VIHAMANAFUSHI, Maldives (Reuters) - Tourists enjoying the sun and sand at the Maldives’ luxury island resorts have barely put down their cocktails during the political crisis rocking Asia’s newest democracy, oblivious to behind-the-scenes links of tourism to the tumult.
Just a 10-minute boat ride from the capital island of Male, site of a police mutiny that led to ex-president Mohamed Nasheed’s departure last week and ensuing clashes, lies the paradise most visitors associate with the Indian Ocean archipelago.
Step off the 15-metre (50-foot) power boat, replete with an air-conditioned cabin and leather seats, that whisks you to the dock at Kurumba resort on Vihamanafushi, and you are immediately in a land of luxury, water sports and relaxation.
The political turmoil, as far as American literature professor Jerzy Sobieraj was concerned, was an ocean away across the glassine turquoise waters at his feet.
“We are having a great time. We heard about the coup, but it doesn’t matter to us. It hasn’t affected us at all,” Sobieraj told Reuters, sipping a glass of white wine alongside his wife, lawyer Ewa Korzan-Sobieraj, on a chaise longue.
“And even if there is trouble, the airport is on another island, so no trouble,” he said, gesturing to the nearby international airport from where most tourists leave directly for their resorts without ever reaching Male. The couple was on a 10-day escape from winter’s bite in Warsaw, Poland.
Kurumba is the genesis of the luxury tourism concept that changed the face and economy of the Maldives, a chain of 1,192 coral-ringed islands located to India’s southwest, with its establishment in 1972.
The explosion of resorts after Kurumba transformed the islands from a remote outpost reliant on fishing to a destination favored by Hollywood stars, honeymooners and others who can afford hideaway holidays where huts suspended over the water routinely cost more than $1,000 a night.
At the five-star Kurumba, a basic room costs $225 a night, while a private villa replete with butler and a private pool costs $2,200. On the menus, a quarter-hour on a jet ski will set you back $70, a pizza around $25.
Tourism officially accounts for 30 percent of the Maldives’ $2.1 billion economy, but Sim Mohamed Ibrahim, secretary-general of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry, said it was closer to 75-80 percent.
The Maldives, for nine centuries an Islamic sultanate, now has 101 resorts, nearly all of them on uninhabited islands reached by speedboat or seaplanes that criss-cross the skies over the 90,000 sq-km (35,000 sq. mile) archipelago.
That segregation is by design, both as part of the Robinson Crusoe get-away-from-it-all experience the resorts offer, and to protect the religious sensibilities of Maldivians, all 330,000 of whom are Sunni Muslims.
The Maldives’ “one island, one resort” concept has been a saving grace amid the turmoil, said Jason Kruse, Kurumba’s general manager.
“The local islands and the tourist islands are a world apart,” he said. “There have been some cancellations, but that is a result of people not understanding the destination.”
The resorts, which cater primarily to Western tourists and, increasingly, Chinese holidaymakers, are placed on uninhabited islands. That provides a crucial loophole: the ability to serve alcohol. It is banned on inhabited islands.
Nasheed’s plans to put new resorts on inhabited islands drew condemnation from political opponents who exploited rising conservative Islamic sentiment to savage his religious credentials.
Pressure from pro-Islamic parties also prompted the government to briefly shut down resort massage parlors in January. Nasheed also drew fire for tax reforms that would have plugged some holes that allow potentially hundreds of millions of dollars brought in by tourism to escape taxation.
Nasheed last week flatly blamed a cabal of resort owners for engineering what he maintains was his forced exit, although he gave few specifics as to why they wanted him out.
“The coup was largely financed by resort owners,” Nasheed told journalists. Asked why, he responded: “I suppose they liked the old order of corruption.”
Nasheed, in a historic 2008 election, unseated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled for 30 years with untrammeled authority, and tried to bring a series of multi-million dollar graft cases against his allies. Gayoom denies any wrongdoing.
A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters resort owners were powerful but evenly spread across the political divide. So if any were against Nasheed, it was for reasons more related to politics than tourism.
“The political class are involved in everything, including tourism, and all the bad publicity this has caused is not in their interest,” the diplomat said.
As far as tourist operators are concerned, the end of the uproar cannot come fast enough before the Maldives’ paradise image is tarnished, said Ibrahim of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry.
“There is great concern from tour operators that there will be more cancellations as the news is only now sinking in,” he said. “It’s impossible to explain that what is happening is in Male and not the resorts.”
For those with their toes in the sand escaping from everyday drudgery or celebrating a new marriage, none of that matters.
Engineer Abdul Wafi, an Egyptian who lives in Paris, said politics did not interfere with his honeymoon.
“Do you really have a political problem here? The fact is we come from Egypt,” Wafi chuckled as a seaplane roared overhead.
“There is no comparison to Tahrir Square,” referring to the locus of last year’s popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak in his native country. “Egypt, it was violent and it’s just not that violent here.”
Editing by Ron Popeski