Tourism remains the linchpin of the country's economy. A natural disaster, unrest or even an economic tremor halfway across the world is reverberated through to the luxury shores of the tropical island destination. It's no secret. Our tourism industry is fragile. But as the Maldives trudges through one political turmoil after another, its like no one told that to our beloved politicians.
In 2011, the then government closed down every spa in the country alleging prostitution. Why? Because most of its then political rivals were resort tycoons. Since then tourism has remained a tool for politicians. To be held 'hostage' at their whim. To manipulate or gain advantage. Or force a political rival into submission. When the country witnessed the premature downfall of its first democratically elected government a year later, the tiny island nation has struggled to shake off tourism boycott calls or anti-tourism campaigns from the globally well-connected opposition. The opposition's version of international pressure seems to be convincing foreign politicians, diplomats or high profile celebrities to publicly urge the world to boycott the Maldives.
The incumbent government especially, has never failed to highlight this fact. By parading the moderate success our tourism industry has enjoyed in the recent past as a major achievement in the face of extreme adversity. It has also repeatedly berated the opposition for using tourism as a 'weapon'. But hypocrisy is never far from our leaders. Or vice versa. Our politicians are notorious for changing their stand, statements or allegiance faster than we can say 'democracy.'
This week, authorities have raided the resorts owned by a key political rival. Apparently four out of the five resorts have acquired pork and alcohol illegally. That maybe true. But its hard to imagine the latest debacle being anything other than a politically motivated attempt to pressure the opposition. At a time when most resorts in the Maldives are enjoying near maximum occupancy, uniformed personnel mingling with tourists does not bode too well for the image of a country that is trying desperately to maintain its detachment between tourism and political turmoil.
"What's the difference between this and the spas incident? Tourists will lose confidence and trust in our tourism. Especially when we're having full occupancy these things never should happen," a renowned businessman on condition of anonymity bemoaned. That is exactly right. Was there really a need for police and customs officials to search these resorts in front of understandably scared tourists? Did the authorities really need to wash our 'dirty linen' in front of an international audience?
Despite the government's best assurances to deny politically motivated 'targeting', the infringement by the management or owner even if there was any could and should have been handled better. Because the negative effects of this move would be felt by the entire tourism industry. It's not a 'surgical strike' on a political rival. As Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO) aptly said, the negativity surrounding the incident could have far more graver consequences for the country's economy.
"The media coverage of this incident gives an ominous message for tourists who have booked their trips to the Maldives," MATATO lamented with concern. The five resorts subject to the government's ire welcome tourists from over 30 different countries. Tourists pay thousands of dollars to enjoy the 'sandy beaches and turquoise waters' in complete isolation. Government and its main tourism promotion bodies have continuously claimed that word of mouth remains Maldives' greatest marketing tool. So what message would the tourists in the searched resorts take back to their respective countries? What experience would they go back and share with their friends and families?
The government recently announced its intention to spend MVR100 million on tourism promotion this year. But the best thing it could do for tourism and boost arrival numbers is to stop muddling it with our dirty politics. Same goes for the opposition. Whoever might be in it at this point time. Enough with the hypocrisy. Leave our delicate tourism out of politics, please.