It is supposed to be a paradise destination where the only turbulence is the occasional gust of wind rattling the palm trees. But the ongoing political turmoil which has shaken the Maldives in the last fortnight now seems to be hitting its holiday industry.
The state of emergency imposed by the authorities on February 5 – as part of an escalating political chasm between the president and key opposition figures – is now bearing bruised fruit in the form of cancelled bookings, travel warnings from foreign governments, and tourists deciding it might be better to stay away.
“We have had about 50 to 60 room cancellations per day, and the number is consistent since it started,” a spokesperson for Paradise Island Resort-Villa Group – which runs a 282-room resort a 20-minute speedboat ride from the capital Malé – told Reuters. “This is the same for all of our properties in the country.”
President Abdulla Yameen declared the state of emergency – which is due to run for 15 days – at the start of last week, in response to a ruling by judges that leading members of the opposition, including the former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, should be freed. Gayoom, the president’s half-brother, who was the Maldivian head of state between 1978 and 2008, was arrested on February 6.
The judiciary also quashed the 2015 terrorism conviction against Mohamed Nasheed, Gayoom’s successor as president. Nasheed claimed political asylum in Britain in 2016.
Yameen rejected the rulings, and ordered the arrest of two of the court’s five judges. He claims the opposition figures are planning a coup to depose him.
Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has altered its travel guidance for the Maldives, warning would-be holidaymakers that “security forces have been deployed in the capital Malé in response to political developments. If you’re in Malé, you should exercise caution and avoid any protests or rallies.”
But the advice also reassures tourists that “there are no reports that outlying islands, resorts or Malé International Airport are affected.”
The political upheaval comes at a bad time for the Maldives’ many luxury hotels. While the Indian Ocean archipelago welcomes some 1.4million tourists a year, the Chinese market makes up an increasingly large fraction of that total. Tomorrow (February 16) is Chinese New Year – a red-letter date in the calendar which sees many Chinese citizens head abroad for a week’s holiday.
The Chinese government has close connections with Yameen’s administration in Malé, but that has not stopped Beijing issuing travel warnings of its own regarding the Maldives. India and the United States have also stiffened their advice to tourists.
“We have a higher market for Chinese and Indian travellers, and we are seeing most of the cancellations from these markets,” a tour operator in Malé has told Reuters, on condition of anonymity.
These concerns do not, so far, seem to have been replicated in Britain.
“We have not had any cancellations as a consequence of the state of emergency, and have only had one call from a customer looking to clarify the situation,” says Mags Longstaff of beach-holiday specialist Tropical Sky. “The customer was subsequently happy to travel once she had a full understanding of the situation.”
“Tropical Sky will always follow FCO advice, but as our clients don’t spend any time in Malé on their Maldives holidays, it is very much business as usual.”
Tourism accounts for a third of Maldives’ gross domestic product. This equated to a figure of $3.5billion (£2.5billion) in 2017.
This is not the first time political issues in the capital have sent ripples of uncertainty across the rest of the island nation.
Nasheed’s resignation from the tob job in February 2012 – an act under pressure which has been described as a coup d’etat – also caused concerns about the Maldives’ suitability as a holiday destination. Nasheed had become the country’s first democratically elected leader by winning the presidential election in November 2008.
His 2015 conviction for terrorism saw him sentenced to 13 years at Maafushi Prison. Amnesty International has described the conviction as “politically motivated”, while the USA has voiced its concern at the “apparent lack of appropriate criminal procedures during the trial”.
Nasheed claimed asylum in the UK in May 2016 after travelling here for medical treatment. “Given the slide towards authoritarianism in the Maldives, myself and other opposition politicians feel we have no choice but to work in exile – for now,” he said in a statement.
The Maldives foreign ministry responded that it “would be disappointed [if] the UK government is allowing itself to be part of this charade, and further, is enabling an individual to circumvent his obligations under the law.”
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