Rediscovering Maldives Tourism with Ahmed Naseem

Ahmed Naseem
PUBLISHED January 01, 2020

Former Maldives foreign minister and firebrand bureaucrat politician, Hon. Ahmed Naseem, current Minister at the President’s Office, once dreamt big, had an innate confidence and the courage to stand by his convictions. In a comprehensive one- to-one with the Islandchief, Naseem ruminates on his philosophy of life and vision for Maldives Tourism.

Mr. Naseem, do you remember what first attracted you to tourism? What got you inspired?

When I was thirteen or fourteen, I was a student then in Sri Lanka. It was the early sixties and tourism had actually just started flourishing in Sri Lanka and the tourism industry wasn’t really structured over there. The long-haul flights had only just started and it was rather haphazard. My sister’s husband, who is a Sri Lankan, used to take me along with them on the weekends to these hotels – they used to travel quite a lot within Sri Lanka back then. During these weekend trips, I used to see a lot of people from other countries relaxing and sunbathing on the beach, and I used to wonder what they were exactly doing. So, I began talking to some of them, and they would tell me that they have come for the beach as well as other cultural attractions. On and off I used to have conversations with them, which eventually got me thinking that this would actually be quite good for Maldives. This was the very beginning of what sparked my thoughts towards the possibility of tourism in the Maldives.

One day, when I went to see Hon. Ali Maniku, I decided to bring it up with him – mind you, I was very young at the time. So, he laughed and told me not to think of such things and to focus on my studies. He always remembered that day though. He would tell me “I remember the day you came and told me about this!”

Later on, in about 1968, I was back in Maldives, when I met a British gentleman doing a feasibility study on tourism here. I think he was a UNDP expert. I decided to mention to him, as well, that Maldives would be an ideal place to start tourism, and he said it was not possible at all. He gave some rather strange reasons; there are few motorized boats, the country is too humid, there’s no water, no electricity, too many mosquitoes and so on. He even submitted a very negative report to the then Maldives government, stating that there was no possibility of developing tourism in the country, and strongly suggested not to venture into such areas.

Then around 1969, I was posted to the UN in New York while working in the Foreign Ministry. Unfortunately, we had to shut down the mission in about 1971 due to financial constraints. So, on my way back to Maldives from New York, we stopped in Sri Lanka, and as we were government officials, we stayed at the Maldivian embassy’s residence located right behind the embassy. While I was there, I received a message from Mr. Hussain Ali Didi, the Ambassador of Maldives to Sri Lanka at the time, that there was an Italian gentleman at the embassy who wanted to visit the Maldives, and that I was just the right person to have a word with him. So, I went to the embassy and met George Corbin and Francesco Bernini for the first time. They were explorers who were interested in traveling to new destinations and they had a travel agency called Sesto Continente, meaning the sixth continent, which is the ocean. George told me about when he tried to come to Maldives even before while he used to work in Tourisenta, but they had informed him that there may be cannibals here!

I decided to talk to my very good friend, Koli Mohamed Maniku, and we set our sights on bringing a few tourists to Maldives; all the discussions were held here, on this undhoali (Maldivian cultural swing). We invited George Corbin to Maldives to talk about bringing in a larger group. So, George dared to come here and, fortunately, he wasn’t eaten up by anybody. Instead, he was totally enchanted by this place. He came to my home and we also went to Palm Court where we planned everything.

In the end, we made all the arrangements and that first group of twenty-two tourists finally arrived in Maldives. They were all adventurers and journalists, and we received significant publicity in Italy. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in Maldives during this period since I had enrolled in a course in Australia and I was studying at the time.

Now, this is related to something I spoke about earlier; in around 1973 I was at the UN Economic Committee one day, when I saw this gentleman from the UK Delegation. He came up to me and asked me if I was Naseem. Then I instantly remembered it was the same person who researched the possibility of tourism in Maldives all those years ago! We had just opened Kurumba, so the very first thing I told him was that I have opened a resort in Maldives with a few friends – he was just completely flabbergasted! I believe he actually wrote a letter to President Nasir apologising for not having the vision to see the possibility of tourism in Maldives and that he wishes well. He actually came here several times and stayed with us when I was running Bandos, and later at Giraavaru as well. Sadly, he has passed away.

What motivated you to introduce a destination for tourism and how did you manage the framework to start it with?

It was a mere conversation that was behind the actual framework and how it all began. You see, there are different types of people in the world; one is the enthusiastic pioneer and the other is the calculated businessman. I wouldn’t refer to George Corbin as a businessman, he was more of an avid adventurer, but he also had the right connections. So, it was ideal for us and that was the beginning of the framework.

There were just two flights a year that operated to Maldives back then, only to transport teachers from Sri Lanka and carry them back. We also had a very small runway. We had to find a way to bring tourists, so we approached Air Vice Marshal Mendis from the Sri Lanka Air Force and convinced him. The two aircrafts we operated were modified to fix twelve passenger seats and everyone at Sri Lanka Air Force was very cooperative. So, we chartered the two aircrafts and brought tourists, because there were no regular flights. My brother-in-law was acting as the handling agent because there was no telephone communication, no fax machines or anything - communication was absolute zero. But there was a connection called Bombay Malé Link which had established a connection to the Maldives embassy in Sri Lanka. So, sometimes I would visit the embassy to speak from there. We also had Ceylon Tours partner with us and it helped us a great deal. We really did not know what we were getting into at all. We learned everything from Sri Lanka because we had absolutely no experience.

 When the first tourists arrived in Malé, we fed them at “Queen of the Night”, a local tea-shop and café situated at the east end of the then Marine Drive. We assumed they would be able to eat the food there, but it was much too spicy for them. Then, Mohamed Maniku began cooking for them and prepared various types of salads and sandwiches – he’s quite a genius in cooking. Tourists who arrived also carried pasta and packaged food products with them, because they understood the situation here.

Among your many successful projects, can you tell us more about how you established tourism back then, resorts, guesthouses, yachts and travel agency?

We actually didn’t establish guesthouses, they developed naturally. I think some of the first guesthouses might have been in Huraa. We were building Kuda Huraa at the time – today’s One&Only – presented to us by Huraa Kaleyfaan. It was our second place right after Kurumba. Mohamed Maniku, myself and Afeef partnered on this venture and the three of us were shareholders managing the place. Those days, Kuda Huraa had only two coconut palms and it was so narrow, the waves could travel from one side of the island to the other. So, Huraa Kaleyfaan saw the potential in what we were doing, and he was quite interested. Then we decided to help him establish two or three guesthouses in Huraa. I believe Himmafushi also had guesthouses then.

Most of these guesthouses were free, and of course, it was a big risk. But when you’re young, you think you can do anything. You’re confident enough to tackle any challenges that may come your way. There were no regulations at the time, and no regulatory body to oversee tourists. Though the government was slightly behind in the field of tourism, they were quite positive and did not interfere at all. It was later on that the government got more and more involved in tourism – and that’s another story.

What were the main challenges in educating the public and the stakeholders about tourism development in early seventies?

I think it was convincing the people! When we began our journey, the very first people that followed us were Sikka Ahmed Ismail Manik and Koli Ahmed Manik - they established Vabbinfaru. Then Cyprea followed and at that time it was under Maizan Adam Manik and Maizan Ibrahim Manik. Then, of course, it continued happening and happening.

When I was in prison, I always kept thinking how I could get into the tourism industry. I remember reading the bits of newspaper that was used to cover the food we were given at the jail cells. There were hotels getting refurbished and upgraded in Singapore, Thailand and all around us and the Caribbean was developing fast and was becoming a challenging market for us. And, when I got out, in about two weeks I had Giraavaru. It was a dump site and I wanted to develop itas a five-star property. We had ground water then and there was no desalination plant, no air conditioning. I finally decided and built a basic resort and focused on improvements later. We had tv, music, fresh water and all the rooms were air conditioned. I also had some angry people who did not agree with me on it. But all around us hotels were being upgraded and in Maldives we were only selling rooms at $24 - $35 on full-board basis at that time, so we needed to keep up with the times. The resort was very comfortable, and that is why the SAARC retreat was also held in Giraavaru.

So, Mohamed Maniku was convinced that Kurumba needed an upgrade. It was the two of us that actually started this. So, my point here is that people who were really involved from the beginning of it, they always understood that this industry has a lot more. They know the pulse of it. Today, it has become a major business, and getting into a business was not our intentions when we began it, we started it as a past time. But, with new companies coming in from overseas, it has become one of the top premium destinations in the world today. We hoped for it and we were hoping that our Maldivian people would be able to do that. Yes, in the 1990s when Afeef decided to give Rangali to Hilton, that was the beginning of the boom. He had the vision and the courage to give up something. But by nature, we Maldivians would always want to keep what’s ours only with us. So, the potential to grow is limited, because we don’t sell shares and we are not open to the public.

This should be the next step in the tourism industry. All these big companies should start selling shares to the public. So that they can actually expand and they can also make money out of it. I mean 40% of the company could be sold to the public. And then there’ll be bigger participation and more people will benefit out of it. I think that should be the next phase. The international brands that are investing here need to know that this is the best way, and their image and the way people view them will be much better.

So, what changes do you hope to see in Maldives regarding sustainability and tourism?

Maldives needs these places where the birds lay and hatch eggs, reefs where the fish breed and live – it has to have a decent environment for these living beings to prosper as well. You see, Maldives itself is a living entity. Maldives is alive, it is a living organism. It’s not just a dead place. We make our lives from what this beautiful country naturally offers us, so we have to respect it. You see, the elderly people in Maldives knew what this country was all about. They used to call it vona dhona raajje, which means vodi, giraa raajje. We have to respect the way Maldives naturally is.

For example, in Lhaviyani Atoll, a big island was given to Rauf to build a resort – it’s not done yet – but the thing is, that is actually a hatchery. Many stingrays and other organisms breed there. You can’t possibly destroy this infrastructure that has been built by nature for specific purposes over a period of millions of years. These reefs, these infrastructures, this is how we have all these islands. It’s absolutely crucial that we have proper, controlled legislations and mechanisms in place to protect our environment, to see that damage is minimum.

What happens here is, we reclaim some land and then block another area which causes the currentto change, the reefs get damaged, and there are many other side effects. We simply can’t changeand control nature like this. I remember when the first reclamation was done to connect Male’ and Gaadhoo, a little island at the tip of Hulhule’ reef. Immediately, Vihamanaa Fushi, which is Kurumba, started eroding. It was an immediate reaction. It’s that vulnerable! Of course, we get a bigger piece of land when we dredge and do all these things, but the point is, the damage that we are causing is immense. Even after the Gulhi Faru reclamation, I went down to the reef and the coral damage on that side was unbelievable. Just because there is a sandbank it does not mean you have to build a resort. That’s completely wrong. This is what ‘making a quick buck’ is. There is an issue. First thing, is to recognise that there is an issue. I understand that dredging and reclamation of land is essential, but not to the extent at which we are doing it in Maldives. We have to be very careful and respect the land and the ocean. There is no need to reclaim a piece of land in two days, it can be done in a bit more time. You must be patient.

I don’t know whether the resort reefs are better or the native island reefs. I believe research needs to be done to assess and find out whether resort islands or local islands have better reef preservation. I doubt it would be the resorts but a study needs to be done to find out.

If we don’t have the reefs, we don’t even have tourism, it’s as simple as that. About thirty, forty years ago the coral cover in Maldives was five per cent of the world’s total coral cover. Today, it is three per cent. We have lost two per cent of the corals. These are quite dangerous situations. Recovery is very slow, especially because of ocean acidification; the rising acidity of the ocean makes it harder for corals to build their skeletons, and the spines of crustaceans living in these corals break down. I’m not a scientist, these are things that I have read about.

You see, this passion, the feeling we have for this place, the big entrepreneurs from abroad will not truly know this feeling. Talk to the people who were involved in the very beginning; the things we did, what we discussed, what we spoke about. We always knew we had to respect and be grateful for what Maldives has to offer. There is a lot we can learn from the elderly people of this country, from the islanders; like how erosion affects lives.

Another thing is, there’s so much sewage ending up in the ocean from our local islands. This faecal matter is dangerous and are killing so many different types of corals. Malé should not be allowed to pump out all this raw filth into the ocean. It is detrimental, unfair and wrong. We can make legislations that all the sewage should be treated in the resort islands, and it should be first the government that prohibits this. I am confident that President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih is aware of these and will take steps to correct it. In fact, I believe Malé Water and Sewerage Company

(MWSC) has already begun working on this. These are all inherited evils, so we have to correct all of these.

Please share with us your thoughts on the current state of tourism in the Maldives?

The current state of tourism in the Maldives right now is quite good. The problem here, is that the distribution of the earnings from tourism is very unreal. Unfortunately, there is no regulation that keeps money in the country. In reality, the Maldives is a very rich country, if all the invoices that are made here, and if all the money comes into this country, then there will be no shortage of the dollar or other foreign currencies here. The earnings from tourism must enter the country and then go back, just like in any other country. It should be regulated. You see Maldives belongs to the Maldivian people. So, it’s unfortunate that people are coming and making money out of Maldives without paying anything. People should at least have the decency to bring the money through the country, and then take it out. I mean there’s no country in the world like this, and its high time we became more mature. The Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA) clearly states that the Maldivian Rufiyaa is the legal tender here. So, if all invoices are made in Maldivian Rufiyaa, we will not be in this dire situation. That circulation of money will really help the economy of this country. Do get an expert’s opinion though, as I’m not a financial expert.

Having successfully engaged in numerous tourism development projects in different islands, what advice would you offer to newcomers who want to follow your example?

I think the newcomers must understand that this is a long-haul journey. You can’t open a travel agency today and become a millionaire tomorrow. Be patient. Be decent about it. Don’t put exhausted prices on everything. You cannot invest a million dollars and expect to earn a profit of ten million dollars at the end of the year.

When you’re opening up a place, you’re mostly using borrowed money. A lot of the time what happens is, money is borrowed from the bank, but this money isn’t used to develop the company, instead it is being spent to have fun in places such as Bangkok. That is how you go bust. This should really stop. Decide what you want to do in life. Don’t move from here to there, but stick to something so that it becomes a success. It doesn’t happen otherwise. You have to be patient. Look at companies like Mookai, they started very small. Look at Didi; Consistent. No deviation.

Now what happens here is that we open up a shop, we have certain amount of money, but just to decorate the place we spend $200,000. And then there’s no money left to bring the goods to sell in the shop. Who are we trying to show off to? There’s no need for that. It is that kind of indulgence that is not helpful to your business. Take, for example, Mohamed Umar Maniku and Afeef; they don’t expand rapidly. They will do it slowly, bit by bit.

You personally invest in something, not to take it to your grave, but to pass it on to your children and your family. So, take it slow. The children will be there. If you’re thinking of making a quick buck and enjoying yourself, then there’s nothing left for the children anymore.

With the new educated generation that has come in, I feel that things are looking much brighter. Another thing is, you can’t start your own business just because you have a Master’s in Business Administration. You have to work somewhere and learn the discipline – experience how people do things in the real world. Join a good company, gain some experience there, and then start your own business. That business will do far better – learn from the people who know how to do it. You can’t invent something new. You don’t invent the wheel again to a different shape, because the wheel is there, it has been invented.

“Maldives is alive, it is a living organism. It’s not just a dead place. We make our lives from what this beautiful country naturally offers us, so we have to respect it.”


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