The Maldives government on Monday launched the process of formulating the country’s fifth Tourism Development Masterplan.
The five-year plan will be completed after consultations with industry experts and unveiled early next year, Tourism Minister Ali Waheed said at a function dubbed ‘Jazeera Raajje – Magey Raajje’ (Island Nation, My Nation).
The masterplan would propose “complete” policy solutions to longstanding problems in the tourism sector, he added.
Speaking at the function, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih said the plan includes developing a registry of employees and addressing challenges faced by resort workers, including discrimination between local and foreign staff and withholding of mandatory service charges.
“There are Maldivians who have spent more than 40 years in this field. They have sacrificed their whole lives to the prosperity of the tourism sector,” he said. “However, I note with regret that we have not fully appreciated the work of the workers who made the Maldives tourism industry a world-leading brand.”
With the opening of new resorts and expansion of the mid-market sector, the industry is expected to create 35,000 new jobs in the next five years, he said.
Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Nasheed also addressed the plight of Maldivian resort workers in a speech that raised eyebrows and drew attention for its fiery tone.
“Nasheed defended resort employees in front of tycoons!” read a headline on the pro-government Raajje TV’s news site. At the function, President Solih was flanked by Mohamed Umar Manik, chairman of Universal Enterprises, Mohamed Moosa ‘Uchchu’ from Crown and Champa Resorts and Gasim Ibrahim, lawmaker and owner of the Villa Group.
Manik is also chairman of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry, a powerful lobbying group that wields an outsized influence on policy-making.
Their presence next to the president drew criticism on social media as both Universal and Champa were among the beneficiaries named in an investigative report about islands leased at discounted prices without bids. The embezzlement of acquisition fees paid for more than 50 islands during the previous administration was the country’s biggest corruption scandal.
In his speech, Nasheed stressed the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party’s campaign pledge to introduce a minimum wage. The only purpose of Solih’s presidency is to improve the lives of ordinary people, he declared.
“We have said that we are taking part in these elections to give some form of comfort to the workers that spend lonely lives without their wives or children, every day, every night, every dawn. That is why we created a political party,” the former president said, referring to the thousands of people who live and work on resort islands.
According to the Tourism Employees Association of Maldives, the average salary for locals is between US$200 and US$250. Resort workers, who account for about 14 percent of the country’s workforce, have long been calling for a minimum wage of US$600.
– Investor confidence –
At the event, the president announced plans to lease plots of land from 11 inhabited islands in a bid to promote local tourism.
The plots will be leased through a bidding process from Filladhoo, Uligan and Kelaa in Haa Alifu atoll and Gan in Laamu atoll as well as from the southernmost Fuvahmulah City and Addu City.
Some 4,000 beds would be developed on the six islands of Addu City through the venture, the tourism minister pledged.
The first guesthouse on a local island opened in 2010 on Maafushi, an island hailed by the World Bank for its inclusive wealth creation. The country’s lucrative tourism industry was previously built on the ‘one-island, one-resort’ model with hotels developed on uninhabited islands.
Solih said his administration has also regained the confidence of foreign investors since assuming office in November.
“From January to date, the government has received 28 proposals for foreign investment in the tourism sector. From that, the government has decided to go ahead with 23 investments and 17 of these investments have also been registered,” he said.
During this period 13 foreign countries have invested in the Maldives. This is the result of upholding the rule of law and establishing peace and stability in the country.”
Tourist arrivals have increased 19 percent in the first half of 2019, he noted.
“It is estimated that the revenue generated from the sector for the first quarter will increase by US$1.1 billion,” he said.