The government of the Maldives is concerned about its tourism numbers and has approved a near doubling of its promotional budget for next year.
I wonder whether they will want to publicise the recent case of the 15-year old rape victim who has been sentenced to 100 lashes for having sex outside marriage. Allegedly, as well as being repeatedly raped by her step-father, she also had consensual sex with another man.
But don’t worry, the Maldivian government is quite humane and would not hurt a young girl – she will be given the lashes when she reaches 18, unless she chooses to accept the punishment earlier.
The sentence was defended by the President of the Maldives who explained that it was not meant to hurt the girl but to show her the error of her ways.
So that’s all ok then.
Hard-line Islamic fundamentalism, political thuggery and deep-seated corruption do not mix well with the image of western-style sybaritic luxury that the Maldives tries so hard to promote.
The gap between the slick promotional image and grim reality is maybe wider in the Maldives than any other major tourist destination.
The news of a likely coup in the Maldives does not come as a surprise. Unfortunately, it will be a surprise to the many thousands of people with bookings to what is marketed as a “tropical paradise”. At the moment, it looks as if life on the islands will continue more or less as before and the international airport and connections from it are safe – but what does the future hold?
The FCO is great at giving advice when things happen but – quite understandably – it does not comment on what might happen. Tour operators and the travel press have little knowledge and no interest in discussing politics so, if a destination is deemed “safe” then they promote it as aggressively as they want – even if anyone with half a brain can see the trouble is brewing.
The Maldives is a classic case. A corrupt, authoritarian leader is replaced by a supposed liberal who is enthusiastically taken up by the western media because of his strong “green” agenda. Unfortunately, his rule does little to help the extreme poverty (not to mention terrifying heroin epidemic amongst the young) of the majority of the population. He also seems to have some rather peculiar ideas of his own (banning hotel spas without notice and threatening to make all hotels alcohol-free) and finally resorts to the old ways of his predecessor by trying to sack a judge he did not agree with. The Guardian has been strangely silent on all this. Now, he had gone and chaos will rule, at least for a while.
The Red Sea resorts of Egypt are another fine example. There was never any real danger during the actual revolution last year. Hotel workers were hardly going to rebel against their guests. The political situation since then has worsened, rather than improved (again, entirely predictable) but the Red Sea resorts have a more serious problem. They were built on land taken from the Bedouin who want it back. In the recent past, their protests have been quiet easily quashed but, with a very weak army and no political leadership, they have been taking the opportunity to strike. One deserted hotel outside the main tourist area has been taken over by Bedouin forces. Last week, they kidnapped a small tourist group on an excursion outside the security fences of Sharm el Sheikh. They held them for some hours and, apparently, treated them with great kindness and charm, though that is hardly the point. There have been raids in Sharm el Sheikh as well, including two armed raids on banks, in one of which a French tourist was caught in gun-fire and killed.
We have been saying for months that the Maldives was anything but the paradise they aremade out to be and tourists need to give careful thought before booking. Our feelings about Egypt have not changed either. For the last year we have said that most of Egypt is at risk of violence but the Red Sea resorts have a specific problem and, though more or less safe at the moment, security is an increasing issue.
None of this is very clever but it seems no one is prepared to give tourists the information they need to make an informed choice.
The Maldives is one of the world’s poorest countries and is heavily dependent on tourism. It has successfully built up a tourist business which allows foreigners to stay on uninhabited attolls leaving the larger islands to the local population. This means that the locals can follow strict Muslim ways and avoid being corrupted by foreigners. Unfortunately, the locals do not need to be corrupted by foreigners – the islands have one of the world’s worst heroin problems which has reached almost epidemic status amongst unemployed teenagers.
On Saturday, the government passed a bill banning spas in hotels on the grounds that they break Muslim rules.
The Maldives has concentrated on luxury tourism and spas are an essential feature of every new five star hotel. None of the hotels I checked this morning had a warning on their websites that their heavily-promoted spa facilities were about to be closed by government decree.
Tourism faces enough threats – bird flu, the economy, serious changes in the weather and local catastrophes. This is an entirely self-imposed problem and the travel industry should react quickly. The only solution is simply to black-list the Maldives.
Of course, they need our money but so do many other poor countries. Black-listing countries that behave in this aggressive way towards foreign tourists might just teach others a lesson. The loss of income to the Maldives will be compensated by an increase in income in other poor tropical countries.
It is still possible that a compromise agreement will be made. Spas could be banned on inhabited islands and allowed to continue as normal on the tourist islands. That would be entirely sensible but whether it will happen is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile – do not even think of booking a holiday to the Maldives. With such a high-handed attitude and contempt for their foreign guests, you simply cannot be sure what they might choose to ban next.