This week Mohamed Nasheed, the nation’s first democratically elected leader, advised Britons to steer clear of its idyllic beach resorts, the owners of which, he claims, financed the military coup earlier this year in which his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) was ousted from power.
“I’d say to anyone who has booked a holiday to the Maldives: cancel it. And to anyone who is thinking of booking one: please don’t bankroll an illegitimate government,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times.
But Friends of Maldives, a UK-based pro-democracy group that was established in 2003 during the autocratic rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, came out against a blanket boycott – even though it rejects the legitimacy of the current government.
“A boycott is a last resort and I don’t think it has reached that stage,” said David Hardingham, the group’s founder. “It’s easy for people like us to tell tourists not to visit, but it is the people of the Maldives who will suffer – and they are the ones who must decide whether it’s worth it. Any campaign for a boycott needs to be a grass-roots one.”
Following the overthrow of Mr Nasheed in February, Friends of Maldives issued a travel advisory asking Britons to avoid resorts owned by people who, it claimed, played a role in the coup. It has since suspended the advisory, but is still campaigning for fresh elections.
Mohamed Waheed Hassan, Mr Nasheed’s successor, has so far rejected calls for a new poll, and has been criticised for appointing a number of politicians who held power under Gayoom.
Any widespread boycott is likely to have a major impact on the country’s economy and the welfare of its population – tourism accounts for around 30 per cent of GDP in the Maldives and is the biggest source of employment.
J J Robinson, editor of Minivan News, the country’s largest English-language newspaper, said that the economic situation in the Maldives was already a cause for concern.
“Since the coup, investor confidence has sunk,” he said. “The country’s budget deficit is around 27 per cent, its debts are mounting and the IMF is demanding urgent action. The country has a near-total dependence on tourism, so the call for a boycott has raised concerns and would be damaging if heeded.”
Mr Robinson added that the new coalition government had done little to inspire confidence, and pointed out that one of its first acts after coming to power – a change in island lease extension rules – had benefited resort owners, to the detriment of the wider Maldivian economy.
He added that a “culture of impunity” appeared to be developing, and highlighted a number of recent violent attacks on journalists in the capital, Malé.
The vast majority of holidaymakers to the Maldives head straight from the airport to their islands resort. However, those who do visit Malé are warned that violent political demonstrations may occur.