Battle for the brand: Are the “hard days” over for Maldives tourism?

As the Maldives looks to boost tourism arrivals following negative international coverage of the country’s political unrest this year, one leading branding consultant has said destinations looking to overcome bad headlines rarely find quick fix solutions to improve their image.

Following the controversial transfer of power that brought President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan to office on February 7, negative headlines regarding the political situation and violent clashes between civilians and security forces were deemed as having an adverse affect on tourism in the Maldives.

However, tourism authorities this week talked optimistically of the prospects for growth in the industry following several months of uncertainty that it said impacted growth – predicting a resurgence in international visitors towards 2013.

Earlier this week, Deputy Minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture Mohamed Maleeh Jamal claimed “the hard days” were over for the Maldives tourism industry, after a Commonwealth-backed report last week rejected accusations that the present government came to power illegally.

Former President Mohamed Nasheed and the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) have continued to allege that they were removed from office in a “coup detat”, claiming the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) failed to include key witness statements and evidence in its findings.

Amidst the uncertainty since February’s power transfer, tourism authorities in the country have pursued a strategy of collaboration with the country’s private sector to try and strengthen arrival numbers to the country. This focus included signing a US$250,000 (Rf3.8million) advertising deal to promote the country’s tourism industry on the BBC through sponsorship of its weather services.

In April, the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) confirmed the appointment of New-York based public relations agency Ruder Finn to “oversee the overall media coordination and achievement of PR related solution for destination Maldives.”

However Peter Mathews, founder and chief Executive Officer of UK-based branding consultancy Nucleus, claimed a quick fix solution to changing perceptions of a destination on the back of negative international headlines was unlikely.

Mathews took the examples of Sri Lanka and Bahrain as countries that had experienced difficulties attracting tourists on the back of unfavourable headlines relating to reports of political uncertainty or human rights abuses.

“Both of these destinations have had issues with branding.  Branding alone is not an instant solution for a country’s reputation,” he told Minivan News. “If you are not transparent about issues, they will still be there for tourists to see once you scratch below the surface of a destination.”

With the growing prominence of social media and video sharing services like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Mathews claimed it was becoming increasingly difficult to move on from negative headlines without addressing the key social or political issues.

“We now live in a digital world of instant updates and information, there is nowhere to hide,” he said.

“Ultimately, the best way to re-brand in the medium to long-term is for a destination to try and ensure transparency and avoiding contradictions.”

According to Mathews, a single negative headline about a destination required number of positive stories in order for it to overcome any detrimental impacts to a country’s reputation.

“It can take a while these days for unfavourable headlines to slip down the Google rankings. Of course, some have turned to using the ‘dark arts’ but this doesn’t always work. Particularly in the luxury market, where consumers tend to be much better informed when it comes to travel,” he said.

Talking about the potential challenges for the Maldives regarding boosting confidence in the tourism industry, Mathews said that authorities would need to satisfy resort owners and the international brands operating in the country, as well as the wider population that positive changes were being enacted.

“Suddenly, word of mouth can become very important. This makes it difficult to paper over the cracks,” he said.

Mathews said the Maldives’ relatively unique resort industry – a hundred-or-so resort properties exclusively built on individual private islands – had been afforded protection from any political unrest that centered mostly on its inhabited islands.

“The Maldives resort experience is obviously very different to the Maldives experienced in the capital of Male’, and this does help insulate the industry from uncertainty,” he said. “Yet economically, I would have thought there was interest to try and bring tourism income directly to the capital and other [inhabited] local islands.”

However, the negative impacts on Maldives tourism witnessed following February’s political turmoil appears not to have been repeated despite fears of continued unrest.

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) updated a travel advisory for the Maldives on August 24 to account for potential violent clashes linked to the release of findings by the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI).

“Very positive”

Amidst talks of potential boycotts of the Maldives travel industry, a stance at one point this year backed by former President Mohamed Nasheed, Deputy Tourism Minister Maleeh contended that arrival figures immediately after February had been sluggish. However, even before the release of the CNI’s findings, which were welcomed by the Commonwealth last week, Maleeh contended that arrival figures had shown “very positive” during June and July.

The deputy minister therefore moved this week to play down fears over the country experiencing continued difficulties in attracting visitors.

“The hard days are over following the findings of the [CNI] report. Over the last week, unlike February, we have seen no major disturbances in the country and this sends a positive message out about the destination,” he said. “During the next four months we are expecting a positive outcome for the industry despite the economic crisis.”

Maleeh added that in light of political instability and “turbulence” experienced in the country since the transfer of power, internal stability was a huge part of attracting and maintaining visitor numbers

“What we do is try to provide the industry and media with information that is true and accurate,” he said.

In March, the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) announced that, as well as returning to its ‘sunny side of life’ branding, the industry had set a target during 2012 to attract one million visitors to the country by year’s end.

Maleeh claimed that the industry remained on track to meet these goals, despite certain key challenges such as the impact of ongoing financial uncertainty on some core European tourism markets like the UK and Italy.

During the last 120 days of 2012, Maleeh said that a major tourism marketing push was being planned to meet these goals.  This focus was said to be focused on over 12 major emerging and established markets through Europe and Asia, including measures such as six travel road shows and an international media push.

“We will be bringing an estimated 40 journalists from around the world for press familiarisation trips to show them the ‘sunny side of life’,” he said.

Maleeh claimed that the MMPRC would also be collaborating with over 300 industry stakeholders including resorts groups, liveaboard boat operators and travel agencies to attend a number of major travel events and fairs around the world including London, Rome, Tokyo and Osaka. Key national markets in China and Eastern Europe would also be included.

Maleeh said authorities considered using special roadshow events in order to ensure a short-term boost in tourist interest.

Back in April, the MMPRC teamed up with local airline group Mega Maldives to carry out a travel road-show to promote the Maldives through what it described as a whistle-stop tour of five Chinese cities in one week.

According to Maleeh, the tours allowed the private sector to “close deals” during a period of “sluggish” growth in February and March.

“The roadshows have shown very positive results and we are looking to have one in Eastern Europe to try and boost the market in countries like Poland and the Czech Republic.

The MMPRC has also announced a commitment to take part in special market focused events like the Dive Resort Travel (DRT) Expo in China and other luxury travel-focused shows.

“Sunny side of life”

As part of the organisation’s marketing push, Maleeh added that under ‘sunny side of life’ brand, authorities would make use of a number of what he called lesser known taglines to target specific areas including ‘the spiritual side of life’ and ‘the colourful side of life’ – a tag used to play up the country as a dive destination.

“These messages are quite useful in areas like the Middle East, which are very popular with honeymooners,” he said. “Right now we are hoping that 2012 is shaping up to be a very promising year for tourism in the Maldives.”

Beyond addressing the Maldives’ image, several industry insiders have also raised concerns of late about the financial realities facing both local and multinational companies working in the country.

Just last month, several resort managers voiced concerns over revenue raising measures proposed by the Finance Ministry, which they claimed would have a detrimental financial impact on the tourism industry and provide little improvement in service or support in return.

The proposed measures were part of an ‘austerity’ package sent to parliament’s Finance Committee during August in a bid to address the country’s crippled financial condition.

However, since the publication of the CNI report, President Waheed told Reuters this month that China would grant the Maldives US$500 million (MVR7.7billion) in loans during his state visit to the country.

The loans, equal to nearly one quarter of the Maldives’ GDP, would include $150 million (MVR2.3billion) for housing and infrastructure, with another $350million (MVR5.4billion) from the Export-Import Bank of China, reported Reuters.

Minister of Finance and Trasury Abdulla Jihad told Minivan News today that despite the possible provision of finance from China, the proposed revenue raising plans such as
raising Tourism Goods and Services Tax (TGST) to 15 percent were still being discussed to help balance finances.


Governments issue travel warnings for Male; resorts unaffected

A number of governments have issued travel warnings for Male’ amid spiraling political chaos across the country.

No tourist resorts have been reported affected, and airport island remains calm – few tourists to the country even set foot on the capital island of Male’.

However Minivan News has received reports – confirmed during a press conference held on Wednesday night by the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) – of people seizing courts and police stations on a number of inhabited islands, particularly in the country’s south. In some cases the buildings have been reported burned to the ground.

The UK High Commission from Colombo arrived in numbers on Wednesday morning to assist British nationals in the country. High Commissioner John Rankin called a meeting of UK nationals in Male’, who included teachers, doctors and resort representatives, and asked them to register their presence in the Maldives.

Rankin, speaking prior to the dramatic protests and crackdown late this afternoon, said that the High Commission had advised against non-essential travel to Male’. He expressed concern about a reported ‘travel ban’ list that was circulating, which he said was believed to include several non-Maldivians and at least one UK national. Rankin said President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan had informed him that he had issued no such list and had no intention to do so, but that he would respect the right of the courts to do so.

Meanwhile the MDP on Wednesday night expressed concern that it was unable to send its seriously injured chairperson and MP, ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik, overseas for medical treatment because his name was on a travel blacklist issued by the courts. Moosa was injured during a brutal police crackdown on MDP protesters on Wednesday afternoon.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine issued a warning recommending that Ukrainians avoid travels to the Maldives at the present time.

“In view of the unstable situation in the Maldives the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine advises the citizens of Ukraine to postpone visits to that country, if possible, and closely monitor the official information of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine and the world media about the political situation there,” the statement said. Eastern Europe, particularly Russia, is an increasingly lucrative market for the Maldives’ luxury tourism industry.

The Australian government also advised its nationals to reconsider travel to Male’, but noted that the rest of the Maldives was safe for visitors.

“Further protests, political unrest and violence could occur in coming days. You should avoid public gatherings and protest, particularly in Male, as they may turn violent,” today’s update read.

AFP has meanwhile cited several travel agencies reporting cancellations.

“We had four to five honeymoon couples who made bookings for Maldives and were due to travel in the coming week to be there around Valentine’s Day but they called to cancel their trips,” AFP quoted one operator, Flexi Tours travel agency in New Delhi, as saying.

Another tour operator told AFP that all hotels in the Maldives “are booked up until February 14. The unrest is restricted to a few islands. We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” he said.


Government investigates accused MPs’ “dark and evil schemes”, while UK issues travel advisory

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has issued a travel warning for the Maldives following recent political turmoil in the country, urging caution around “large political gatherings”, while debate on the political deadlock has spread to the House of Lords in the UK Parliament.

During Question Time, the UK Labour Party’s Lord Foulkes expressed “disappointment that President Nasheed seems to be reverting to the bad habits of his predecessor”, following the detention of People’s Alliance (PA) MP Abdulla Yameen, and urged the government to pressure the Maldives to restore “democratic freedoms”.

Conservative Lord Howell, also State Minister for the FCO, responded that the government was “pursuing full encouragement through our high commission in Colombo and other means to ensure that democratic development continues.”

Nasheed’s restoration of his cabinet ministers was “a step forward”, Howell promised.

Conservative Lord Naseby pointed out that the Maldives “is no longer a protectorate of the United Kingdom… and that being the situation, what role do we have at all to interfere in what is in fact the Maldivian exercise of democracy as they interpret it?”

Yameen meanwhile remains in MNDF custody on the Presidential Retreat ‘Aarah’, although appears free to communicate with the media given that Minivan News was able to contact him yesterday.

The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) – and the government – insist that the MP and high-profile businessman is under ‘protective’ custody after demonstrations outside his home last week turned violent.

Yameen has told local media he does not wish to be detained in ‘protective’ custody. The MNDF have also refused to present him before the court on a court order, raising some international eyebrows.

The President’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair stuck to that story, insisting Yameen was being “protected” rather than “detained”.

Zuhair also claimed Yameen’s custodial protection was not unconstitutional, as the opposition has claimed, although Minivan News is still awaiting clarification from government lawyers as to how this is so.

“The MNDF is working absolutely within the constitution,” Zuhair said. “Yameen is being held by the MNDF, not the government. If Yameen is concerned about this he will be able to challenge it in court.”

“Dark and evil schemes”

Beyond the debate over Yameen’s detention, and recent court cases concerning the legality of his arrest along with that of Jumhoree Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim, Zuhair said that given the severity of the allegations against them, neither could be considered prisoners of conscience.

“I cannot describe these people as political leaders – they are accused of high crimes and plots against the state,” Zuhair said.

“These MPs are two individuals of high net worth – tycoons with vested interests,” he explained. “In pursuing their business interests they became enormously rich during the previous regime, and now they are trying to use their ill-gotten gains to bribe members in the Majlis and judiciary to keep themselves in power and above the fray.”

“They were up to all sorts of dark and evil schemes,” Zuhair alleged. “There were plans afoot to topple the government illegally before the interim period was over.”

Zuhair explained that the government felt obliged to take action after six MDP MPs came forward with statements alleging Yameen and Gasim had attempted to bribe them to vote against the government.

The opposition PA-DRP coalition already has a small voting majority, with the addition of supportive independent MPs, however certain votes require a two-thirds majority of the 77 member chamber – such as a no-confidence motion to impeach the president or vice-president.

“In one incident early on in this administration, following the President’s return from Italy, they set up a telephone and a video camera in a committee room in parliament, brought a judge to sit in, and then tried to get two members of the president’s delegation swear on the Qur’an under oath that the President was drinking alcohol,” Zuhair observed.

The privatisation of Male’ International airport had clashed with the vested interests of the accused MPs, Zuhair claimed, sparking the current political debacle.

“Gasim was concerned the new airport might take the charter flights he had intended would be landing at the new airport he is building in Maamagilli,” Zuhair alleged, “while Yameen is a third party supplier of fuel at Male International Airport through the Maldives National Oil Company, which has representation in Singapore.”

The fuel trade is the most immediately lucrative part of the airport deal, Minivan News understands, and is a key reason behind both GMR’s interest and the government’s decision to award the contract to the Indian infrastructure giant. GMR has told Minivan News it will amalgamate the trade under one umbrella, a decision that will likely affect current third party suppliers.

Meanwhile Opposition DQP leader Hassan Saeed, who opposed the airport privatisation and is currently lobbying in the UK for international support for Yameen’s release, “is receiving huge legal fees from both Yameen and Gasim,” Zuhair claimed.

NGOs speak

A coalition of NGOs including Madulu, the Maldivian Democracy Network, Huvadhoo Aid, Transparency Maldives, Maldives Youth Action Network, HAND and Democracy House, meanwhile issued a statement “categorically denouncing the undemocratic actions of the three Powers of the State, at a time when democracy is in its infant stages in the Maldives.”

“We believe recent political and civil unrest is a consequence of these three arms of the State disregarding the spirit of the Maldivian Constitution,” the NGOs said. “We believe a culture of manipulation of the law to infringe upon the rights of one another has developed and that the three arms of the State have failed to give each other due respect.”

“It is not responsible on the part of the parliament, that they should pass laws that undermine the powers of the executive.

“It is unacceptable that the executive, should use its powers to harass and deter the functioning of the parliament, to disrepute the judiciary and to try to exert undue influence on the judicial system.

“The lack of consistency in the rulings of the courts, and actions which undermine the trust of the people in the judicial system are contrary to the high standards which are expected of Judges. We call upon the judiciary to work to restore the people’s faith in the judicial system.

The NGOs added that “other concerned State institutions” have also failed to “give due regard to the situation” and have acted irresponsibly.

The coalition also urged political parties to refrain from bringing violence to the streets, but condemned the security forces “for stepping outside the boundaries of the law with regards to arrest and detention” and the recent distribution of private telephone conversations by the media containing implications of corruption behaviour among MPs.

Between a rock and the Maldives

The government well aware of its status as international darling on climate change, but Nasheed appears willing to risk international censure for the sake of isolating Yameen while the state accumulates evidence in the background. Police were preparing to “make a splash” on the subject, Zuhair hinted.

However even if this evidence is obtained, demands from the international community – and opposition – that the government respect the rule of law and the judicial system, mean the government is faced with the new problem of legitimising its case against the businessmen and opposition leaders, now that allegations of obstruction have been levelled at the judiciary – including, yesterday, from the police themselves.

The government has been urging public respect for the judicial system – and the President’s Political Advisor Hassan Afeef has stated that the government will abide by any rulings from the Supreme Court.

The Judicial Services Commission (JSC), tasked with reforming the judicial system, has three sitting judges as members and vested interests, according to the President’s outspoken member on the commission, Aishath Velezinee.

“Of the 207 of the judges currently in office, 39 have degrees or higher. Some left school before grade seven, meaning they haven’t completed primary school,” Velezinee noted.

In addition there are seven sitting judges found guilty of a criminal breach of trust; five with allegations of a criminal breach of trust; two being prosecuted for an alleged breach of trust; one on trial for sexual misconduct; two have been found guilty of sexual misconduct; one was found guilty for an offence which had a prescribed punishment in Islam; and another who has both been accused of a criminal breach of trust, and found guilty of sexual misconduct – a total of 19 with documented criminal history.

Behind the scenes the executive is racing to nominate new judges before the interim period concludes on August 7, when sitting judges are granted automatic tenure.

However nominations for any new judges will have to be approved by the Majlis, which was cancelled this morning on points of order that developed into a scuffle outside.

“[The MPs] are trying to derail the process,” suggested Zuhair. “They are also panicking because they have no way of knowing who is going to be [implicated] by these corruption charges.”

As for tourists reading the today’s travel advisory urging caution in the capital, Zuhair observed that they “should be happier to know the top dollars they are paying are not being used for corrupt purposes.”