“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.