Behind the scenes in paradise

by Kai Schnier

Someone else's paradise (Issue IV/2019)

The first thing that can be heard as the Boeing 777 descends, gliding through a thin white cloud and reappearing on the other side is a collective murmur of awe. “Look, honey,” murmurs a lady with a straw hat, tugging on her neighbour's T-shirt sleeve and pressing her index finger against the window, “unbelievable, isn't it?” And, yes, the panorama is spectacular: in the middle of the deep blue Indian Ocean dozens of brilliant white sandbanks appear, a few hundred meters beyond lie small islands covered with palm trees, further still there are colourful coral reefs shimmering through the turquoise water of shallow lagoons. As the plane nears Malé International Airport, most of the passengers stay glued to the window. “It really looks like in the brochures,” someone says and the whole row nods. For most of the 1.3 million tourists who visit the island state every year from all over the world, their first impression is more or less along these lines.

And even after landing, tourists remain awestruck. From the moment they set foot on Maldivian soil for the first time, everything is taken care of, as promised by the brochures. Hotel staff dressed in white greet you at the gate, escort you out into the bright sunshine and direct you straight to the jetties. There your luggage will be taken either to a private motorboat or a chartered seaplane.

The last stage of the journey is the transfer to one of the countless luxury resorts scattered throughout the archipelago. For a short time, the jetties are in chaos, suitcases on wheels clatter over them, ropes are hauled in, propellers get going. Then everything goes quiet again. The public ferry, which anchors here and goes to the capital Malé only a few minutes away, is almost empty, containing only a few airport employees in high-visibility vests.

For the journalist Aiesha Ibrahim (not her real name), who was born in Malé and has spent most of her life here, this is nothing new. "Most tourists don't come to the Maldives to find out about the lives of local people,” she says above the mix of noisy motors and chattering voices that seeps through her office window, “they come for the perfect beach vacation.” On the streets of the capital, where around 120,000 people live on an area spanning two square kilometres, you hardly see any holidaymakers - and if you do, then only those who are passing through: an older French couple waiting at the harbour for a ferry, an American travel group loading diving equipment onto a motorboat, two Chinese businessmen staring at laptops in the hotel lobby. The alleys become narrower, the air more stifling, and dented taxis veer dangerously close to the narrow pavement: Here, where large apartment complexes block out the sun, there is hardly a tourist in sight. “We live here in parallel worlds," says Aiesha Ibrahim, “we are on half the islands, the holidaymakers are on the other half.”

At first that sounds like an exaggeration, but in reality, it's not far off the mark. Of the 1,196 islands of the archipelago, a total of 326 are inhabited. However, only 190 of these islands are home to Maldivian villages and towns. The remaining 136 belong to the big national and international hotel chains. Waldorf Astoria, Hilton, Marriott - on the Maldives these large companies are not only simple apartment complexes, but whole islands. Some are hardly bigger than a football field, others have an area of tens of thousands of square meters. A glance at the maps of the archipelago available on the market, reveals that these are no longer just isolated cases. Instead of their traditional names, many of the islands marked there now carry titles that would sit more comfortably in Disney World than in the Indian Ocean: Paradise Island instead of Lankanfinolhu, Sun Island instead of Nalaguraidhoo, Royal Island instead of Horubadhoo.

On each of the country's 26 atolls there is proof that the tourism industry has already appropriated a considerable part of the country. And there is no end in sight. In addition to the 136 resorts that are already in operation, there are a further 133 complexes under construction. Aeisha Ibrahim, who used to work in the middle management of several Maldivian and international luxury resorts, is unhappy with the pace of change. Above all, because the Maldivians lose another piece of their land with every new resort island. “As soon as an island passes into the hands of the hotel chains, we are no longer welcome there,” she says, “they change from public land to private property.”

It is not unusual for large companies to hermetically seal off their newly acquired properties from the rest of the atolls. Most luxury resorts can only be reached by the hotel's own boats and seaplanes. And so that the local population of the surrounding islands does not feel tempted to visit private beaches foreseen for tourists, entire sandbanks are dug up and lagoons are deepened. It is here that high earners from across the globe spend their honeymoons at a cost of anywhere between 200 and 40,000 euros and stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Kim Kardashian snap holiday selfies under the palm trees. It is here that there is no room for Maldivians anymore.

In recent years, the hotel industry received generous help from those who were supposed to stand up for Maldivian citizens: the island state’s own politicians. A 2016 data leak on the news channel Al-Jazeera recently revealed that former tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb had concluded a whole series of backroom deals with Maldivian hotel magnates and international hotel operators during his term of office. Between 2012 and 2015 he sold 60 state-owned islands to domestic and foreign hotel chains on behalf of the then President Abdulla Yameen. The highest bidders transferred millions to the accounts of a shady company called “Maldives Marketing & PR Corporation”, from where the money went directly into the hands of Adeeb and Yameen. In this way, deals were struck, like for example the sale of the island of Maagau, which according to estimates has a property value of at least nine million euros, but which sold for around two million euros to the Italian luxury hotel operator Baglioni, which is already touting bungalows and beach villas there for around 1,000 euros per night. “We sell whole regions, not just islands,” boasted the former tourism minister in private chats with his closest confidants back then. He paid his middlemen money for their silence. “Three cheques: one over three million, two over a million. Don't worry, there's something for you too, my friend,” one of the leaked messages said. Research by the Maldivian branch of the non-governmental organisation Transparency International suggests that Adeeb and Yameen embezzled more than 70 million euros in three years.

Ever since the first hotel was built in 1972, the political argument for the expansion of luxury tourism in the Maldives has always been boosting the state's coffers. Even the tourism ministry, which has new staff since the end of 2018, still uses this line of defence to answer critical questions about the alleged sell-off of the country. One only has to imagine what the country would look like without the resorts, says a representative of the new tourism minister Ali Waheed on the telephone: “Without tourism we would still be a developing country. Then there would be neither good schools nor good hospitals and people would not enjoy the same standard of living as today.” And certainly, a large part of the island state depends on the tourism industry: More Maldivians work in the hotel business than in any other sector, and the revenues generated by resorts, diving schools and travel agencies account for more than a quarter of its gross domestic product.

When it comes to the immediate benefits of luxury resorts for the Maldives and locals, however, it is not only the recent political corruption scandals that raise serious doubts. The business strategies of the major hotel chains, which insiders like Aiesha Ibrahim report on, also spark difficult questions.

“When I was working in the resorts, I was one of the few Maldivian professionals,” Ibrahim says, “most hotels recruit their employees from overseas.” Although a government directive has long been in place that encourages resorts to recruit at least 45 percent of their workforce from the Maldives, often up to 70 percent of jobs are still filled by skilled workers from abroad. Meanwhile, young Maldivians usually only get jobs in the service sector at the resorts and, even if they make it into middle management, like Ibrahim, they are often systematically exploited by the hotel operators. Despite her studies in London and the fact that she returned home as a trained hotel manager in her mid-twenties, she described earning just one fifth of the salary of her European colleagues, taking home 800 euros per month.

According to the Tourism Employees Association of the Maldives (TEAM), the situation is even more precarious for Maldivians who work in luxury hotels as kitchen staff or room service. According to research by the trade union, which was founded in 2008 as the Maldives first and only organised workers' association, 16-hour shifts are the norm in many resorts and the average monthly wage is around 5,000 Maldivian Rufiyaa, which is equivalent to around 300 euros. In addition, Maldivian staff are usually encouraged to live on the resort islands for eleven of the twelve months of the year. Only in the low season in July are employees allowed to return to their home islands and families for a few weeks. “Anyone who resists these rules or demands better treatment runs the risk of being fired immediately and may never find a job in a Maldivian hotel again,” says TEAM chairman Ahmed Shihaam.

It is an open secret on the Maldives that the resorts keep a black list of day labourers who have fallen out of favour. Those who seek more workers' rights, demanding a salary increase or even by protesting publicly, jeopardises his or her livelihood. In 2008, 14 hotel employees demonstrated in the Resort One & Only in the North Malé Atoll against the working conditions there - and were dismissed straight away. To date, not one of them has found a new job in any of the other resorts.

And in the One & Only and a resort run by Thai hotel chain Dusit Thani, former employees report several protests, but the management says they know nothing about it. Instead, the hotel's press office responds by e-mail, stating that “Dusit Thani Maldives is a five-star resort in which all employees are treated equally.”

And even the Maldivian media gives scant insight into what is happening on the luxury islands. Although Aiesha Ibrahim has collected a whole series of eyewitness reports about the working conditions in the resorts, as a journalist she cannot write about them: “If you dare, you have to expect sanctions," she explains, shrugging her shoulders. The hotel magnates and resort owners have not only economic, but also political clout. Qasim Ibrahim, for example, one of the richest businessmen in the Maldives, is not only the owner of a whole series of luxury resorts, but also a former finance and interior minister. He regularly participates in the financing of election campaigns and holds considerable stakes in Maldivian media houses. “Politicians and the media therefore have their hands tied to a certain extent,” explains Ahmed Shihaam, “everyone has received money from the resort owners at some stage. You can't get far here without their help.”

And so the tourist ministry's assertions about future plans to protect Maldivian workers and guarantee that no more land will be sold to the hotel industry sound somewhat half-hearted. “President Solih has committed himself to the fight against corruption and we will do everything we can to protect the workers,” the ministry says, only to add, “but we must also and above all cooperate with the people who support the Maldivian economy.” This latter point, in particular, seems to be higher on the agenda of the current government. So far it has failed to revoke a controversial law passed by President Yameen in 2018 as one of his last official acts: For a fee of 50,000 to 130,000 euros per hectare, the law allowed resorts to cultivate the islands they have bought and develop the surrounding lagoons, which, in effect, means filling up sandbanks to create new building land. More building land to create even more hotels.

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