Maldives tourism teetering on edge

RECENTLY I talked to one of the major tour operators sending holidaymakers to the Maldives about their plans regarding the uneasy political situation in the country.

The representative – whom I promised not to name as their business in the Maldives is so big that it could affect many livelihoods (both at home in the UK and abroad) – was clearly concerned that the jailing on trumped up charges of the former democratic leader Mohamed Nasheed after the coup against him in 2012 could soon lead to a total tourist pullout.

Contingency plans were already being put in place to offer alternative destinations in readiness of further trouble ahead, I was informed. And were this company to cut its links with the Maldives, the effect would be felt immediately across the Indian Ocean country.

By allowing the imprisonment of Nasheed and by cracking down on dissent, the current government of the Maldives is clearly jeopardizing the well-being of the nation.

Yet it seems as though the arrogance and hubris of the politicians in charge is such that their primary concern is about losing face over making what is obviously required: a u-turn on the Nasheed ruling . . . and, as would seem sensible, a subsequent fresh presidential election to establish political legitimacy at the top.

The latest story from Male, capital of the Maldives, is of police in riot gear pepper-spraying students who were offering them roses as a gesture of peace. Three students were detained and two are, as I write, still held for having “disobeyed orders”.

The country is no longer a happy holiday place – and those around the world flicking through travel brochures as they select their honeymoon destination are getting the message that the Maldives no longer represents an ideal “paradise” in which to begin life together.

According to Ethical Maldives, a group that has created a list of resorts to avoid because owners have definite links with the current corrupt politicians in power, one resort that it describes as “high risk” in this regard is struggling to fill rooms. Occupancy is just 30 per cent – down from the usual 90 per cent – and the hotel is in danger of having to let staff go.

This has prompted a backlash from the Maldives government, which is clearly increasingly desperate about how its choice to cling to power at whatever cost is affecting the golden goose of tourism. The High Commission of the Maldives has issued a statement saying that, as the people behind Ethical Maldives are anonymous, their motives are questionable.

However, yesterday I was sent a Twitter message by those representing Ethical Maldives saying that they dared not reveal their identities for fear of persecution. They pointed out that Amnesty International has doubts about both the fairness of the judiciary system and police behaviour as well as grave concerns about the jailing of Nasheed.

It’s so sad to see a country that recently appeared to be opening up to the world turning so rapidly in the wrong direction – as I describe in my travel book that includes interviews with Nasheed, the former autocratic leader Gayoom (whose half-brother Yameen is now the current president), those who had been detained arbitrarily by the police, victims of human rights abuses in prison, and reporters fearful that they were being followed and their phones being tapped.

With a major worldwide tour operator now on the brink of pulling out, it’s time for those at the top to wake up and smell the coffee.

Let Nasheed go free, clean up politics and reap the rewards of booming tourism in years to come.

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