In a statement issued at the opening of the ITB Berlin travel and trade show, Tourism Minister Moosa Zameer lambasted an alleged political campaign to tarnish the Maldives’ image with “scare stories” of religious extremism.
The Maldives is the partner country of this year’s ITB fair, the world’s largest travel exhibition. It began today and will run through March 13.
Zameer – who is heading the Maldives delegation – reiterated the government’s stance that the opposition’s claim of the Maldives having the highest per capita recruitment for militant groups in Syria and Iraq is exaggerated.
“Scare stories of religious extremists threatening tourists have been spread by people who have vested interest – not to highlight an impending problem, but solely to gain headlines,” he said.
“Some journalists, especially in Germany, roundly distorted the truth and the reality on the ground. It led to exciting headlines that had no basis in reality.”
In December, a four-member TV crew from German public broadcaster ARD – the world’s second largest broadcaster – were deported and barred from visiting the Maldives for 10 years. The crew, who denied violating immigration laws, was accused of defaming the Maldives with a false report on Islamic extremism.
Zameer warned at the time that the ARD report will affect resort bookings while the home minister threatened to prosecute Maldivians who assisted the journalists. German holidaymakers account for nearly a tenth of annual tourist arrivals to the Maldives.
In his statement yesterday, the tourism minister acknowledged the problem of “home-grown terrorism,” which he said cannot be ignored but is not unique to the Maldives.
“The government of the Maldives takes it extremely seriously – that is why we have passed a new anti-terror bill, set up a counter-terrorism centre, and are working with international counter-terrorism agencies to share intelligence and resources,” he said.
“But all nations, from the UK, Belgium, France to the United States, face this same issue. To single out the Maldives – which has yet to receive no credible threat of an attack – is grossly unfair. The political motive to propagate these untruths, however, becomes all too apparent.”
The Maldives continues to maintain its reputation as “one of the safest destinations in the world,” he added, noting that there has never been a tourist death caused by a violent criminal act.
“This is despite often hysterical pronouncements from those wanting a cheap shot in the media, and who have scant regard for the effect it will have on jobs back at home. We will continue to vehemently resist this minority who seek to stir the hornet’s nest and portray an alternate reality,” he said.
“To panic and scaremonger does not just unfairly damage a reputation that many have spent years building – it has a tangible effect on employment and jobs. And, crucially, with lack of opportunity and youth unemployment intrinsically linked to the rise of home grown terror, the tragic irony in this tactic is all too clear.”
Last month, President Abdulla Yameen blamed former President Mohamed Nasheed’s claims of growing extremism in the Maldives for JP Morgan Chase’s dropping of Maldives from its client list.
The opposition claims as many as 200 Maldivians have left the country on Jihad, but the government disputes the figure, with various ministers offering estimates ranging from 35 to 100.
Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon meanwhile told CNN in early February that the outflow of Maldivian jihadists is “a small issue”.
“Obviously, we can’t deny the facts, but no, it’s not a hugely growing issue and we don’t feel there is any particular targeting of tourists,” she said.
The Maldives is not a “hotbed” for extremism as the opposition claims, she said.
Dunya also insisted that a number of Maldivians returning from Syria have been apprehended in recent months.
“We have been very successful in the past few months of locating and ensuring the return of a number who was supposed to be traveling towards these locations,” she claimed.