Ambassador Sobir gives an interview to the Diplomatic World: "The Maldives: A Development Success Story"

Ambassador Sobir gives an interview to the Diplomatic World: ... Image 1


16 December 2019

In a world challenged by new and unprecedented developments, from a slowdown in global trade to digital disruption, demographic change and climate change, the Maldives represents a remarkable story and development success. The presidential election in September 2018 was the first step in addressing the political turmoil that has afflicted the Maldives in the last few years. In a stable political environment, the new government is committed to implement vital reforms that will usher in greater prosperity for all Maldivians.

The key engine of sustainable growth in Maldives is tourism. It all started with Kurumba, the Maldives’ first private island resort, which opened in 1972. Nobody – including the UN development team – thought a resort on a couple of small fishing islets would succeed as a tourism destination, let alone a world-class one. Since then, Maldives transformed itself in the space of one generation, from backwater in the Indian Ocean to global holiday hotspot with high-end tourist resorts; a luxury destination affordable to many.

Each year Maldives receives over 1.5 million tourists and a large number, around 55%, come from European countries. Maldives believes that in order to fully reap the benefits international tourism can bring to an economy, it is necessary to put in place conditions that make the country easy to visit, as well as attractive to develop.

Currently, Maldives issues on-arrival visa for all nationalities, including the citizens of the EU Member States. However, there is no European authority in Maldives to issue a Schengen visa for Maldivians. Over the years and in line with the principle of reciprocity, Maldives has been advocating for the establishment of a more efficient process for Maldivian travellers to obtain EU visa. Notwithstanding the government’s efforts and political will to offer the accommodation that will host the service providers, the issue remains unresolved.

Despite a number of adverse internal and external factors over the years, Maldives growth performance has been strong, averaging 7.4% during 1986–2014. Strong growth in the tourism sector, with support from fisheries and tourism-related activities, enabled the Maldives to transition from least-developed to middle-income status by 2011. Real GDP grew by 6.7 percent in 2018 and the country’s GDP per capita reached $11,890 in 2018, compared to $200 in 1978. This impressive record over four and a half decades provides inspiring lessons for other small island economies.

The health, vitality and dynamism of tourism industry is inextricably linked to our continued economic prosperity and political stability. However, tourism is not without its destructive qualities. The influx of tourists may adversely affect the coastal environment and local communities.

The Maldives contains around 3% of the world’s coral reefs and the low-lying atoll islands are considered particularly at risk. Environmental issues such as rising sea levels, climate change and coral reef damage are threatening the nation’s nearly 1,200 islands. And this begs the question: Should Maldives survive without tourism?

We are all aware of the challenges - to experience nature is, to whatever degree, to disrupt it. Yet, no country in the world is quite as sensitive to the effects of climate change as the Maldives. No wonder why the Maldives has ramped-up sustainability and eco-friendly initiatives.

It is this otherworldly beauty of the Maldives along with its vulnerability to climate change that has inspired the creation of some of Asia’s most innovative eco-friendly resorts. The whole notion of sustainability and innovation takes on greater significance here. Several resorts are hard at work to keep carbon emissions low and sacrificing frills and superfluous luxury for sustainability. But also, nature is fighting back climate change in the Maldives. Recently, corals are showing some resilience, adaptability and even recovery from climate-change effects.

Regardless of the multifaceted challenges, tourism has become one of the great forces for peace and understanding in our time. The words of Mahatma Gandhi echo loud: “I have watched the cultures of all lands blow around my house and other winds have blown the seeds of peace, for travel is the language of peace”. As people move throughout the world and learn to know each other ’s customs, we are building a level of international understanding. Tourism remains a force for peace, stability and prosperity and we are committed to prove that sustainability and nature go together with modernity in the Maldives.

Notwithstanding the many strides we have made within a very short timeframe in human, social and economic development, Maldives has still not reached its full potential. More importantly, the benefits of this development have not reached all Maldivians. A clear path forward is to modernize fisheries, which are a vibrant source of employment.

The fishing industry in the Maldives is the nation’s second-biggest industry next to tourism, employing half of the country’s workforce and providing a livelihood for much of the population. The pole and line method used to catch tuna by fishermen in the Maldives is both environmentally and socially sustainable, enabling the island communities to live well within the limits of nature.

The Maldives is proud of having the longest recorded history of fishing in the Indian Ocean. However, Maldives currently finds itself in an economically disadvantageous position compared with other tuna processing and exporting countries. The 24% taxation tariff presently levied for fish exports remains a huge factor in making the Maldives less competitive in the EU market. Therefore, the government of Maldives is exploring ways to create a level-playing field for our fisheries exports to the EU. In order to explore further avenues for enhancing trade and facilitating investment with the EU, a Business Roundtable was organized in 2019 in Male’.

Our goal is to create an inclusive society free of systemic inequities; one that leaves no one behind. In this effort to meet our national sustainable development agenda, anchored in a blue economy, Maldives is committed to engage with our international partners and explore ways to expand the existing partnerships and build on new avenues of cooperation.

The Maldives, as a Small Island State, may face challenges, particularly related to our vulnerability and our lack of resources; yet we also possess many unique strengths. In today’s fast changing globalised world, we have more to offer for the global policy agenda than ever before.

Article by H.E. Mr Hassan Sobir on The Diplomatic World page 42