The sun hasn’t exactly been shining on Maldives, in a manner of speaking, and there’s reason to be concerned if you’ve been planning a holiday in the island paradise. A state of emergency was declared in Maldives on February 5 for 15 days, and extended for another 30 days on February 20. It gives security forces in the island nation wide-ranging powers to arrest suspected opposition members, prohibit public gatherings and impose travel restrictions. India, China, the US, the UK and Australia are among the countries that have issued travel advisories warning against non-essential travel to the islands.
Like Thailand, Madagascar and the Philippines, political unrest has been brewing for a while in Dhivehi Raa’jeyge Jumhooriyya or the Republic of Maldives, the smallest country in Asia, in terms of both population and land mass. And like Egypt, Turkey and our own Jammu and Kashmir, it could be falling off the map despite remaining a highly desirable destination with massive investments in tourism infrastructure.
Maldives is one of the world’s most geographically dispersed countries — 1,192 islands scattered over 90,000 sq km in a North-South ‘double chain’ of 26 atolls. The Maldives model of tourism is distinctive. Uninhabited islands were exclusively developed by resort hotels. The first such property, the Kurumba Island Resort, came up in 1972. By 2000, there were 86. Some reports place the number of resorts at 105 now. Ironically, a United Nations mission had reported in the late 1960s that the islands were unsuitable for tourism.
Nothing like it
Five years ago, on the sort of working trip to Maldives that I can’t afford personally, I was among a small group of people who landed at what has since been renamed the Velana International Airport. It was past midnight and the single-runway aerodrome on the island of Hulhule, off capital Malé (which is another island), was thrumming with activity. Crumpled passengers had their spirits restored by cordial personnel dispensing visas-on-arrival over multiple fast-moving queues. My first thrilling sight of the transparently aquamarine ocean in Maldives was by the headlights of a speedboat that deposited us after a short ride at a pier near our centrally located hotel in Malé.
The following morning, we flew over 500 km South, past a bewitching string of coral atolls and the equator (an imaginary line, of course, but the pilot signed keepsake certificates for us). We landed at the Gan International Airport, which serves several super-luxury resorts situated in the Addu atoll. Ours had, among other things, sprawling villas with private infinity pools, a dedicated concierge for each guest, and a nine-hole recreational golf course.
Quite like Dubai outdoes itself with ‘bestest’ superlatives, resorts in Maldives kept redefining super-luxury for their well-heeled guests. Examples of excesses chasing astronomical tariffs: over-water multi-level villas accessible only by boat or featuring private beaches, ‘designer seaplanes’ and custom-built jetliners, an all-glass undersea restaurant set in a coral reef, ziplining waiters delivering gourmet food to tree-top bamboo pods.
On travel forums, Mauritius versus Maldives debates usually end in a tie: family vacation or break-the-bank honeymoon. Maldives’ overwhelming reputation as a very high-end destination remains uncontested, despite homestays being allowed to host guests from 2009. There are studies that detail the ecological and social costs of the hyper-focus on tourism in Maldives, but they have been overshadowed by reports that the islands are likely to be submerged by rising sea levels by 2100.
An analysis by French insurer Coface, last updated January 2018, expected the tourism sector in Maldives, which accounts for 24% of its GDP, to be supported by an increase in tourists from Europe (its largest regional market at 49%) and China (its largest national market at 21.5%). Maldives has continued to invest substantially in infrastructure dedicated to tourism. An upcoming new international terminal will be able to accommodate seven million passengers annually (compared with the current 1.5 million). A bridge linking Malé to the airport is expected to be operational by mid-2018.
So it’s not surprising that on the day emergency was imposed, the Maldives’ Ministry of Tourism issued this statement: ‘The Government assures tourism and travel trade that all tourism-related businesses will be operating as usual and the situation in the Maldives remains stable… Public safety is of paramount importance and the government assures the safety of the destination.’
For now, cancellations are continuing unabated even as tour operators scramble to explain that travellers only have to land in Hulhule before being whisked off to their island resorts by sea-planes or boats, without setting foot on the restive capital. It’s another reminder of how closely tourism is linked to a nation’s key economic indices.
The lost horizon
* Campaigns for democratic reforms have led to various forms of political unrest in the Maldives since the early 2000s, and especially after 2011. The foment led to the February 2012 arrest of dissident-activist and former president Mohamed Nasheed, who replaced his predecessor Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s 30-year reign after a new constitution was approved and a general election held in 2008. Nasheed was convicted on charges of terrorism in 2015 by processes that have been questioned, a year after which he took asylum in the UK while there for medical reasons.
* Lately, there have been reports of heightened militarisation and police action in response to civil unrest under the incumbent President Abdulla Yameen. The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (in September 2017) and the United States Department of State (in January 2018) warned of the possibility of terror attacks.
* On February 3, Parliament was dissolved and military occupied capital Malé. Yameen deemed the implementation of a February 5 ruling by the Maldives Supreme Court “incompatible with the maintenance of public safety” and declared emergency instead. India is among the countries that has cautioned against the continuance of emergency.