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Maldives on course to meet million tourist target as political uncertainty dominates global headlines

By Neil Merrett | Monday, September 30, 2013 - 13:12

The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) has said the Maldives will successfully welcome over one million tourists to the country this year, according to Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb.

The claims were made as the country's ongoing political uncertainty comes under intense scrutiny by global media after the country's judiciary - previously reported as being heavily politicised in a UN-sanctioned investigation - suspended polling scheduled for September 28.

Tourism Minister Adheeb, speaking after the country officially launched the international celebrations for World Tourism Day on September 27 from Kurumba Island Resort, said that current statistics - backed by the UNWTO - indicated that tourist arrivals would exceed one million visitors during 2013.

The Maldives narrowly missed out on its stated aim of bringing one million visitors to the country last year, citing the impacts of global media covering the controversial change of government, an event which followed a mutiny by sections of the police and military.

The UNWTO launch event was attended by Adheeb, Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim and President Dr Mohamed Waheed, who spoke of the potential dangers the Maldives faced as a result of climate change - not least in terms of issues of water supply.

However, the celebrations, attended by senior UNWTO figures, were overshadowed by international media reports of “political chaos” in the country, and talk of potential disruption to the lucrative resort industry as a result of a 5,000 strong workers' union pledging prolonged strike action.

The action was pledged in response to a Supreme Court decision on September 23 to indefinitely suspend the ongoing presidential election over allegations of voter irregularity, a decision that sparked global concern from international actors that had praised the voting process earlier this month.

Business as usual

Despite the strike pledge, tourism industry operators speaking to Dhonisaurus - including properties directly linked to presidential candidates placed second and third during voting on September 7 - said it had nonetheless been business as usual for the country's resorts this week.

The claims were made despite allegations of some local resort operators allegedly sacking numbers of staff for politically motivated reasons in recent weeks - charges denied by the operators in question.

Multinational resort group operator Anantara meanwhile said that September 28 had passed quietly despite calls for strike action.

“Everything ran as normal here,” a spokesperson for the company told Dhonisaurus.

Anantara confirmed that employees had on the day asked management for permission to hold a “peaceful gathering” in support of certain political parties.

Staff at Anantara Kihavah Villas had requested to conduct such a gathering in their uniforms, but were asked to wear their own clothing instead – which they agreed to, claimed a spokesperson for the company.

“However, the event, if it takes place at all, will be done during their break in between the working hours,” added the spokesperson, who said that all four of the company’s resorts were being operated as normal.”

Meanwhile, Secret Paradise - a private company offering tourists packages combining the traditional tourist staples of sunbathing and water sports with authentic Maldives experiences - also said it had been unaffected by political uncertainty in recent days.

Secret Paradise Executive Travel Consultant Ruth Franklin explained that future bookings and enquiries from customers had not be negatively impacted by coverage of the ongoing uncertainty or strike action.

“We had a group of 14 [guests] starting our local island adventure tour yesterday and we took the decision not to do a Male' tour, but other than that it is business as usual,” she said.

The vast majority of tourism to the country is through package tours and holidays, with guests arriving on the airport island of Hulhule' and being taken by boat, seaplane or domestic air transfer directly to their resort islands without stepping foot on Male’.

Authorities in the UK, Australia, Canada and China have nonetheless updated their travel advisories on the Maldives, warning of intensifying political instability and encouraging their nationals to take care, especially in the capital city of Male’.

“There is no indication at present that any political unrest will affect tourist resorts or airports, but if you have any concerns you should check with your hotel or tour operator,”read a statement from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

"Irresponsible media coverage"

Tourism Minister Adheeb has told Minivan News that international media coverage of proposed strike action predicting “travel misery” for UK tourists travelling to resort was “irresponsible”.

He also challenged the veracity of reports such as those in the Independent’s travel section suggesting that “the scuba dive tanks will stay empty, the pool towels unchanged, and there will be nobody on hand to mix a cocktail.”

Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO) Mohamed Khaleel said Saturday that he had not been made aware at present of adverse impacts to the resort industry from proposed strike action.

Khaleel said that although it was important to understand the reason for delaying to the election on the basis of alleged voting irregularities, a failure to resolve the ongoing disputes was likely to lead to long-term negative impacts on the industry.

Khaleel said that international media would ultimately have an important role in any efforts to “improve” the Maldives’ image going forward.

“I would ask everyone to still come here and enjoy the tourism experience without involving themselves in domestic politics,” he said. “Domestic politics should not impact resorts, we need to keep politics and the economy separate.”

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