Male, January 26 (Avas): Tourism remains the linchpin of the country’s economy. A natural disaster, unrest or even an economic tremor halfway across the world is reverberated through to the luxury shores of the tropical island destination. It’s no secret. Our tourism industry is fragile. But as the Maldives trudges through one political turmoil after another, its like no one told that to our beloved politicians.
In 2011, the then government closed down every spa in the country alleging prostitution. Why? Because most of its then political rivals were resort tycoons. Since then tourism has remained a tool for politicians. To be held ‘hostage’ at their whim. To manipulate or gain advantage. Or force a political rival into submission. When the country witnessed the premature downfall of its first democratically elected government a year later, the tiny island nation has struggled to shake off tourism boycott calls or anti-tourism campaigns from the globally well-connected opposition. The opposition’s version of international pressure seems to be convincing foreign politicians, diplomats or high profile celebrities to publicly urge the world to boycott the Maldives.
The incumbent government especially, has never failed to highlight this fact. By parading the moderate success our tourism industry has enjoyed in the recent past as a major achievement in the face of extreme adversity. It has also repeatedly berated the opposition for using tourism as a ‘weapon’. But hypocrisy is never far from our leaders. Or vice versa. Our politicians are notorious for changing their stand, statements or allegiance faster than we can say ‘democracy.’
This week, authorities have raided the resorts owned by a key political rival. Apparently four out of the five resorts have acquired pork and alcohol illegally. That maybe true. But its hard to imagine the latest debacle being anything other than a politically motivated attempt to pressure the opposition. At a time when most resorts in the Maldives are enjoying near maximum occupancy, uniformed personnel mingling with tourists does not bode too well for the image of a country that is trying desperately to maintain its detachment between tourism and political turmoil.
“What’s the difference between this and the spas incident? Tourists will lose confidence and trust in our tourism. Especially when we’re having full occupancy these things never should happen,” a renowned businessman on condition of anonymity bemoaned. That is exactly right. Was there really a need for police and customs officials to search these resorts in front of understandably scared tourists? Did the authorities really need to wash our ‘dirty linen’ in front of an international audience?
Despite the government’s best assurances to deny politically motivated ‘targeting’, the infringement by the management or owner even if there was any could and should have been handled better. Because the negative effects of this move would be felt by the entire tourism industry. It’s not a ‘surgical strike’ on a political rival. As Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO) aptly said, the negativity surrounding the incident could have far more graver consequences for the country’s economy.
“The media coverage of this incident gives an ominous message for tourists who have booked their trips to the Maldives,” MATATO lamented with concern. The five resorts subject to the government’s ire welcome tourists from over 30 different countries. Tourists pay thousands of dollars to enjoy the ‘sandy beaches and turquoise waters’ in complete isolation. Government and its main tourism promotion bodies have continuously claimed that word of mouth remains Maldives’ greatest marketing tool. So what message would the tourists in the searched resorts take back to their respective countries? What experience would they go back and share with their friends and families?
The government recently announced its intention to spend MVR100 million on tourism promotion this year. But the best thing it could do for tourism and boost arrival numbers is to stop muddling it with our dirty politics. Same goes for the opposition. Whoever might be in it at this point time. Enough with the hypocrisy. Leave our delicate tourism out of politics, please.
Embattled Villa Group are struggling with increasing tourist complaints after the Maldives Customs Service continues to refuse alcohol to five of its resorts.
Customs along with the police had raided five resorts of the group owned opposition Jumhoory Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim last week, which included Fun Island Resort, Sun Island Resort, Paradise Island Resort, Holiday Island Resort and Royal Island Resort.
Authorities later claimed that four of the five resorts searched under the operation had an illegally acquired stock of pork and alcohol.
According to the authorities, the country’s inland revenue authority had temporarily revoked the alcohol license of the four resorts over failure to pay taxes. However, the Villa Group had illegally diverted pork and alcohol from its sole license in Royal Island Resort to its sister properties.
Government had later suspended the liquor license issued to Royal Island Resort for a period of six months citing “multiple violations.”
Tourism ministry however had decided to grant a 14 day temporary license to the Villa Group which it said was taken after discussions with stakeholders of the tourism industry.
However, customs has refused to release the alcohol despite the temporary license and the Villa Group on Thursday said its resorts are now almost out of alcohol.
A Villa Group official told AVAS that tourists at Fun Island Resort have threatened to go to the media once they go back as the resort has been unable to serve any alcohol after the customs seized its entire liquor stock.
“Tourist are complaining. They’ve asked if this is how the service is in Maldives. Some of them have threatened to go to the media once they go back to their countries. They’ve even criticized the government. We haven’t been able to serve any alcohol in Fun Island,” the official bemoaned.
Official said the stock in Paradise Island Resort and Sun Island Resort would only be enough to last until Friday. If customs does not release alcohol to the resorts by then, the financial losses for the company would be disastrous, the official added.
Maldives customs service meanwhile has downplayed concerns over the adverse effects on the country’s fragile tourism industry over the crackdown.
The tourism industry meanwhile, has expressed deep concern over the raids warning the government the adverse effects on the archipelago’s economy.
Customs however, in a statement late Sunday denied using force in the operation insisting that it had only searched the storage areas in the resorts, away from the common tourist areas and rooms. The statement also said it had carried out the operation within its legal mandate and urged against “politically motivated” attempts to destroy the image of the institution.
“Customs did not in any way use force in the operations. We had also seized items that are suspected of being brought in illegally to the resort,” the statement read.
The Villa Group remains adamant that it had not done anything illegal.
Gasim was convicted of bribery in August last year months after he inked a landmark pact with former presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Mohamed Nasheed and religiously conservative Adhaalath Party (AP) leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla to work against the government.
The business tycoon was granted medical leave to travel to Singapore where he had undergone a minor heart surgery in September before travelling to Germany.
Despite his leave expiring in late September, the former lawmaker had not returned claiming that no airline would allow him on board an air craft due to his ailing condition.
(Image at the top shows workers at opposition leader Gasim Ibrahim’s Villa resorts protest against non supply of liquor and pork by the government which has hit tourism)