International media is ruining Maldives' image as a safe and exotic haven for the rich and famous, the country's Tourism Minister said this week, complaining that exaggerated reporting and misinformation were hurting the nation's biggest revenue earner. "The situation is under control. However there have been lots of bad messages and exaggerated reports and misinformation going out in the international media. This is affecting tourism," Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb told the Business Times by telephone from the Maldives on Tuesday, in one of his first interviews to the media. The Minister was appointed to a new cabinet on February 12 just five days (February 7) after President Mohamed Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected head, stepped down saying he was forced to resign in what he claims was a military-led coup.
This month's unrest and almost daily clashes between Nasheed's supporters, though confined to Male, the capital, has seen a number of cancellations by tourists. Sim Mohamed Ibrahim, Secretary-General of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry, said their members have so far reported 500 cancellations of bookings. "There is some concern. There have been lots of inquiries (on the situation) from China," he said. China was the biggest source market last year with close to 200,000 travellers. "Flights (from China) that are normally 80-90% full are now coming in with 60% seats filled," he said, adding that the association is doing an assessment of the situation. The Tourism Minister said the Maldives has always been a safe place to visit under its one island, one resort concept. "No tourist or hotel has been harmed in Male. Whichever side we are on (politicians or the people) we know tourism is the key and no one wants it harmed," he added, "We need to get this message across to the world".
David Kevan from CHIC Locations, a UK-based travel agent, said while the company was sending clients to the Maldives, they were monitoring the situation constantly, "and without doubt it is negative destination publicity."
Michelle Flake, Contracting & Marketing Manager of Scaevola Travel, an inbound operator which also handles the Chinese market, said they were still getting enquiries and booking daily from Chinese market and also worldwide. But she pointed out that, "when clients ask me I tell them that as a foreigner living in the Maldives, it is a sad situation and I hope it will be resolved soon, I live in the capital and I am not affected. When clients are on a resort, unless they watch the news they are unlikely to be aware of anything going on in the outside world, not just the Maldives but anywhere." The Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO), another industry body, said tourism was unaffected. But its Secretary General Mohamed Maleeh Jamal echoed the same views of the Tourism Minister saying they were concerned that the way international media channels were broadcasting news about the Maldives could deter potential visitors.
MATATO said not a guest house or resort had closed down during the political upheaval experienced in the past few days following the change in government on February 7. "Major channels like CNN do not advertise the Maldives. We need to host roadshows in countries with potential visitors and portray the Maldives as a peaceful destination where tourists can spend their holidays. Travel agents and resort owners need to cooperate with us on this," he was quoted as saying in local and foreign media. But Kai Jellinghaus, destination manager for REWE Destination Service AG, a big German based retail and travel group, said the German market is normal as before except that 'the cold weather (in Germany) is troubling us a little." He said clients are missing their connecting flights from Doha or Dubai to come to Maldives. "These late arrivals have nothing to do with the situation in Male," he added. However most of the resorts have stopped the Male Shopping Excursion but he noted, "We are having requests from our clients to extend their stay in Maldives."