Violence 'taints' Maldives paradise image
The tourist sector accounts for one third of the Maldives' GDP and more than 60 percent of foreign currency earnings.
Thu, Feb 09 2012 at 2:12 PM
UNSTEADY VACATIONS: Kurumba island in the Maldives. The political violence in the country hasn't reached most tourists hotspots, but some resorts have had cancellations. (Photo: Sanka Vidanagama/AFP)
Political violence in the Maldives has "tarnished" the Indian Ocean archipelago's image as one of the world's top luxury resort destinations, a senior tourism body official warned on Feb. 9.
Although resort managers and tour agents have reported only a small number of cancellations, the unrest that followed the ousting of president Mohamed Nasheed on Feb. 7 has begun inching closer to key tourist infrastructure.
"The violence has tarnished our image, we have become just another Middle East country with violence on the streets," Mohamed Sim Ibrahim, the secretary general of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry, told AFP.
"All these negative headlines on political turmoil hurt our international partners and foreign investment in tourism. Tourists can go anywhere for a holiday, they don't have to come here," Ibrahim said.
Around 850,000 mostly high-end tourists visited the Maldives last year, drawn by the tropical resorts built on small uninhabited islets surrounded by coral reefs and crystal-clear turquoise waters.
The country was voted the world's number one island destination by readers of Conde Nast Traveller in 2011.
The tourist sector accounts for one third of the Maldives' gross domestic product (GDP) and more than 60 percent of foreign currency earnings.
The unrest of recent days was initially confined to the capital, Male, a city most travelers never see as they transit immediately from incoming flights to seaplanes or boats that whisk them off to their resorts.
"Most holidaymakers appear to be unaffected," said Mohamed Muiz, a local employee of the Kurumathi Island resort, 35 miles (56 kilometers) west of Male.
"There is no panic. Very calm. Like us, the guests follow the local news on the Internet or foreign cable TV channels," said Muiz.
Nevertheless, Australia, Britain, Germany and the United States have all issued travel advisories on the Maldives, along with China whose citizens now account for around 25 percent of foreign visitors.
The violence has since spread from Male to the country's outlying atolls.
The army was deployed on Feb. 9 in the Maldives' second-largest city Addu where troops secured Gan Airport, another key staging post for tourists flying to outlying islands.
"Tourists flying directly off to the resorts would be safe, but nobody should come into the city proper," Addu City Mayor Abdulla Sodig told AFP, saying there had been a "complete breakdown" of law and order.
Ibrahim Mohammed, front officer at the Taj Exotica & Spa eight kilometers (five miles) south of Male, said the resort had suspended its usual day excursions to Male for guests wanting to do some shopping and sightseeing.
"Instead, we take them to the local islands," Mohammed said.
A group of suspected hardline Islamic activists had stormed the National Museum in Male on Feb. 7 and smashed a number of ancient Buddhist statues.
Ahmed Salih, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, insisted that there was no direct threat to the resort seekers.
"The tourism industry is functioning normally. Tourists are not leaving the island. Their safety is our first priority," Salih said.
Copyright 2012 AFP Global Edition