Dozens of tourists are stranded each year in the Maldives by scams involving liveaboards, harming the country’s reputation among visitors, boat owners say.
Scammers use fraudulent websites to collect payments on liveaboards without the owner’s knowledge, leaving tourists stranded at the airport.
Others sell holidays on luxury cruisers, but when tourists arrive in the Maldives, transfer them to low-grade boats.
Boat owners are speaking out about the problem for the first time, saying they decided to do so out of frustration over a lack of action against the fraudsters.
Some 81 liveaboards — boats on which tourists stay for several nights, also known as safari boats — operate in the Maldives, offering surfing and diving trips, some with luxury accommodation.
A safari boat owner, who asked not to be named, said an Indian dive tour operator alerted him on March 19 to a Maldivian company selling a holiday on his boat without his knowledge.
He told Minivan News the government has failed to take action on scammers.
“This is very destructive and tarnishes the Maldives’ image,” he said, calling on the ministry to suspend licenses and blacklist fraudulent tour operators.
Amir Mansoor, the owner of the luxury liveaboard Carpe Diem, also said that liveaboard scams are frequent.
“This is very concerning, even if it’s two or fifty tourists a year, and affects the Maldives’ image,” he said.
Deputy tourism minister Hussain Lirar, however, denied any knowledge of fraud, but said the government would take action through law enforcement agencies against scammers.
The anonymous liveaboard owner said that at least 88 Russian and German tourists were stranded in November 2013 after a scam, and said he had rescued some tourists from the group.
The Liveaboard Association of Maldives (LAM) this week said it had received complaints from foreign tour operators, mostly in India and Hong Kong, involving fake bookings and operators collecting payments without offering a service.
“The scams involve fraudulent websites claiming to be authorized travel agents offering cheap liveaboards,” the organization said, following the March 19 alert from the Indian tour operator.
In the email obtained by Minivan News, the Indian company said it had been saved from fraud by its contacts in the Maldives and urged LAM to take action to ensure “those advertising as Maldivian agents do not defraud gullible tourists.”
LAM subsequently advised holidaymakers and tour operators to be wary of rock bottom prices in the Maldives and to book through agents listed on its website or reputable travel companies listed by the Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators.
There are currently 1,367 beds available on safari boats in the Maldives, often costing hundreds of dollars a night.
A Hong Kong-based tour operator, which says it sends 2000 guests to the Maldives every year, said a tour operator called Poseidon Tours in 2012 stranded several guests “desperately in Malé without any excuse,” according to leaked emails.
Although the tourism ministry denied knowledge of scams, the emails show the operator wrote to the ministry and LAM throughout 2012 and 2013 asking them to penalise the scammer. The company threatened to go public with the scandal and asked for a response “before I do something that might hurt all of us.”
“It was the not the first case to our company and on and off we heard that other agents/guests were having similar experiences. I don’t think that this is a good reputation to your country,” the operator said.
The operator reimbursed its clients, but Minivan News was unable to confirm whether the government had taken action against Poseidon Tours.