Political instability and unrest in the Maldives have raised fears for the islands’ vital tourism industry which caters to high-end travellers and honeymooning couples.
The archipelago nation, made up of 1,192 coral and sand-fringed islands dotted with luxury resorts, depends on tourism for a third of its gross domestic product (GDP) and more than 60 percent of foreign currency earnings.
After the dramatic events of Tuesday, when President Mohamed Nasheed resigned following a mutiny by police, some travel agents said they had received calls from holidaymakers wanting to cancel their expensive trips.
The Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI), an umbrella body, said it was anticipating many clients pulling out ahead of a busy period over Valentine’s Day on February 14.
“Travellers going to Maldives are looking for total relaxation. Once the atmosphere gets affected, travellers become anxious,” TAAI president Iqbal Mulla told AFP by phone.
“The recent developments in Maldives are a major setback.”
Konica Kapoor, an executive of Flexi Tours travel agency in New Delhi, told AFP several clients of hers had already pulled out.
“We had four to five honeymoon couples who made bookings for Maldives and were due to travel in the coming week,” she told AFP.
The cancellations came as Britain’s government issued a warning against “all but essential travel” to the capital Male, citing an “uncertain” situation.
Most travellers to the Maldives are transferred directly from the international airport to their outlying resort destinations without ever setting foot on the crowded and noisy capital island Male.
“The geographical isolation of resorts and inhabited islands leaves tourists away from daily activities of local population centers,” the Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators said.
“We would like to assure that the holidays of tourists in Maldives will not be affected in the current scenario. All the resorts and guest houses are operational,” it was quoted as saying by the website of Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times newspaper.
The Indian Ocean country last year drew more than 850,000 tourists to its secluded islands known for their turquoise blue lagoons and coral reefs teeming with tropical marine life.
The islands, long popular with Europeans as an idyllic holiday resort, now attract many visitors from Asia, especially India and China.
Any major downturn would have an immediate impact on the government’s finances.
In 2009, it asked the International Monetary Fund for a $93-million bail-out after its economy was hit hard by the global financial crisis.
The recent political unrest, fuelled by Islamic hardliners, is more adverse publicity for a place that sells itself as the ultimate tropical destination specialized in luxury and relaxation.
In December, the government of the Sunni Muslim nation briefly closed all hotel spas and health centers in resort hotels after the conservative Adhaalath party claimed they were fronts for prostitution.
Four years ago, 12 foreign tourists, including a honeymooning British couple, were wounded in the island’s first-ever bomb attack for which three Islamist militants were each sentenced to 15 years in jail.
Apart from the island capital Male, foreigners can only make short trips to other islands in an effort to curb the influence of outsiders on the nation’s traditional Muslim lifestyle.