Flyme’s first seaplane en route to Maldives

Flyme has announced that the company’s first seaplane is expected to arrive in Maldives on Monday (April 28).

The Cessna 208 Caravan is a single turboprop engine, fixed-gear short-haul aircraft manufactured by Cessna. The airplane typically seats seven passengers with a pilot and co-pilot, according to Vnews.

Flyme said that the seaplane services will be open for locals, adding that more seaplanes would join the Flyme seaplane fleet in the future.

Flyme is a company under the umbrella of Villa Shipping and Trading Company, and currently serves nine local airports.


Maldives entrepreneurs braving “culture war” to pursue guesthouse growth, AFP reports

The full story can be read here on Minivan News’ spin-off travel website Dhonisaurus.

“Most visitors arrive at the country’s airport island, take a speed boat or seaplane to their expensive coral-fringed private resort and spend the next week relaxing in blissful ignorance of the country around them,” writes Agence France-Presse (AFP) journalist Adam Plowright.

“It has been this way for decades, the result of a deliberate policy of keeping wealthy vacationers — mostly Westerners and often newlyweds — on uninhabited islands separate from the local Muslim population.”

The potential nonetheless for expanding mid-market tourism in the Maldives through the “niche” guesthouse segment emerged as an early election issue in May after senior opposition and government figures clashed over how best the country’s inhabited islands might profit from visitors.

Plowright himself observed that despite the Maldives’ reputation as one of the world’s most exclusive holiday destinations, the opening of guesthouses across the country over the last five years has appeared to upset some religious conservatives in the country.

Under the country’s laws, traditional holiday staples such as the sale and consumption of alcohol and pork products, and women publicly sunbathing in bikinis are outlawed unless on designated ‘uninhabited’ islands set aside exclusively for resort developments.

Plowright added that with the local Maldivian potentially facing public flogging should they be convicted on charges of ‘fornication’, the religious conservative Adhaalath Party had maintained that tourism be kept separate from the country’s inhabited islands.

“If the hippy-type of travellers come, along will come drugs and narcotics which even now our society is suffering from. Things like nudity are not acceptable in a place where people are living. The people complain that they are praying in the mosque and just outside there are tourists in bikinis,” Adhaalath Party Vice President Mauroof Hussain told the AFP.

“While fundamentalist interpretations of Islam imported from the Persian Gulf and Pakistan are progressively taking root in the Maldives, Hussain’s views lie far outside the mainstream and are ridiculed by many,” the AFP claimed.

The Adhaalath Party remains a key supporter  in the upcoming election of Jumhoree Party (JP) presidential candidate and businessman MP Gasim Ibrahim, who operates a number of exclusive island resorts through his Villa Hotels company.

The presidential candidate’s resorts have thrived on supplying married and unmarried guests alike with holiday staples associated with the Maldives; including sun bathing, alcoholic beverages and diving expeditions.

Yet despite the prevalance of exclusive island resorts to tourism growth in the Maldives, efforts over the last half decade to expand guesthouses has led to a “torrent” of entrepreneurs like 25-year-old Ibrahim Mohamed opening tourist properties in an attempt to bring more US dollars directly into the local economy, according to Plowright.

Read more.


Gasim pledges to establish National University faculties in each atoll

Government-aligned Jumhooree Party (JP) presidential candidate and business magnate MP Gasim Ibrahim has pledged to establish a faculty of the National University in each atoll of the Maldives.

According to newspaper Haveeru, Gasim said at a campaign rally on the island of Thinadhoo in Gaaf Dhaal atoll last night (June 23) that he would upgrade the National University faculty in the island and open a Villa College campus should he be elected president in September.

Gasim is the chairman of the Villa Group of businesses, which includes resorts, a domestic airline, a cement packing factory, gas providers and retail outlets. Gasim is also the owner of private broadcaster Villa Television (VTV), which airs extensive coverage of the JP leader’s presidential campaign.

Speaking in Thinadhoo, Gasim meanwhile pledged developing the island’s hospital to match the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) in the capital Male’ as well as building an indoor sports center and an artificial beach.

He also pledged to upgrade the regional airport in Kaadedhoo to an international airport, after which additional resorts and city hotels would be developed in the southern atoll.

A Villa gas and cement factory would also be opened in the atoll in his presidency, the MP for Alif Dhaal Maamigili reportedly said.

The inter-atoll ferry service established by the previous government would function reliably under a JP government, he added, and would be overseen by island councils with government subsidies.

Among Gasim’s other pledges made during campaign visits to islands include building an international dock yard in Haa Alif atoll, expanding the previous government’s Aasandha universal health insurance scheme to allow Maldivians to receive medical treatment for free in India and Sri Lanka and establishing Villa College campuses across the country.


Gasim receives ‘lifetime achievement’ award at Maldives Travel Awards

The Maldives’ first ever travel awards ceremony was held at Paradise Island Resort on Friday evening to mark 40 years of tourism in the country.

The event, organised by the Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO), was sponsored by India’s GMR, the current developers of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) which is expected to welcome over one million visitors into the country this year.

Following the opening of the events by some of the Maldives’ top musical acts, including Unoosha, Barchi, Ritte and Mummu, 21 awards were distributed for the categories of resorts, hotels, liveaboards and aviation.

The MATATO appointed judging panel included Dr. Mahamood Shougee (Former Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation and Former Minister of Education), Dr. Ahmed Adham Abdulla (CEO of Maldives Transport and Contracting Company), Ms. Zeenaz Hussain (Dean of Faculty of Hospitality and Tourism Studies), and Mr. Ghaly Murthala (Tourism Development Consultant for FJS Consulting Pvt Ltd).

Amongst the individual award winners on the night was Gasim Ibrahim, owner of Villa Hotels – the parent company of Paradise Island and current leader of the government aligned Jumhooree Party (JP) – who received a lifetime achievement award.

The Hulhule’ Island Hotel (HIH) also won the award for best luxury hotel whilst Paradise Island resort won the award for leading business hotel. The Villa group also picked up an award for leading domestic airport.

Mr Maleeh Jamal – formerly head of MATATO and current Deputy Tourism Minister – was also in line for a personal award, receiving an appreciation plaque alongside Abdulla Jabir – Deputy Leader of the JP – and Yoosuf Riffath, managing director of Capital Travel.

“The event was very successful, and we thank all the sponsors and MATATO for their assistance and support in making the first Maldives Travel Awards a grand success,” said Ismail Hameed, Director of Marketing for the event’s management company, High Rise.

“We also thank all the nominees and congratulate all the winners, and hope that more resorts, hotels, Liveaboards, airlines and airports will participate in next year’s awards,” he added.

Friday’s award winner Maleeh Jamal declared that the “hard days were over” for Maldives tourism, the country’s primary industry, responsible for over 70 percent of the country’s GDP.

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.”

Despite the scepticism of some leading branding consultants about the ease with which the Maldives can overcome the negative headlines of this year, Maleeh anticipated increased growth in the coming months.

Arrival numbers to the Maldives between January and August this year totalled 614,802 people – an increase of 2.9 percent compared to the same period during 2011.


Gasim’s Royal Island Resort sues government

Villa Hotels’ Royal Island Resort and Spa, owned by Jumhoory Party (JP) Leader and MP ‘Burma’ Gasim Ibrahim has sued the government and requested the Civil Court to cancel an order by the Tourism Ministry to close the resort’s Spa over allegations of prostitution operations.

Today the Civil Court issued a warrant to cancel the Tourism Ministry’s order and permit spa operations until the suit against the government is concluded.

Speaking for the government at this morning’s hearing, Attorney General Office’s lawyer Maryam Shunana told the Judge that issuing the warrant was equivalent to closing the entire suit, Haveeru reports.

Former Attorney General Azima Shukoor spoke on behalf of the resort.

Shukoor argued that according to the agreement made between the resort and the government, the resort has 30 days to correct any issue found by the government. If the resort fails to correct the issue within that time frame, the government may fine the resort US$10,000 (Rf154,200), reports Haveeru.

Shukoor claimed that the government’s order was given prior to any investigation and was based on allegations alone. She requested that the ministry’s order be cancelled.

She further requested for the warrant to keep the Spa open until the suit reaches a verdict, adding that if the warrant was not issued the resort risked a great loss.

Deputy Solicitor General Ahmed Usham asked whether the Spa was still open–Shukoor replied that it was functioning. Usham responded that losses to the resort should not be raised in court if the Spa was not closed according to the Ministry’s order.

Yesterday, Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair said that the government has decided to shut down all the massage parlors in the Maldives and is considering banning the trade of alcohol and pork throughout the Maldives in response to demands made by protestors on December 23.

Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) Spokesperson and MP Ahmed Mahlouf called on the coalition of religious NGOs and opposition parties to take actions against the government’s decision to disrupt Gasim’s business operations.

He warned that the government will continue to disrupt other businesses run by opposition supporters.

Gasim has filed cases regarding the other four Villa resorts which were requested to close their spa operations. However, no hearings have yet been conducted.

Press Secretary Zuhair yesterday informed Minivan News that Gasim was pretending to be a victim only for political gain, and that the government’s decision was not intended to harm any individual.

He also said that spas Gasim’s resort were not the only ones asked to close operations, but that some spas and massage parlors in Male’ have also been asked to shut down business on similar charges.


Villa air to commence domestic flights next Saturday

Media have reported that Villa Air will commence domestic flights to Male’-Maamigili and Maamigili-Male’ next Saturday.

Until next year, the flights will operate from Male’ to Maamigili in South Ari Atoll and Maamigli to Male’ and next year the company is planning to operate flights to Laamu Atoll and Haa Dhaalu Atoll.

Villa is owned by Jumhoory Party leader and MP ‘Burma’ Gasim Ibrahim and Maamigili is his motherland.

The airport in Maamigili was constructed by Villa.


Parliament appoints local business tycoon to judicial watchdog

Parliament has narrowly voted MP for Maamigili Gasim Ibrahim as its representative on the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), the commission tasked with overseeing the country’s judiciary.

38 members of of the 77 member parliament voted in favour of Gasim, while 36 voted against him. The other candidate for the position, former Chairperson of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) Mariya Ahmed Didi, narrowly missed the required votes with 36 MPs in favour of her appointment and 37 against.

Gasim is a well-known business tycoon, media owner and leader of the opposition-aligned Jumhoree Party (JP). He was last year accused by the government of treason and bribery after phone calls of his conversations with People’s Alliance MP and the former President’s half-brother Abdulla Yameen were leaked to the media.

Gasim will replace DRP MP Dr Afrashim Ali on the JSC, after Afrashim was dismissed by parliament 38-34 in favour earlier this week amid claims of misconduct and corruption.

Former President’s Member of the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) Aishath Velezinee described Gasim’s appointment to the JSC as “the worst thing that could possibly have happened. It means nothing will be looked at, and I expect [the JSC] will become worse than ever. I can already hear the judges celebrating.”

Gasim, Velezinee said, “is a man of wealth, and every seat he has ever sat on has benefited him. We can expect the same from the JSC. I don’t think anyone is under any other impression – there is no comparison between Mariya and Gasim in terms of legal knowledge and integrity. The people’s representatives have sold out to the devil, and this is a very sad day.”

DRP Deputy Leader Ibrahim Shareef said he felt that Gasim “has the experience, wisdom and the capacity face the challenges.”

“What is required is sincerity. We need to build a judiciary that is competent, efficient and capable of delivering justice,” Shareef said.

Asked whether Gasim’s extensive business interests could prove a potential conflict of interest when overseeing the Maldivian justice system, Shareef said “that is a real possibility. I think the judiciary must be totally free from political influence. We have to see how this unfolds – this is a small country and it is hard to have complete impartiality.”

Gayoom thanks MPs

Following Afrashim’s removal from the JSC on Monday, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom publicly thanked DRP MPs for voting in Afrashim’s favour.

“Afrashim was the front man for what went on in JSC. It wasn’t him alone, but he was the front man,” said Velezinee, who contends that the opposition had used its parliamentary majority to control the JSC, subvert Article 285 of the Constitution and reappoint the judges handpicked by the former administration.

One result of this, Velezinee said, was the impossibility of prosecuting any instance of serious drug crime in the Criminal Court. She referred to a decision made yesterday by Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed to throw out charges of drug trafficking against two businessmen for lack of evidence, after more than a kilogram of narcotics was found in the trunk of one of their cars.

“The evidence that the JSC has hidden away suggests that Abdulla Mohamed is under the influence of senior politicians and businessmen alleged to be involved in serious crime, and the decisions of the criminal court gives every reason to believe this is true. The JSC is acting unlawfully by not forwarding this to the relevant authority,” she claimed.

Afrashim had sat on the committee charged with investigating Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed, formed on December 30, 2009.

“Until the day I left the JSC we had no reports on the progress of the investigation,” Velezinee said, “despite the fact that the JSC Act states that a written report must be submitted every 30 days for every investigation.”

Velezinee observed that the opposition’s factional battle was laid aside in its efforts to save Afrashim during Monday’s vote.

“The factionalisation of the DRP was forgotten. They all joined together. In my mind there is now no doubt that there was a silent coup, and Gayoom’s coming out and thanking the MPs is as much a confession to being the leader. I cannot imagine this happening in any developed country, there would have been riots.”

Velezinee’s concerns about the independence of the JSC appeared vindicated with the publication of a report on the Maldivian judiciary by the International Committee of Jurists (ICJ).

“How often do ordinary Maldivians look to the courts for justice? Is there a sense that ‘We [Maldivians] have an independent judiciary that is capable of resolving problems?’ I think the answer is no,” surmised Roger Normand, Director of the ICJ’s Asia Pacific operations at the time of the report’s publication.

Velezinee claimed the JSC had routinely doctored information given to international groups such as the ICJ who were unable to interpret the original Dhivehi documents.

“No international organisation or authority would believe that such an institution would be handing out doctored documents and changing their minutes. I have seen shocking things. But when I speak of them, I am the one labelled a fool. I have a different view to rest of the country because I sat in a seat not accessible to anyone else, and witnessed this happening.”

Parliament’s dismissal of Afrashim on Monday on grounds of misconduct had raised the possibility that Article 285 could be revisited, Velezinee said.

“The JSC Act states that if any member of the JSC has acted outside conduct in any decision making, that decision must be revisited – but that’s for the JSC to decide,” she said.

“But in this case I suspect we are in an an area not covered by the act. Parliament has found out about this, not the JSC, and the complaint has been there since February 2010.

“When parliament took the decision [to remove Afrashim], it clearly stated that Dr Afrashim acted unconstitutionally and breached trust. In that case there is good reason to demand Article 285 be readdressed. Just because a certain period has passed does not mean [the reappointments] are valid. The obligations under the Article were not fulfilled.”

It was, she said, a matter of “laying the foundation for an independent judiciary that will uphold this constitution.”

The judges reappointed by the former Ministry of Justice had been guided in passing judgements, Velezinee said – “It is clearly evident from documents we have. Many of the judges were handpicked by different ministers, who are now complaining to the press that the President is interfering in the judiciary. Their lawyers want to keep the existing bench.”

The JSC’s actions had, however, closed the bench for the next 40 years, “and that is really scary.”


Paradise hosts third round of Taliban peace talks

The Maldives last week hosted a third round of peace talks between the Afghan government and members of Taliban-linked resistance group led by ex-Mujahideen Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the three key leaders of the armed opposition in Afghanistan.

Paradise’s manager Qaisar Naseem confirmed to Minivan News that the third meeting, “of 50 or so people”, was held at the resort around November 9.

“It was independently organised and involved some people from Afghanistan, but they were not [identified] as Taliban. There were people from the [Afghan] government as well,” he said. “They brought the media with them.”

The delegates caused no problems and were “very decent, very friendly, and talked to the other guests,” he said.

In a press conference today prior to his departure to Sri Lanka, President Mohamed Nasheed said the government was “aware of these conferences” but had no involvement.

“We do not at all feel that they bring a security risk. The security services of this country – police and other intelligence services – have a very good grip on who is doing what,” Nasheed said.

“Our position is that anyone wishing to have a conversation or bridge a gap to resolve a conflict is always very welcome in the Maldives.”

However, in the event of future talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, it is likely the gates of Paradise will remain closed.

Naseem said that while hosting the conference itself was harmless, the resort was “fully dependent” on European visitors, and management was acutely aware that the meetings could have a “negative impact” on guest perception.

“There’s no problems actually holding these events, but it does have an adverse effect on perception,” he explained. “To be honest, we’re not going to do it again.”

President of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI), Mohamed Ibrahim ‘Sim’, told Minivan News that he had not had heard of any adverse reaction to the meetings from tour operators or the wider travel market.

“I don’t understand why there should be an impact [on perception],” he said. “The fact we are providing a safe haven for people with a peaceful agenda to come and discuss issues across a table does not detract from the image of the country.

“Some of these leaders are seen as terrorists and warlords, and the fact they are coming to the meeting emphasises the safety of the destination,” Sim said.

“We are a tourist destination and we don’t want to dragged into global geopolitics and the animosity between nations. We don’t want to antagonise anybody – that’s how a small and defenceless nation like the Maldives has been able to survive, and will hopefully continue to do so.”


Central Asia Online reported that during the five day conference delegates proposed to form a supreme shura (‘consultation’), the Shura-e-Aali Amniyat-e-Milli, under which representatives from Afghanistan’s political, ethnic and warring groups would review “all major government policies before they are introduced before the parliament.”

“Policies would have to be passed with a two-thirds majority of the shura to be passed on to parliament or be implemented,” the US government-sponsored news site reported.

Taking on an almost parliamentary function, the shura would also approve ministerial, judicial, and independent commission appointments, the site reported. In the meantime, a ‘peace commission’ would be created to broker a ceasefire between the government and insurgent groups. A communique on the final day also called for the “immediate withdrawal” of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

The meeting was the third in a series of gatherings held this year in the Maldives, and the second to be held at Paradise Resort.

The first, under a veneer of secrecy, was held at Bandos Island Resort and Spa in January at the same time as the US, Britian and Japan spearheaded a proposal to ‘bribe’ Taliban fighters to disarm.

State Minister for Defence, Mohamed Muiz Adnan, told Minivan News at the time that he was not aware of the group’s arrival until he “saw it in the newspaper”, and had no knowledge of the meeting.

The second event in May – held at Paradise – was more widely publicised, and filmed by television news network Al-Jazeera. It was organised by Almayoun Jarir, Hekmatyar’s son-in-law.

Image taken during May meeting at Paradise Island Resort and Spa.


Akon to perform live in “the biggest ever event in the Maldives”

Well known R&B singer Akon will perform a live show in the Maldives, after he was denied a visa in Sri Lanka because of a scene in one of his videos depicting a woman dancing around a Buddha statue.

Director of Platinum Entertainment Lasantha Samarasinghe, the company organising the ‘Super Fest 2010’ show, said it would be be held at the outdoor cricket stadium on the 23 April and would be “the biggest event ever held in the Maldives.”

“We are expecting 25,000 people to come to the show,” he said, including many tourists.

Samarasinghe said if this event was successful the company “will bring even more Hollywood superstars to the Maldives.”

Press secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair said that the government had given the permission for the show to take place, saying it “fully supports these kinds of events.”

“It will promote the country’s tourism sector and provide a good opportunity for Maldivian singers,” he said.

Zuhair also said that President Mohamed Nasheed was keen to attend the show.

The show’s main sponsor will be Villa Television, with ‘official drinks’ provided VB Mart and Foco energy drink.

A Villa spokesperson claimed this was “the first time a superstar is performing in the Maldives.”

Tickets will go on sale from Friday.