April, the ministry did not clarify why the island was listed twice, according to local media.

Bidding documents will be made available to Maldivian nationals for a non-refundable payment of MVR 2000 (US$130) or US$300 for foreign nationals, until July 28.

All bids must then be submitted before 1:00pm on August 1, 2013 to the ministry, where they will be opened at a ceremony held later the same day.

Former MATI Secretary General Ibrahim said the process for tenders was “pretty much standard” for obtaining an island lease.

“The investment climate is better than a year ago and source markets are improving,” said Ibrahim.

Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb was not responding to calls at time of press.

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MP Riyaz Rasheed withdraws amendments to keep tourism bed tax in place past 2013

MP Riyaz Rasheed of the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) has withdrawn a government-sponsored amendment to the Tourism Act to keep a US$8 bed tax in place beyond 2013, citing lack of support from parties in the ruling coalition.

The flat rate of US$8 per occupied room, per night, was to be abolished at the end of this year to be offset by sales and land taxes.

The MP for Thaa Vilifushi announced that he was pulling out the legislation after the preliminary debate started at today’s sitting of parliament.

Riyaz expressed concern with the lack of support from coalition partners for revenue raising measures proposed by the government.

Riyaz, who had submitted the bill on behalf of the government, called on President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s administration to consult with pro-government parties represented in parliament before proposing further legislation.

During today’s brief debate on the proposed amendment, most MPs argued that the tourism industry would be adversely affected if the bed tax was not discontinued as planned with the introduction of Tourism Goods and Services Tax (T-GST).

Riyaz’s decision to withdraw the bed tax amendment follows parliament’s rejection last week of government-sponsored legislation to raise the airport service charge to US$30, which was among a raft of measures proposed by the Finance Ministry in the estimated 2013 budget to raise MVR 1.8 billion (US$116 million) in new income.

MPs voted 28-27 against proceeding with the bill at committee stage following preliminary debate.

During the debate last week, MPs of both the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and government-aligned Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) – respectively majority and minority parties in parliament –  accused President Dr Mohamed Waheed of using state funds to finance his presidential campaign.

Parliament’s rejection of the government-sponsored bill prompted the Finance Ministry to suspend new development projects financed out of the state budget due to shortfalls in revenue.

Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad said that the cabinet decided to postpone planned infrastructure projects that have not yet started in an attempt to ease cash flows.

Speaking to press yesterday (April 21) following the signing of contracts for construction of harbours in four islands, Housing Minister Dr Mohamed Muiz said he was instructed by the finance ministry not to commence any further infrastructure projects included in the 2013 budget.

“As you know, the government’s budget is in a very fragile state. We can only spend what is earned as income. The government proposed new revenue measures when it submitted the budget. It was approved on principle when the budget was passed,” Muiz said.

“However according to my information, difficulties have arisen in implementation [of the measures]. As a consequence, aside from these four islands, the finance ministry has instructed me not to sign or commence with any infrastructure project in any island from now on. Unless the People’s Majlis passes new means of earning income for the government, the finance ministry has instructed us not to begin any project financed out of the government budget, be it harbour construction or land reclamation or any project undertaken by the housing ministry.”

Housing Minister Muiz – a senior member of the government-aligned religious conservative Adhaalath Party – called on all state institutions to cooperate and work together to “improve the country’s economic condition.”

Other revenue raising measures proposed with the 2013 budget included hiking Tourism Goods and Services Tax (T-GST) to 15 percent from July 2013 onward, leasing 14 islands for resort development, introducing GST for telecom services, raising oil tariffs, and “selectively” reversing import duty reductions.

Finance Minister Jihad confirmed to Minivan News yesterday that the government was in the process of formulating a supplementary budget by the end of April.

Economic Development Minister Ahmed Mohamed – a senior member of the government-aligned Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) – however told newspaper Haveeru last week that a supplementary budget would be of no use if parliament failed to approve the proposed revenue raising measures.

“Numbers written on paper will not increase funds. One or two billion rufiya can be added to the budget through the supplementary budget,” he explained. ”But shouldn’t there be a way to get that three or four billion rufiya?”

During the budget debate in December 2012, Majority Leader MP Ibrahim Mohamed Solih warned that the additional revenue projected in the budget was unlikely to materialise.

The MDP parliamentary group leader claimed that the import duty revision to raise tariffs on oil “will not be passed in this Majlis.”

Moreover, he said at the time, the MDP would not support increasing T-GST without consultation with the tourism industry.

Predicting that revenue in 2013 would reach “only MVR 11 billion at most,” Solih had warned that income would not be enough to meet recurrent expenditures on salaries and administrative costs.

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New financial restrictions on tourism development exclude small and medium-scale investors: developer

An island owner involved in the country’s burgeoning mid-market holiday sector has slammed new regulations imposing financial restrictions on tourism joint venture projects with the government, claiming the legislation outright excludes small and medium-scale investors.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the island owner alleged that the recently implemented amendments to the Tourism Act served to “shut the door” on small and medium-sized investors.

The Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture told Minivan News that the regulations were required in order to ensure future developments in the country were financially viable and that investors could guarantee a project’s completion.

However, the regulation is expected to favour much larger-scale investment projects such as resorts, to the detriment of mid-market tourism, claimed the island owner.

“The real issue here would be that only those with very high net worth can be venture partners with government. Very, very few tycoons are in that wealth bracket,” the source said.

“[Former President] Nasheed’s government tried to be inclusive in offering business opportunities. This regulation is exclusive and shuts the door for medium to small-size investors to partner with the government.”

Joint venture regulation

Published in the Government Gazette Volume 42, number 17 – dated January 28, 2013 – the regulation requires any joint venture partner working with the state on a tourism projects to have a minimum financial worth of US$300 million  and make a minimum initial capital investment of at least US$100 million.

The regulation, entitled the “Procedure to Follow Where the Government Undertakes Joint Venture Investment in Islands or Land”, allows a company with at least a 10 percent share held by the state to develop a resort from land set aside for tourism use, such as a picnic island.

Land used for water sports or diving would also be included once the lease for the area is acquired by a joint venture company.

“Notwithstanding that section five of the Maldives Tourism Act states that islands and land for development as tourist resorts shall be leased to the party that submits the best-qualified bid in respect of such islands or land in accordance with pre-established procedures in a public tender held by the Ministry of Tourism; the same section states that those Islands or land in which the Government makes an investment wholly or in joint venture shall be exempted from the Procedure provided therein,” the regulation reads.

“Therefore the object of this procedure is to determine the procedure to follow in that prescribed exemption status. Uninhabited islands or land may be leased to a company created under a joint venture with the Government for tourist resorts, tourist hotels and marinas development pursuant to this Procedure.”

An unofficial English translation of the regulation can be read here.

Development safeguards

Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Ahmed Adheeb told Minivan News this week that the regulation was needed to safeguard future resort development, claiming opportunities would continue to exist for small and medium investors in the tourism sector through sectors such as guest-houses and safari boats.

With what he called a “limited” number of islands presently available in the country to be developed as resort properties – a major earner for the Maldives government both in terms of lease payments and Tourism Goods and Services Tax (T-GST) – Adheeb said the regulation was already bringing in large-scale investment.

“We already have a Qatar-based group interested in the resort business here and they have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on this,” he said. “We are now looking to find a suitable location for them.”

Adheeb claimed the legislation was particularly important considering the  number of pending tourism development projects approved under the former government that failed to be completed – resulting in an overall loss to the country’s economy as a result. He said that the regulation approved back in January would ensure a more “strategic” solution to finding investment partners to ensure financial returns on tourism projects.

Adheeb said that the regulations applied to land such picnic islands that were effectively being used “almost as a resort”, such as areas licensed to serve alcohol to tourists, something not allowed on islands designated as “inhabited”.

“The only difference [to these islands] is that tourists cannot sleep there for the night,” he said. “Now they can stay there the night, but [operators] have to pay land rent. It is to stop the concept from being abused.”

The tourism minister said that picnic islands open to the Maldivian public would not be affected by the regulation and would continue to be accessed and used by local people.

“Picnic island”

Speaking to Minivan News, former Tourism Minister Dr Mariyam Zulfa said the concept of a “picnic island” dated back to the 30-year rule of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

She said the Gayoom administration had opted to lease islands either for tourism – such as through the development of exclusive resort properties – or tourism-related purposes.

While islands leased for tourism went through a bidding process, land provided for tourism related purposes was said to have been provided on an “ad hoc” basis at the tourism ministry’s discretion, according to Dr Zulfa.

“These were often leased for the purposes of day picnics for tourists, safe harbours and other ancillary facilities of resorts,” she stated. “These islands were only for the use of those persons allowed by the leaseholder (and not available for public use). These islands came to be known as ‘picnic islands’, leased by the Ministry of Tourism.”

Dr Zulfa claimed that the method of providing land for tourism related purposes during the Gayoom-era meant that there had been a lack of regulation for how much an individual party paid to lease such islands.

“Originally these were leased at rates that were not based on a uniform formula and it was very difficult to justify as to why one party had an island for, say US$2,000  a month and others for double that or sometimes more,” she added.

“What has happened traditionally is that some of the leaseholders started building rooms on some of these islands for tourists and very soon some islands became, for all intents and purposes, a tourist resort but without being registered as one and of course without being registered for the taxes that were attached to tourist resorts.”

Under the Nasheed government, Zulfa claimed the former administration attempted to introduce “a fair and just” formula allowing “picnic islands” to be converted legally into tourist resorts at the leaseholder’s request in partnership with the government.

“Thus the uniform formula of US $600,000 per square hectare and all the other conditions were stipulated in our regulations and picnic island lease holders were invited to become legal – if they so required, and without involving the bidding process. These islands are very different to islands leased by other ministries as tourism legislation – and tourism tax, I might add – applies only to islands leased by the Tourism Ministry.”

She added that land leased for public purposes such as picnics by other ministries would not be affected by the Tourism Act.

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Deputy Minister paid salary with no record of attendance, Tourism Ministry audit report reveals

A Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture was paid salary and allowances from April 2011 to January 2012 with no official records of attendance, the ministry’s audit report for 2011 has revealed.

The audit report (Dhivehi) made public on Tuesday stated that a total of MVR 343,351 (US$22,267) was paid to the senior official for 10 months while there was no documentation to show that he “ever attended either the ministry or any office functioning under the ministry.”

The Auditor General recommended recovering the funds and taking action against the responsible staff at the ministry.

While there was no specific regulation governing attendance of political appointees at the time, the Auditor General contended that paying salaries without attendance records was against “the spirit of the public finance regulations.”

In addition, the audit discovered that the ministry gave a temporary license or authorisation to a private company to operate a tourist hotel at the Laamu atoll Kadhdhoo airport in violation of the Tourism Act.

The audit found that the permission was given despite an inspection report finding that the facility did not meet the criteria for a tourist guesthouse in terms of quality of service.

A tourist hotel is ranked higher than a guesthouse, the audit report noted.

Under articles 4, 18 and 19 of the tourism law, the report explained, a tourist hotel could not be operated on the plot at the regional airport.

The hotel was however operated from May 24, 2011 to December 25, 2011 before official permission or a permanent license was sought, the audit report noted.

Local media reported yesterday (November 28) that the guesthouse or hotel was operated by Heavy Load Maldives, a family business of MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik, chairperson of the formerly ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

The Auditor General recommended submitting the case to the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) for further investigation.

Minivan News is seeking comment from former Tourism Minister Dr Mariyam Zulfa.

The audit report also noted that temporary authorisation or licenses for operating guesthouses were renewed “some times for over a year” while the facilities did not meet the requisite criteria.

Moreover, registration and licenses were provided to some dive centres and guesthouses without collecting registration and licensing fees.

In other cases highlighted in the report, the audit noted that documentation was not properly maintained for equipment such as camera and mobile phones purchased in 2010.

As a result, equipment provided for use by staff was not recovered when the employees left the office.

In addition, the Tourism Ministry did not maintain a detailed income registry with reference numbers and dates as required by the public finance regulations. The regulations require that the registry must be routinely shared with the Finance Ministry.

“However, inquiries for the Ministry of Tourism’s 2011 audit revealed that such a record [of income] was not prepared and maintained,” the audit report stated. “As a result, we note that it could not be confirmed whether the incomes due to the ministry was received in full.”

Offices and departments under the Tourism Ministry

The audit report noted that the Tourism Ministry’s audit for 2011 was conducted without any documentations or financial records from the Department of Information (DOI) operating under the ministry.

Repeated requests for documents from the department went unheeded, the report stated, adding that the financial statement of the DOI was not provided for the 2010 audit either.

On Monday (November 26), the President’s Office announced that the DOI has been abolished as new institutions formed by the 2008 constitutions carries out the functions previously performed by the department.

“Following this change, registration of media; formulating policies and facilitating the development of local media; creating the official Maldives’ calendar; maintaining the registry of journalists and writers; and, representing the Maldives internationally in the press field will be carried out by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture. Information to international media on local events will be given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” the President’s Office stated.

Meanwhile, concerning the other offices operating under the ministry, the audit found that employees of the Maldives Tourism Promotion Board (MTPB) were paid overtime salaries in violation of the civil service regulations for calculating overtime.

The audit also noted that clothing allowance was paid to all employees in January 2011 in anticipation of overseas trips to attend tourism fairs. However, the allowance was not recovered from two staff at MTPB who did not travel abroad during the year.

An audit of the National Centre for the Arts (NCA) meanwhile revealed that MVR 24,735 (US$1,604) was spent out of the budget on tickets for a lecturer and his family for a “one-day creative writing workshop” on November 19, 2011.

However, an official agreement was not signed between the lecturer and the NCA and there was no documentation at the centre regarding the workshop.

The NCA also spent MVR 33,000 (US$2,140) during a ten-day period on food for 20 staff working on a “Male’ Art Festival” in excess of the approved rate in the public finance regulations. Catering was also arranged without a public announcement after seeking quotations from only two parties, the audit found.

A total of MVR 19,750 (US$1,280) was spent on catering for seven events organised by the NCA in 2010 without seeking quotations from more than one party.

The catering contract was awarded to a particular party at a rate of MVR 50 per person while the public finance regulations specify a rate of MVR 40 per person.

Aside from a note from NCA and catering bills, the audit report noted that no other documentation for the transactions could be found at the NCA.

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MATI not taking sides on proposed resort lease amendments

Proposed amendments to the Tourism Act relating to lease extensions for Maldivian resorts are said to have divided opinion among industry insiders, according to the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI).

MATI Secretary General ‘Sim’ Mohamed Ibrahim told Minivan News that proposals presented to the Majlis yesterday by MP Abdu Raheem Abdulla, if passed, would allow 50 year lease extension payments to be made gradually on an annual basis.  Sim claimed that the decision to support or oppose the amendment had proven difficult for the association, with different resort owners welcoming and opposing the bill.

“MATI cannot take sides on this issue. While we have some people who can pay the money straight away, we know of others [resort owners], who would prefer the amendments,” he said.

According to newspaper Haveeru, Abdulla’s proposed amendment would allow contractors requesting an extension of their existing lease to pay a US$100,000 fee to pay instalments every year over the life of the contract.

Abdulla was reported to have forwarded the amendment over fears that news jobs would not be created in the country if the government received upfront payments from extension agreements.

Sim said that he believed that at present, the government preferred the system currently in use where lease extensions were paid within an 18-month period of a contract being signed by a resort.

A Tourism Ministry spokesperson confirmed that the Government’s official view was that it supported existing tourism laws that supported an upfront fee payment made over a shorter time-frame.

The spokesperson conceded that he had not fully read the proposals forwarded by Abdulla at present and was unable to elaborate on further on the exact changes they may entail for the industry.

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