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Tourism heads debate need for "responsibility" role within Maldives travel sector

By Neil Merrett | Saturday, March 24, 2012 - 17:27
As the international community continues to debate solutions to the political upheaval in the Maldives, the exact role that the country's isolated resorts and wider tourism industry should, or should not play in a potential resolution is hotly contested on both sides of the argument.
 
After a controversial transfer of power last month that saw Mohamed Nasheed resign as the country's president -  a decision he later said was taken under duress – travel groups including Kuoni and the British Foreign Office had last month warned against visiting the capital of Male', although the Maldives' resort islands were deemed safe.
 
The UK Foreign Office and other national authorities have since removed travel warnings against all but essential travel to the capital of Male’, though some travellers may still have questions about visiting the destination.
 
While a former tourism minister linked to the previous Maldivian Democratic Party and UK-based NGO, Friends of Maldives, have both stressed that it remains important for tourists visiting to be made aware of the current political situation – tourist authorities in the country are, by contrast, working to protect the destination's reputation and holiday appeal.
 
Amidst these efforts, Friends of Maldives last month issued a so-called travel advisory urging tourists to come to the Maldives, yet to consider avoiding a handful of resort properties linked to figures with alleged roles in the controversial installation of the new government.  Conversely, the country's Tourism Ministry has stepped up efforts to protect the reputation of the destination by looking to work with professional media communications bodies to play up the safety and attractions of the Indian Ocean archipelago for holidaymakers. 
 
No party either side of the political debate appears to contest that the Maldives, especially at its often luxurious resort islands, is not a safe destination to visit.  However, the issue of ethical travel initiatives and debate over whether holidaymakers who spend their hard earned money on coming to the country should be made aware of the world beyond their infinity pools and water-sports centres is a lot more contentious.
 
“My Lords, the image of the Maldives as a tropical tourist paradise is indeed correct but it was not a democracy until 2008, when elections finally took place,” stated British peer Lord Nisby at a discussion initiated in the House of Lords on March 22.
 
 
“The individual who was selected as president by the people of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, had suffered personal abuse and imprisonment and had exile in this country-a terrible personal saga.  A few weeks ago he resigned, clearly under duress, and the new Government are unwilling to hold elections.”
 
The comments were made during a week of scathing attacks by some Maldivian MPs towards the Commonwealth and more specific criticisms from President Waheed's government members towards the international organisation's ministerial action group calling for early elections to resolve any crisis.
 
 
While not entirely critical of the Commonwealth Ministerial Actions Group (CMAG) statement, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Dhunya Maumoon last week alleged that the calls for early elections served to promote the interests of specific parties or individuals. 
 
Tourism talk
 
Outside of the country's partisan and somewhat spicy domestic political arena, Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb Abdul Gafoor has been garnering headlines in the UK with his efforts to restore confidence in the country’s tourism sector following recent negative headlines regarding political uncertainty.
 
Gafoor met with reporters in London earlier this month to push the the message that the Maldives remains a safe destination for tourists as part of a press conference organised by Rooster Creative Public Relations Ltd.  The group has been selected by The Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) to deal with UK public relations about the destination.
 
Reporting for The Daily Telegraph newspaper, journalist Oliver Smith said Gafoor addressed sections of the UK media claiming that the current government of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan took allegations of police brutality against protesters opposed to his leadership “very seriously”.
 
“While it is generally accepted that holidaymakers are unlikely to be caught up in any unrest, as most resorts are found on isolated, otherwise uninhabited islands, the moral implications of visiting the Maldives have been called into question following the downfall of Mr Nasheed,” Smith wrote for the paper.
 
“Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have accused the new government of ordering police to violently suppress demonstrations.”
 
With a small band of protesters handing leaflets to reporters outside on the London streets claiming that President Mohamed Waheed Hassan was working to undermine the country’s young democracy, the Telegraph reported that Gafoor saw this as a clear indication that human rights were being respected many miles away in the Maldives.
 
“The fact that there are leaflets being handed to you outside shows how open we are,” he was reported as saying.
 
Beyond addressing the country’s political upheaval, the newly appointed tourism minister said that he hoped to continue to try to open up the country to emerging markets like China, whilst also pursuing more sustainable and community-based tourism projects.
 
“He [Gafoor] also sought to reassure visitors that the islands’ spas – briefly threatened with closure under President Nasheed, following pressure from Islamist groups – would remain open, and said that no moves to restrict the sale of alcohol in holiday resorts would be considered,” the newspaper added.
 
The minister also hit out at the travel advisory issued by the Friends of Maldives NGO.  According to the NGO, while the advisory aims to encourage travellers to continue holidaying in the Maldives, it does ask them to reconsider staying at a small number of resort properties that it alleges are directly involved in the controversial transfer of power to President Waheed last month.
 
“Mr Gafoor said he would not recognise the Friends of Maldives campaign and was bullish about the impact that recent negative publicity would have on visitor numbers. He said that a record one million holidaymakers were expected to visit the Maldives this year, including around 100,000 Britons,” the report added.
 
Former tourism head talks
 
Adheeb's predecessor, Dr Mariyam Zulfa, who served as the former tourism minister of the Maldives after being appointed by Mohamed Nasheed’s administration in November 2010, agreed in part that the current political situation was not significantly affecting the Maldives popularity as a tourist resort. 
 
“The Maldives is a unique destination. You don’t find this kind of geographical competitive advantage in any other country. 1200 islands ringed into atolls, unique lagoons and beaches, the various shades of blue that make the islands so attractive. I have seen many tourists actually cry in amazement, it’s so beautiful,” she told the minivan News publication earlier this month.
 
“The political situation is not going to affect the beauty that we have in the islands that we offer to the tourists.”
 
However, Dr Zulfa claimed that the tourism industry did have some “responsibility” to ensure tourists were being given awareness of the situation occurring beyond the resorts.
 
“I think the tourism industry has the responsibility to provide information on the great wrong that had been done unto the average person of the Maldives which is denying them the government that has been legitimately installed through their vote,” she stated.
 
Zulfa added that from her perspective, resort operators themselves had not been expressing concerns to her directly about the situation.
 
“The government, as it should, has been spreading the message through its own PR machinery that the country is safe,” she said.
 
Dr Zulfa stressed though that at the often luxurious resort properties where guests had been holidaying, European tourists were showing concern about the situation facing Maldivians.
 
“I have personally had a number of communications from interested persons, especially from Germany and the UK, asking what is happening in the country, and that is a good sign because the traveller is not a nameless faceless body that comes here,” the former tourism minister added.  “I think people who travel are also conscientious people who care about the well-being of the people of the countries that they visit. I would tend to think that the political concerns of a wide majority of the Maldivian people are indeed something worth listening to.”
 
Travel Advisory
 
In addressing the travel advisory issued by the Friends of Maldives NGO that favours staying at resort properties not allegedly linked directly to rise of the present government until international calls for fresh elections are met, Zulfa said the MDP was not officially backing the document.  
 
However, the former Tourism Minister said she believed the advisory had been established by a an organisation that supported its cause and wider democratic reforms in the country, which was more intended to spread information about the ongoing political strife rather than outright damaging the national economy or travel industry. 
 
“Neither a formal nor an informal investigation has been completed so far but there is evidence to show – and material that can be used as evidence – that leads us to the conclusion that some people in the tourist industry have been behind at least the financing of some of the operations that led to the overthrow of President Nasheed [on February 7], she claimed.  “But I can’t categorically say exactly who was involved unless a formal investigation has been completed. Some in the industry were involved, not all. Amongst them were a couple of major players in the Maldives [tourism] industry.”

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