Tourism officials in the Maldives on Monday denied that health spas at luxury holiday resorts operate as brothels after the facilities were shut down on government orders.
Last week the tourism ministry instructed resort hotels on the nation's pristine coral islands to close all spas and health centers that offered beauty treatments and massages.
The crackdown followed protests by an Islamist party that claimed they were a front for prostitution.
“Sex tourism definitely does not happen in the resorts,” Sim Ibrahim, the head of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI), told AFP by telephone from the capital Male.
“The ban is very disruptive, not helpful for tourism and bad for our country’s image. We have asked for legal clarity to protect an industry that has been in operation for 40 years,” he said.
At least 100 spas and health centers were shut immediately after the government announcement, but Ibrahim said tourism was crucial for the national economy and that he hoped the ban would be overturned within days.
Home to some 330,000 Sunni Muslims, the Maldives’ reputation as a paradise holiday destination has come under pressure from a minority of religious fundamentalists who are growing in influence.
President Mohamed Nasheed recently rejected religious extremism and urged his people to support a “tolerant” form of Islam practiced in the country for centuries.
Tourism Minister Mariyam Zulfa told AFP that a compromise was being considered.
“The government is not against the tourism business,” he said.
The opposition Adhaalath party, a conservative religious movement whose website features an article criticizing “lustful music”, last month staged protests in Male accusing spas of being used as brothels.