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Opposition accused of campaigning for tourism boycott at ITB fair



Pro-government MPs today accused the opposition of conducting a tourism boycott campaign at the recently concluded ITB Berlin travel fair in Germany with the aim of “destroying” the Maldives’ tourism-dependent economy.

At today’s sitting of parliament, MP Ahmed Mubeen of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives submitted a motion without notice condemning alleged efforts to bring the country into disrepute with exaggerated claims of Maldivians joining extremist militant groups in the Middle East.

“They tried very hard to characterise the Maldives as a place that German tourists shouldn’t visit,” he said, noting that the ITB convention was the largest platform for promoting the country as a tourist destination.

The Bilehdhoo MPs’ urgent motion was passed with 29 votes in favour, opening the People’s Majlis floor for a one-hour debate. A second motion was later passed to extend the debate time to allow 41 MPs to speak.

Mubeen said senior officials from the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party met with MPs of Germany’s Green Party a day before the ITB fair kicked off and falsely claimed that 250 Maldivians had joined the terrorist organisation Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

MDP MPs, however, repeatedly denied calling for a tourism boycott, contending that tourist arrivals slowed down last year due to the government’s imprisonment of opposition leaders and declaration of a state of emergency in November.

The MDP is backing targeted sanctions such as travel bans and asset freezes against government officials responsible for alleged human rights abuses, the MPs said.

European tour operators who spoke to The Maldives Independent in the wake of the state of emergency said years of bad press over political turmoil coupled with the dearth of mid-range hotels was starting to have an effect on the Maldives’ attractiveness as a destination.

Europeans accounts for nearly half of all tourist arrivals, while China is the single largest source market, accounting for a third of arrivals.

The Maldives was the official partner country of this year’s ITB convention, the world’s largest travel and trade exhibition.

In a statement delivered at the opening of the fair, Tourism Minister Moosa Zameer lambasted “scare stories of religious extremists threatening tourists”.

Zameer acknowledged the problem of “home-grown terrorism,” but stressed that it is not unique to the Maldives.

The opposition claims as many as 200 Maldivians have left the country to fight in the Middle East – the highest per capita rate of recruitment in the world – but the government disputes the figure, with various ministers offering estimates ranging from 35 to 100.

Despite the alleged boycott campaign, Zameer branded the ITB fair a major success for the Maldives upon his return from Germany earlier this week.

The partnership with ITB was part of the government’s Visit Maldives Year 2016 campaign, launched in June with the aim of attracting 1.5 million tourists to the Maldives.

The government had missed its target of 1.4 million arrivals in 2015, which saw a decline in occupancy rates and bed nights despite a 2.4 percent increase in arrivals compared to the previous year.

The central bank said GDP growth for 2015 had slowed down to 4.8 percent “largely on account of slower-than-expected growth of the tourism sector.”

During today’s debate, several ruling coalition MPs called for enforcing new laws to protect the “vulnerable” tourism industry. Some MPs suggested jail terms for offenders while others said the state should seize their assets.

The pro-government majority in parliament had passed a bill criminalising calls for boycotting tourism, but President Abdulla Yameen vetoed the bill in December citing freedom of expression concerns.

The bill is currently being reviewed by committee. The Maldives Association of Tourism Industry, an influential group representing resort owners, had backed the legislation in October.

Pro-government MPs meanwhile went on to accuse the MDP as well as the family of former President Mohamed Nasheed of calling for boycotting the Maldives since 2004.

Majority Leader Ahmed Nihan said former Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem had worked with a British national, David Hardingham, on a campaign to boycott selected resorts.

Nihan called on MATI not to allow “families of people like Naseem” on Maldivian resorts.

PPM MP Jameel Usman said he had learned that that nine people actively campaigned for a tourism boycott at the ITB fair while MP Mohamed Ismail claimed “three priests” were involved in the campaign.