Former President Mohamed Nasheed has called for a tourism boycott of the Maldives, urging potential visitors to make other plans and to cancel existing bookings.
“I’d say to anyone who has booked a holiday to the Maldives: cancel it. And to anyone who is thinking of booking one: please don’t bankroll an illegitimate government,” Mohamed Nasheed told the UK’s Financial Times (FT) newspaper while in New York last week.
Nasheed also told the publication that the country was at risk of ‘talibanisation’.
The former president resigned from office in February under circumstances he alleges amounted to a coup. His resignation has been followed by months of street demonstrations by his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the country’s largest political party.
Nasheed was in the United States to speak with government officials as well as receive an award for achievements through the practice of non violent action.
“This is the most effective form of non-violent pressure,” MDP Spokesperson Hamed Abdul Ghafoor told Minivan News, of the boycott.
“This is a sign that the MDP have gotten very serious. This is the last resort,” said Ghafoor.
The tourism industry is by far the country’s largest sector at US$2-3 billion per year, and is responsible for 70-80 percent of all foreign exchange receipts.
Resorts owned by those local businessmen the MDP has accused of funding the change of power have been previously targeted by a ‘selective boycott’, the so-called ‘Maldives Travel Advisory’.
However the MDP has disavowed any association with the advisory, and the site went down last week and can no longer be accessed.
The advisory rated all of the country’s resorts on a traffic light system, ranging from ‘green’ which urged tourists to visit, to ‘red’ – ‘those to avoid’.
Seeking the to counter the negative publicity, the government entered into a deal with global PR firm Ruder Finn, reportedly paying the company US$150,000 a month to highlight the country’s appeal as a tourist destination.
The Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) hopes to welcome over one million tourists to the country in 2012, however the corporation’s most recent figures showed that tourist arrivals had dropped 1.4 percent compared to the same period last year.
According to figures from the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), while South Asia was the second fastest growing market reporting 14 percent year-on-year growth in March in terms of visitor volume, the Maldives was the only destination to record a decline (five percent).
Throughout the recent political turmoil, the tourism industry has remained relatively sacrosanct with all sides acknowledging the importance of the industry to the Maldives.
In March, former Minister of Tourism and MDP party member Dr Mariyam Zulfa told Minivan News that despite having evidence that certain resort owners were involved in a coup, the MDP would never seek to damage the tourism industry.
“It has never been the MDPs intention and it will never be the MDPs intention to obstruct the progress that we have made in the tourism industry,” said Zulfa.
Today, Zulfa said that Nasheed’s comments were a “very practical suggestion” in response to the MDP’s concerns that the new government was becoming “entrenched”.
In his interview with the FT, Nasheed said that, “if there isn’t an election soon, I fear there won’t be one at all”.
Zulfa said that although the party’s National Council had yet to decide to officially call for a total boycott, Nasheed’s comments were “indicative of policy direction” which she felt was widely supported within the party’s ranks.
The call for a tourism boycott comes at a time when occupancy rates are already down at many resorts, with reports emerging that certain resorts have not paid staff for up to six months, and at a time when economic turmoil and plunging investor confidence has followed the country’s political unrest.
The government has claimed it is undertaking an austerity drive to slash spending in its departments by 15 percent in an attempt to cut Rf 2 billion (US$130 million) from the anticipated Rf 9 billion (US$584 million) budget deficit this year – a massive 27 percent of GDP.
This huge deficit has sparked concern from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which has predicted the dwindling of foreign reserves and the impoverishment of the nation if government spending is not curtailed.
Government response and impact
President’s Office Spokesman Abbas Adil Riza described Nasheed’s comments as “ridiculous” and “absurd”, and not befitting of someone who enjoys the status and privileges of a former president.
Riza argued that Nasheed had contradicted himself in his interview with the Financial Times, claiming that the absence of foreign tourists would play into the very hands of the Islamic hardliners he accused of taking over the government.
“If there are and hardliners, and fundamentalists, they would love a tourism boycott,” Riza said.
Asked about the likely impact of a boycott, Riza was adamant that the industry would be fine.
“We don’t see any change. We don’t think that the international community takes Nasheed seriously,” he said.
Riza added that the government would continue to respect Nasheed’s freedom of speech. He was confident that tour operators would be able to make their own assessments and that they understood the “true situation”.
Parties in the ruling coalition have meanwhile voted to establish a committee to investigate Nasheed’s alleged wrongdoings while in power, while Deputy Leader of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) Umar Naseer meanwhile told local media last week that he was confident that Nasheed would be jailed before the next elections.
Mauroof Zakir, Secretary General of the Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) said that alongside low occupancy rates and the industry’s low season, the boycott would be bad news for the industry’s workers.
“We are already seeing a higher number of terminations and unfair dismissals. We had 48 cases in June alone”, said Zakir.
“With the occupancy so low, the workers also receive less as a service charge and so they are increasingly demanding extra rights,” he continued.
“Political parties need to come to an understanding. They are creating more challenges for their own benefit. They have to negotiate rather than call for negative approaches.”
Minivan News was awaiting response from several resort managers to the news at time of press. One suggested that the move could force tour operators to pay higher premiums for the Maldives, absolving them from the need to be selective as to where they were sending guests and undermining the apparent purpose of the boycott.
Furthermore, the resort owner continued, the boycott risked undermining support for the MDP within the tourism industry, while giving the government a reason to blame the party for its dire economic situation.
However, another resort owner, quoted in the FT’s article, said he supported the boycott “as the industry was partly responsible for the overthrow of Mr Nasheed.”
“Resort owners have financed and backed the new regime, and we can’t carry on as if its business as usual. A boycott will hurt me personally a lot in the short term, but it’s necessary in the long term,” said Ali Shiyam, Director of AAA resorts.
Zulfa meanwhile said she hoped that a boycott would get the attention of the international community, and expressed desire for an EU travel directive in particular.
“We would like to create more impact and we would like people to have the right information,” she said.
“The government’s PR has been promoting the image of a country in which there are no problems, at a time when an immense crime has been committed against the people of the Maldives.”
The newly reformed Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) has meanwhile begun its investigations into the events surrounding the transfer of power and is expected to have completed its investigations by the end of July.
Ghafoor said that while the party respected the work of the commission, it had concerns about the level of protection afforded to witnesses.
“How can you rely on the CNI? Even when I go into the CNI, I know I am having my photograph taken – there is no witness protection,” said Ghafoor.
“We do not want to put all our eggs in one basket.”