Culture war as the Maldives opens up to backpackers

Culture war as the Maldives opens up to backpackers

MALE, Maldives - Agence France-Presse
Culture war as the Maldives opens up to backpackers

This photo shows an aerial view of the island of Male, the capital of the Maldives. Ibrahim Mohamed (below L) chats to a guest at his modest guest house in Male. AFP photo

The Maldives is one of the world’s most exclusive holiday destinations but it has quietly opened up to backpackers in the last five years with a reform that has upset religious hardliners.

Most visitors arrive at the country’s airport island, take a speed boat or seaplane to their expensive coral-fringed private resort and spend the next week relaxing in blissful ignorance of the country around them. It has been this way for decades, the result of a deliberate policy of keeping the wealthy holidaymakers, mostly Westerners and often newly-weds, on uninhabited islands separate from the local Muslim population.

The Islamic Republic applies different laws for both: travelers are free to drink alcohol, eat pork, and for those not on their honeymoon, enjoy pre-marital sex. Elsewhere, Maldivian women can be flogged in public for fornication.

“Since Maldives is a Muslim country, we have always supported the idea that the tourism industry should be separate from the inhabited islands,” says Mauroof Hussain, vice president of the conservative Adhaalath Party, which has been a minority partner in successive governments since 2008. While the archipelago is still far from the hippy trail, the sight of backpackers wandering around Male and the nearby island of Maafushi is growing thanks to a new policy to attract budget travelers.

“Things like nudity are not acceptable in a place where people are living,” adds Mauroof. “The people complain that they are praying in the mosque and just outside there are tourists in bikinis.” Since a reform under the country’s first democratically-elected president Mohamed Nasheed in 2009, Maldivians have been allowed to open their own guesthouses on populated islands.

Accomodation for $30 a night

While fundamentalist interpretations of Islam imported from the Gulf and Pakistan are progressively taking root in the Maldives, Mauroof’s views lie far outside the mainstream and are ridiculed by many.

What started as a trickle of guesthouses has become a torrent with entrepreneurs like 25-year-old Ibrahim Mohamed converting properties and profiting from what is the islands’ biggest business and foreign exchange earner.

“The Maldives can’t hide from the world anymore.” Mohamed stresses that the guesthouse policy is also “a good system to get money to the people instead of to wealthy businessmen.”

A handful of well-connected resort owners who prospered under the 30-year autocratic rule of strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom continue to control the Maldives economy and are active in politics.

These oligarchs have united against Nasheed, who was ousted in February 2012 following a mutiny by security forces which he branded a “coup.” His efforts to return to power through the ballot box have since been thwarted with the country wracked by protests and uncertainty after the Supreme Court annulled elections he won on Sept. 7.

The court order came in response to a legal challenge from the third-placed candidate Gasim Ibrahim, one of the country’s wealthiest tycoons who is in alliance with the Adhaalath Party.

A re-run of the polls has been ordered for Oct. 19, with the British government warning travelers to avoid demonstrations and take precautions in the capital. If re-elected, Nasheed has promised in to expand the guesthouse policy as part of his ambitious social and economic reform program.