The Maldivian government is no longer interested in expanding its luxury tourism sector owing to the leasing of scores of islands and lagoons in a recent corruption scandal, President Abdulla Yameen has said.
He was responding to a request by the island of Maavah in Laamu Atoll to bring tourism to the area.
“I am saying that we do not have interest in expanding tourism. Because so many lagoons and islands have been leased, in a manner that is embarrassing to the Maldivian government. The government has been humiliated and has had to answer for this,” he said Monday.
Some 59 properties, including islands, lagoons, and plots of land were fraudulently leased out for tourism since Yameen assumed power in 2013, an audit report has revealed. A staggering US$80million paid as acquisition fees for the properties was meanwhile stolen from state coffers.
The extent of the scandal only came to light after Yameen’s deputy, Ahmed Adeeb, was arrested on suspicion of links to a blast on the president’s speedboat in September.
Yameen has since claimed Adeeb alone is responsible for the scandal, despite an opposition claim that the first couple, ministers, MPs and judges had benefited from the stolen money.
The government has meanwhile pledged to honour all of the lease agreements.
Yameen said Monday that the government now only plans to lease islands and lagoons for investors willing to pay large sums of money upfront.
He cited the payment of US$40million for a lagoon near the capital Malé, Embudu lagoon, as an example of the price-range the government would consider. Acquisition fees were previously as low as US$3million.
Of the properties that had been leased out, not even 70 would be completed and opened as resorts during his term, Yameen lamented, adding that the country’s main airport needs to be upgraded and developed to cater to the added tourist beds.
The airport expansion would cost US$800million, the government has previously said.
In his speech, the president went on to encourage Maavah islanders to go fishing instead. But minutes later, he promised to fulfill their request for tourism to “bring smiles to your faces.”
“You’ve just said you were fishermen in the past and that you want to find another way. I don’t want things to go another way. Fishing is our economic bloodline, the main artery. So we must fish,” he said.
Then, he said: “I will be very happy if you all could give me a smile. In all this, I want to say, Maavah is so remote, and because the spirit of progress is so strong, when I go to Malé now, I will open up investment opportunities nearby.
“Even if it is foreign parties who lease these islands, or a local party, they have to pay up front. However, the gift that we offer the people of Maavah, is if there is someone who would be interested in this prospect. Inshallah, I will this year itself, without further ado, I will see, even before Ramadan, if I can do this. We will announce it. And your task will be, to find a good party to develop tourism.”
He appeared to contradict himself in a subsequent speech on the island of Gan afterwards, saying tourism expansion was only possible near the capital city because of the location of the main airport.
The president’s visit to Laamu Atoll was made to open a mosque on Maavah, inaugurate a sewerage system in Gan and to attend a ceremony to rename the military air base on Kahdhoo.