Minister of Tourism Ahmed Adeeb Abdul Ghafoor speaks to Minivan News about his mandate, his aspirations for his five year term in the cabinet position, and his political career.
Adeeb served in the same cabinet post during the previous administration of former President Dr Mohamed Waheed. He is also currently the elected Deputy Leader of ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM).
Mariyath Mohamed: What are the main things you hope to achieve in these five years as Tourism Minister?
Ahmed Adheeb: As you know, I initially became Tourism Minister in the last government, with the endorsement of PPM, with about two years left of the term when I assumed office. At the time, we worked to complete some of the then-existing work, for example completion of the Fourth Tourism Masterplan.
There were also many other legislative issues. As an example there is the case where tourist resorts were being formed under the old law on uninhabited islands. Then there were other resorts which had not been completed as agreed, and many islands from which the government was not receiving due payments. I believe that I was able to sort out a lot of issues like this.
At the time, it was not a PPM agenda that we were following, and the government was a rather large mix. Our aim at the time was to sustain tourism. As you know tourism is a sector which is very much connected to the country’s economy. When I assumed office, the political turbulence had caused the cancellation of many bookings, including charter flights from China. Maldives is a place which usually has bookings made two or three months ahead of the estimated date of arrival, and so booking cancellations mean that the rate of arrivals were dropping.
I came and made a set up to deal with the issue. The civil service team at the Tourism Ministry has a lot of experienced personnel with long term institutional memory. They have a lot of practical experience, for example in how they tackled the 2004 tsunami disaster and the effects of the Gulf War, and many other such incidences.
As I see it, I assumed office in the middle of a crisis too, so I pulled together the crisis management team and we made a cell to deal with the matter. We had the resorts report back to us on a daily basis with records of how many booking they had made and how many bookings had got cancelled every single day. We used this as a barometer at the time, and commenced work. I went to the ITB fair in Germany as well as the WTM in London and held press conferences.
I believe it is crucial to face press and respond to their enquiries. At that time, the opposition was raising its voice, accusing us of having come to power through a coup d’etat and we addressed those allegations. What I mean by that is, I pointed out that a Commission of National Inquiry had been established with Commonwealth intervention on mutual agreement and called on the opposition to not draw conclusions while the investigation was pending. I called on them to give us time until the investigation was completed. And in any case, I don’t believe tourism must come to an end regardless of the political volatility, as it is something closely knit with the livelihood of all Maldivian citizens and the country’s economy. We said that more than a political agenda, our focus is on marketing tourism. It was well accepted and if you check headlines from then you will find our interviews in the Telegraph and other such news agencies.
I believe we were able to sustain the tourism industry within those two years. In 2012, I worked hard to reach a target of 1 million tourist arrivals, but were able to reach 965,000. However, last year we reached the target. I am happy with the 1.2 million arrivals, I believe we were able to reach a good target.
This government has recently come into effect and as PPM’s deputy leader, I too did a lot of work on our manifesto, mainly on the economic sector. Our plan is to create three special economic zones, and to develop even the tourism sector through these. The model in mid-Maldives, of Malé and the atolls connected within the seaplane’s zone, is a very ideal one to be replicated in North and South of the country. This can only be achieved by building certain infrastructure in these zones. A law on economic zones needs to be drafted.
Additionally, we need to explore what needs to be done to implement what is in the Tourism Masterplan. Whether we should increase beds, and how to do that, and so on. As you know, the current bed capacity of the country is 25,000 and I believe this needs a fast-paced increase. During the new year season, there was a fall of about 2000 beds due to overbooking. There’s also the Chinese New Year. So I believe we need to very quickly increase bed capacity, whether it be in resorts, city hotels or other new products.
I especially want to also note that the real estate market in Maldives is also something we can promote through tourism.
MM: After having previously worked in the Maldives Customs Services, and then the Chamber of Commerce, how did you enter the political arena?
AA: I worked in the Air Cargo department of Maldives Customs Services for three years. During my time there, I became familiar with trade and import. All imports into Maldives, including even seafood, is usually brought in by air freight. I became familiarised with trade and at the time decided to go abroad for further studies.
After completion of my degree, I worked in stock exchange in Sri Lanka. I then completed my Masters programme, returned to the Maldives and worked in private consultations. In 2009, on invitation of the existing board of Chamber of Commerce, I contested for a post on its board of directors. I served as a board member then, and as its treasurer. I stayed there since about 2011.
I believe that as people who research the economy, we all have our views and certain set principles on everything, including privatisation, foreign exchange, and how an economy must be moulded. That, I believe, is our ideology. I believe in openness, Maldives is a very open country. Maldives cannot develop at its best unless it is opened up for investments and we need to bring about certain economical reforms.
If we look at the last five years, it is mostly political reforms that have been brought, and that too at a very fast pace. Meaning, for example, we can now say Maldives is one of the countries where press freedom is granted most openly. However, in an economical perspective, reforms have not been brought yet. Being a country with a low population and with low savings, foreign investments are very important.
In that sense, the Chamber of Commerce is a very political organisation internally, in that we fight for businessmen’s rights, and lobby for changes. I was involved in this, and was often invited to TV shows and other media programmes. I often did research for various businesses, and this always includes economic research of the Maldives. With these updates, I was always outspoken about any issues we may have with the policies of the government then in power. I have always given opinions on these matters to media in my own name. For example, when the government implemented the change in dollar rates, I revealed my view in my own name in the media. Our prediction proved more true than the estimates of the government’s policy makers at the time, for example they were unable to solve the foreign currency issue by the introduction of a dollar band. We said even then that it was a wrong step and called on them to reverse the decision.
Although I am junior by age, I have conducted a lot of research and work. For example, back when current President [Abdulla] Yameen was in People’s Alliance, I did a lot of technical work for the party, including budget reviews, analysis, and providing details of these to the party’s parliamentarians. I used to debate a lot on economical matters with Yameen at the time. He is a very academic and technical person in the field.
It then led to Yameen inviting me to take on the responsibilities of a cabinet minister during the change in government in 2012. I responded that I cannot take on responsibilities of a cabinet minister unless it is in my field of expertise, i.e in the business area. That I would not know how to handle something like the health or education sector. That if it was in the business sector, I would know well to take policy decisions. So I accepted the post of tourism minister and took it as a challenge. I was 29 years of age then.
Many friends and family members advised me to not take up the position, owing to the political atmosphere of the time. However, as I see it, it is very easy to stand outside and criticise matters. But when one has to actually implement things within the legal framework, it is a completely different experience.
Every decision we must make in a position like this is a tough one, but needs to be taken firmly. It is impossible to please everyone with any decision we make. We must also be able to digest criticism levied against us by media or other sources.
There are certain things I have observed since I assumed this post. Cabinet ministers are policy makers. The policies we decide on must be implemented by the civil service, but it is the Permanent Secretary that will deal with the day to day management of civil servants. I will not engage in the hiring and firing of civil servants. I distinguish between the two.
The other thing is I believe every tourism minister must maintain good public relations. We cannot solve the existing issues without building rapport with all investors. I work to understand their concerns, and to get win-win results for the government through the understanding of these concerns. And in that way I gained their acceptance.
I also always ask elders and more experienced persons for advice, including policy makers and former presidents. I believe in treating them respectfully.
A lot of people were of the mindset that I would not be up for this challenge as I was appointed at such a young age. I took it up as a challenge and have been careful in my work. This is because I realise that if I fail, it will reflect not just on me alone, but there will be a reluctance to appoint young ministers in the future.
I do get a lot of criticism, but I believe getting criticism from the opposition is a success in its own right. I also strongly believe that criticism that comes for my decisions is not out of a dislike of me personally, but something that comes along with the cabinet position. So I take it all professionally, as it is an indication that I am doing something right. I have always been told that one will have enemies if they stand up for something.
I don’t differentiate between people of different political ideologies. I believe a person’s political affiliation is a very personal thing and we must be willing to work alike with everyone. I have been trained in politics through the democratic system, and so find it easy to handle the criticism and work through it all.
MM: How do you currently manage time between fulfilling the responsibilities of being both a cabinet minister, as well as the Deputy Leader of PPM?
AA: A deputy leader of a party is also a policy maker there. If the party’s president is unable to attend councils or larger committee meetings, I chair them. Council meetings are normally held once a month unless there is an election approaching. But in these we just decide on policies.
I always differentiate between policy making and implementation. Once we decide on policies to observe, and for example ways to obtain funds, it is the office staff and volunteers who will then work to implement these. I never micromanage things. So it is easy to manage time at a policy making level.
The difficulties arise because once you become a high level politician, either in state level or party level, a lot of individual citizens want to contact you directly. It is often difficult to respond to them in a timely manner, but I do attempt to call them back even if later. But I believe that this is something I need to improve on.
MM: Are you able to fulfill both responsibilities at your best capacity?
AA: I believe I do. If you ask other party members, or council members or parliamentarians, they too will tell you that since I adopted this position as deputy leader, I have taken up huge responsibilities within the party. Even if you ask the former president of other cabinet colleagues, they will tell you that I am a man who always stands up and remains firm even during difficult times and through chaotic times. As I see it, you have to be courageous in taking up responsibilities, and should not shy away from the repercussions that come your way.
MM: What are your future plans for your political career?
AA: A lot of people ask me that. I am only turning 32 this year. I am definitely not a presidential candidate. Even in 2013, a lot of people asked me if I was going to be a running mate or candidate of some party or other. I responded even then that I am not that ambitious. I only consider things as they come to me through given opportunity. I don’t proactively look for positions. My political career will be built on the next five years. Implementation of our economic policies is a huge dream of ours, and that is what will give me the most satisfaction. I see the achievement of this dream as far more important to me than attempting to get higher positions than the one I am in now. This is also the party president’s vision.
As I see it, we have only recently gained the opportunity to show our own results. It is through the results that we manage to show in these five years that my political career, too, will be shaped.
The country has a huge youth population. While there was a difference of opinions when I was appointed during the former administration, due to my young age. But Yameen well understands that with the huge youth population in this nation, it will be difficult to develop the country without youth inclusion.
What I have to say to youth is, if you have a dream, show your capacity and exploit your potential. Being a country with a small population, there is a lot of vast opportunity here.
Section Two: Tourism Policies
MM: The current cabinet is split into economic and social councils. What are your responsibilities on the Economic Council and which other colleagues sit on it?
AA: The economic council has five ministers, including the youth minister and is chaired by the President. I am the co-chair.
There is a Social Council and the Economic and Youth Council. Even in previous governments, there were separate committees, but the cabinet also met on a regular basis, which led to these committees meeting less frequently. But as the president wants to reach results at a fast speed, he holds the council meetings every single day. I believe that with about ten years of cabinet experience, this initiative by the president adds to added effectiveness and better time management. Now each cabinet minister can better focus on matters that directly involve them.
However, on major issues that involve the full cabinet, there are full cabinet meetings.
MM: What are the government’s plans for establishing guest islands? Are these to be on uninhabited islands alone? What then is the distinguishing factor between a guest island and a tourist resort?
AA: Yes, it is targeted mostly to uninhabited islands. The thing is, it is a huge infrastructure investment to build a tourist resort. It becomes an expensive place to go to when they invest in water set-ups, sewerage systems and all before building rooms. We at advanced stages of making a model where we are speaking with MWSC to make water set-ups, sewerage systems and electricity set ups in an island, after which we can give plots to individual businessmen. For example, common restaurants can be managed by one party, water sports by another party, twenty rooms by one company, another twenty rooms by another company and so on. In that way, we are creating numerous businesses there. We are planning to introduce this as a test model to see if many mid level businesses can co-exist and run a guest island in this manner. MWSC is already on board to set up the utilities, and the businesses will just need to pay monthly bills to them.
While it will be difficult for a small business to invest in a full resort, there are many small and midlevel businesses that can invest in small sections of an island. We can even replicate this in uninhabited areas of large inhabited islands. First we intend to test this on an uninhabited island. We plan to begin implementation around March this year.
MM: The government has also recently announced that permits to run guesthouses will only be given if the said guesthouse is to be built on an island with existing water and sewerage systems. Will this cause more income to islands which are already somewhat developed, while marginalising less developed islands which may perhaps even be better suited for tourism in other manners?
AA: There is a lot of confusion around this matter. There are four tourism sectors: tourist resorts, tourist hotels, guest houses, and yacht marinas. Under the Tourism Law, tourists are not allowed to spend nights at any place other than places registered under one of these sectors. This is not to say that one cannot invite a friend to stay over at their house, but it cannot be done commercially. This is also for the protection of tourists as well.
We often get proposals to build city hotels. What we are saying is, how can you build a city hotel without an investor also building a sewerage and water system there. How can it be managed otherwise?
What we are encouraging is for people like those councils from large islands that ask for state land to be leased to build a city hotel to also condition investors to build utility systems there. The opposition is, however, often confusing this with the guesthouse licenses which we already do authorise.
Under a law, we have to authorise the opening of guesthouses on any private land as long as it fits in with the set guidelines. Former President Nasheed had released about twenty licenses, and even I have released about a 160 licenses since then. That is going steadily forward and we encourage it.
We even assist in solving any issues that may have. For example, to assist the guesthouse community in Hulhumalé, we authorised some cars to carry tourists from the airport to Hulhumalé over the connecting road. Even in Maafushi, we have addressed many issues.
The thing is, we just don’t talk about guesthouses so much. The thing is, from a marketing perspective, we have positioned the Maldives as a high-end destination. A-category guests will continue coming for as long as we market the country as an A-category destination. Guests for B,C,D and E categories are something we automatically get. Even guesthouses are able to get guests to stay for 80 or 90 dollars because Maldives is marketed as a high end destination and for guests it is a dream come true to be able to stay here for that price. If the government begins to market tourism at guest house level, this will drop down drastically. This is the strategy we employ.
Even locally, culturally, people get disheartened when we talk about guesthouses. So although I don’t much talk about it, guesthouse owners are aware that they have my full cooperation. The circular was meant to let investors know that it is feasible to run a 20 room hotel only if the utility services are also set in place.
MM: What is the implication of the cancellation of charging bed tax, which has been in effect from January 1? What is the government’s plan of action to make up for this loss in revenue?
AA: The bed tax is supposed to be cancelled from January 1 this year, but this is not considered when the budget is expanded. We are asking for an extension until June.
Normally, budget and government revenue earning bills are passed together. But here, the parliament goes into recess after passing the budget, leaving the income bills pending for after that. And even then, they often just fail.
This causes the budget to expand, but there’s no way for the government to earn enough to implement it. The T-GST [Tourist Goods and Services Tax] matters even more to the state income. The state keeps expanding, the allowances and salaries keep increasing, but the income for all of this still depends on the 25,000 tourist beds. Unless we expand this, how can we increase what we earn? We can’t keep expanding the state, and then squeezing the existing tourism sector without expanding it.
MM: As a low lying island state, do you think climate change is a serious threat to the Maldives, and may have large adverse effects on tourism? Does this ministry have any existing plans to deal with these effects?
AA: After the 2004 tsunami, the country now has a good response system to disaster. Each resort has a high rise shelter in case of such an emergency and evacuation plans for all guests to see. The tourism sector, in developing resorts, pays attention to sustainable development and prioritises the environment.
The current government does not believe Maldives needs to be a guinea pig for the climate change cause. I mean, it is not the Maldives that conducts activities which are harmful to the environment.
However, we cannot go around saying Maldives will sink in 20 years and then ask for investments of 50 years in the tourism sector. This causes investors to be reluctant to invest in the Maldives. We do not believe we are at risk of suddenly sinking and think in a perspective of protecting investments.
Although we don’t speak about this at a marketing level, we do want to make Maldives a model in sustainability. We do take action on the matter though we do not speak of it much at a marketing level. We do not want investors to lose confidence, so we cannot do both. Let us first develop to this stage.