Tourist arrival figures ‘untrustworthy’

Tourist arrival figures ‘untrustworthy’
April 14 11:42 2018

Tour operators are questioning official visitor numbers to the Maldives, a top diplomat has said, with resort owners complaining of losses and low occupancy rates.

Germany’s ambassador to the Maldives Jorn Rohde said the economy was suffering because of the volatile political situation and ordinary people were bearing the brunt.

The Maldives’ reputation as an upmarket holiday destination has been battered in recent months due to a 45-day state of emergency, with key political figures thrown in prison and basic constitutional rights suspended.

February saw a double-digit growth in visitor numbers, despite the negative headlines and international condemnation about the political crisis. The tax authority beat its forecast for revenue collection due to the arrivals bump.

The ambassador, however, told the Maldives Independent that tourism was taking a hit.

“I have been hearing from resort owners that they are losing money and in the guesthouse sector,” he said. “Tour operators tell us they are losing money, they don’t trust official figures. Tour operators in Germany say the figures are not trustworthy. They are losing money on high-end resorts with visitors staying away. They are reporting to us that it (occupancy) is unusually low during the summer.”

He recounted the experience of a colleague who spent two days on a resort that had 23 percent occupancy, when normally it was 50 percent.

“We regularly speak to resort owners, one said they were losing US$1 million a month,” said Rohde. “The resort owners are speaking to me and my colleagues — 23 percent, that was a direct personal experience. The resort was quite empty. The tour operators, they see their numbers and the bookings. When you go far away you don’t book two days beforehand.”

The tourism ministry information officer was not responding at the time of publication.

Much of February and March saw anti-government protests that drew riot police, who used force and pepper spray to disperse crowds.

Major tourist markets warned their citizens about the unrest, although the Maldives government gave repeated assurances that it was confined to the capital.

Some visitors were basing their decisions on the news coming out of the Maldives, the ambassador said.

“Repression is not a driver for tourism. Restoring democracy is also good for business.”

— Targeted measures —

The European Parliament has criticised “the deteriorating political and human rights situation in the Maldives and the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Abdulla Yameen.”

Last October it adopted a resolution calling on Maldivian authorities to reform the judiciary, release political prisoners, and to guarantee the constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

But Rohde refused to speculate on what sort of “targeted measures” would be taken against the Maldives if the situation did not improve, and he was pessimistic about this year’s presidential elections.

“As long as opposition leaders are jailed or in exile I don’t see it (free and fair elections) happening,” he told the Maldives Independent.

Rohde met the president once in November 2016 but has had no further meetings with him since, despite several visits to Male and repeated requests.

“It is now the fifth time I have made a request to meet the president,” he said on Friday while visiting the Maldives. “This time the reply was my request came too late, you have to apply your request two weeks in advance.

“There is no political will to engage in dialogue. The foreign minister was not available, they offered me some number three or number four from the foreign ministry.”

The ambassador met opposition alliance representatives, who told him the Elections Commission was asking for details about the funding, structure and activities of political parties even though such information was already provided according to law.

“I don’t see any free and fair elections,” Rohde added. “There is not a level playing field.”