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Maldives posts record visitor numbers as domestic turmoil makes global headlines

By Neil Merrett | Monday, March 30, 2015 - 02:56

The Maldives government maintains it has no say on recent controversial imprisonments as calls emerge for targeted tourism boycotts over alleged rights abuses

On paper, business is booming for the Maldivian tourism industry, with latest government statistics showing 120,464 visitors entered the country in February - said to be an all-time monthly record.  

However, not for the first time in recent years, the everyday reality of the country's turbulent politics is threatening to overshadow the destination’s reputation as a high-end, desert island paradise for tourists - with the controversial topic of boycotts once again being talked about internationally.

The Maldives’ paradise reputation has long been cultivated around ‘uninhabited’ islands that house around 100 exclusive resort properties being isolated from the more conservative ‘inhabited’ islands where Maldivians reside.  This somewhat hidden world outside of resort life has come under the glare of a global media spotlight following the recent imprisonment of its first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed.  

Nasheed’s trial, which saw him imprisoned for 13 years late last month on charges of terrorism for detaining a judge before he resignation in 2012 following a police and military mutiny, has been branded “a travesty of justice” by Amnesty international.

As a number of foreign governments including the UK and India raising concerns over the legal process, UN body the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has denounced the hearing as “grossly unfair” and a sign of “judicial politicisation”.

Earlier this month, defence minister Mohamed Nazim was sentenced to 11 years in prison on weapons charges, with the judicial process again coming under condemnation globally.  The US government was among the organisations to raise concerns about “an apparent lack of appropriate criminal procedures.”

Opposition supporters have since been holding daily protests across the country demanding the release of Nasheed and Nazim, with an estimated 10,000 people claimed to have attended a rally against the former president’s arrest last month.

In response to the criticism, President Abdulla Yameen said his government was committed to ensuring a “prosperous and affluent life of peace and security for all Maldivian people”, while noting that he would not intervene in the court cases and had no influence on the country’s judiciary.

Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Dhunya Maumoon - President Yameen’s niece - was quoted in local media of warning the country had come under unjustified criticism from foreign governments, requesting India and Sri Lanka assist to protect its reputation.

On a domestic level meanwhile, the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) has announced it will be assisting the country’s police with a special operation to ensure peace and security in the capital Male’ and other regions after a spate of violent attacks.

In recent weeks, two Bangladeshi nationals were murdered and another four expatriates were stabbed, leading to protests being sceduled by the country’s sizeable foreign workforce over fears of their treatment.

International media was quick to pick up on the story, with the Maldives Department of Immigration and Emigration warning that thousands of foreign workers, including those working on resorts, will be ordered to leave the country should they take part in any such demonstrations.

“The immigration department will not hesitate in penalising those who participate in protests,” said Immigration Controller Mohamed Anwar.

Following the controversy that surrounded the Maldives’ 2013 presidential elections, which were annulled by the country's courts and re-held later that year eventually leading to President Yameen’s narrow victory against Nasheed, the Maldives has largely been out of the international spotlight.  However, it has occasionally hit global headlines following high profile attacks on several media organisations and the suspected abduction of a local journalist.

However, the international media glare is once again back and this time could have more direct repercussions for tourism with individuals including influential British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson and prominent British politicians including independent crossbench life peer Lord Alton calling for the European Union to take strong action against members of the Maldives government.

“The European Union should freeze the assets of senior regime officials and their crony backers. A travel ban should be imposed on senior regime leaders. And a carefully targeted tourism boycott, aimed at resorts owned by regime associates, is needed,” Alton wrote in the Huffington Post this month.

“Sir Richard Branson has already called for such a boycott, and others should join that call.”

Similar calls for boycotts in the past have proved controversial, with government, industry figures and some Maldivians criticising such action for potentially penalising the wider economy that is dependent on income from foreign visitors.

Previous calls from former President Nasheed for boycott action in 2012 were quickly dropped by his party.

However, the longer the current government finds itself in the media spotlight over alleged rights abuses, the louder calls could get for the targeted boycotts of resorts linked to the Yameen administration.

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