The Maldives political crisis is affecting the country’s vital tourism industry, with businesses complaining about the lack of government support and reassuring anxious holidaymakers about their safety.
The country was rocked last Thursday by a late-night ruling from the Supreme Court ordering the release of high profile prisoners including former president Mohamed Nasheed.
Since then there have been clashes in the capital, the opening of parliament has been cancelled for security reasons and the US and UK have told their citizens to exercise caution when in Male. Last month Germany updated its Maldives travel advice after resort raids.
China, which has the single biggest market share of tourists to the Maldives by nationality, has also said its citizens should take care.
“All Chinese citizens and organisations currently in the Maldives should maintain a high level of alert as well as strengthen any necessary safety precautions or emergency preparations and to avoid large gatherings of people,” said the warning.
“In view of the aforementioned special circumstance should any Chinese citizens still travel to the Maldives after the publication of these warnings and announcements, then there is a possibility that these individuals will encounter risks to their safety, which could impair the effectiveness of any relief measures, the costs of which shall all be borne by the individual responsible.”
Tourism is the Maldives biggest industry. It accounts for around a fifth of the GDP and generates billions of dollars every year in revenue. In 2016, the sector was worth almost US$9 billion.
Almost 1.4 million people visited the Indian Ocean archipelago last year.
Those interviewed by the Maldives Independent wanted to avoid government scrutiny and said they did not want to be identified.
“I don’t think the recent (political) developments change anything,” said one hotel owner in the capital. “This country has been unstable for a while now. I don’t think politics here shocks or surprises the world anymore. We’re not good people, we are sort of famous as a beautiful landscape with inhumane people.”
Some of his guests complained about the situation, but he offered them a good tour guide and tried to calm them down. “This government tries to help the industry but only those politically or personally affiliated with them,” he lamented.
A travel agent in Malé said he was receiving lots of phone calls from nervous travellers.
“We keep telling them they can stay here without getting into harm’s way. We’ve had very few cancellations but if things escalate I think we can expect more because we have to do a lot of convincing.
“I think political and social stability is very important if you want a stable economy or even a single industry,” he said.
The reputation of the upmarket honeymoon destination has taken a battering in recent years: a state of emergency declared in 2015 has been followed by political turmoil and, more recently, international concerns over terrorism.
“We had a loss of about US$2000 during the last political turmoil (the state of emergency),” said the owner of a guesthouse which is located on an island an hour from Malé.
“We get a lot of questions. They ask if it’s safe and we tell them that the crisis is in the capital and that it will not cause difficulties in the islands.”
Another guesthouse owner, with properties throughout the archipelago, said cancellations were to be expected as word spreads over the travel advisories and the lack of peace.
Any shocks to the tourism industry could damage the Maldivian economy, global financial institutions have repeatedly warned, with the IMF even downgrading the country to a “fragile state” last year because of the tense political situation.
Nobody from the Tourism Ministry or MATI, an influential lobby group for the industry, was available for comment at the time of publication. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs last week said there was no threat to visitor safety.
Main photo: @JuneAbdul