A social network strategy launched this week to promote the Maldives has been labelled a “travel-related farce” by media sources including Conde-Nast Traveller, while publications such as the Daily Telegraph newspaper report that the focus has been “hijacked” by anti-government protesters.
The scheme, launched on Thursday, was devised to have the country’s recently reintroduced “Sunny Side of Life” slogan become an online trend among Twitter users by playing up the destination as an unparalleled tourism paradise and honeymoon getaway.
However, global news reports soon emerged that “pro-democracy campaigners” were sabotaging the focus by using the “#SunnySideOfLife” hashtag to draw attention to alleged human rights abuses reportedly committed during the last few months by the government of President Mohamed Waheed.
“For example, the majority of the site’s users are using the term to post tweets such as ‘#SunnySideOfLife: Pristine white sandy beaches, crystal clear lagoons filled with blood of its citizens who are fighting for democracy’,” the Daily News of New York reported on Thursday.
Tourism authorities in the country have recently targeted the increased use of social media sites like Facebook to more effectively promote the destination. The promotion plan was adopted on the back of fears that global headlines following the controversial transfer of power in February have had a detrimental impact on the destination’s reputation.
Contacted by Minivan News about the implications the week’s global media coverage might have on future social media promotions in the country – as well the more encouraging developments of the “Sunny Side of Life” Twitter campaign – Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb said he was about to board a plane and unable to respond at the time of press.
Speaking before embarking on his flight, Adheeb added that the question of a future direction of social media to promote the destination was something that “required thought”, but he could not elaborate further at the time. Calls to Deputy Tourism Minister Mohamed Maleeh Jamal went unanswered.
However, on the official Visit Maldives Twitter Page, the focus remained on encouraging guests at properties such as Bandos Island Resort and Spa to make use of the Twitter to play up the Maldives’ reputation internationally.
In addressing the coverage of the Twitter promotion, the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) claimed that it was presently between “a rock and a hard place” in terms of balancing the economic need for preserving tourism in the country, whilst asking tourists to boycott the destination to pressure the government for early elections this year.
President Waheed, who maintains that he was constitutionally sworn into office on February 7 following the resignation of his predecessor Mohamed Nasheed, said that the earliest elections can be held under the constitution is July 2013. Political bodies and organisations including the EU and Commonwealth have recommended that early elections be held this year to bring political stability back to the country.
The MDP alleges that the elected government of former President Mohamed Nasheed was removed from office on February 7 by a “coup d’etat” sponsored by mutinous sections of the police and military. It claims the action was additionally financed by certain prominent local tourist tycoons, who control significant amounts of the nation’s wealth.
Earlier this month, former President Mohamed Nasheed told the UK-based Financial Times newspaper that he was calling for a blanket boycott of tourism in the country, earning criticism from a number of resort operators that employ a significant amount of local people alongside foreigners at their properties.
Though the opposition party claims to have no direct affiliation with the Twitter stunt, MDP spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor said the focus indicated young people were adopting a “grass roots” approach to highlight concerns about the present government’s legitimacy.
“There would appear to be no needed for a boycott of tourism with Twitter campaigns like this,” he claimed. “Whose bright idea was this? We are seeing the Maldivian youth raising their voices about democracy.”
Ghafoor contended that with such a high-profile focus seemingly now raising the issue of alleged human rights abuses around the world – the concept of needing a tourism boycott, as previously advocated by Nasheed, was a “lot less relevant”.
He pointed to his own observation of some Chinese tourists this week, who during a visit to Male’, asked local people about the reason for successive days of protests. These protests have at times escalated to violent clashes between anti-government protesters and police.
These clashes have led to allegations and reports of attacks on members of the media both reportedly by police and anti-government protesters, while certain reporters were also criticised for reportedly involving themselves in protests.
Fellow MDP MP Imthiyaz Fahmy added that it was “inevitable” that by turning to popular services like Twitter to promote the destination, the government would open itself up to allegations about police brutality and reported human rights abuses.
“This is not an MDP thing, but people here know very well what is going on and the role of some resort owners in sponsoring this ‘coup’,” he claimed.
Fahmy claimed that despite former President Nasheed’s recent calls for a boycott, the MDP at present was “undecided” if the party would support a blanket boycott or calls to avoid certain tourism properties in the country.
“We all know that some of the country’s richest people are behind the coup,” he said. “We need a focus that will help the Maldives bring about early elections.”
Despite the party’s claims, UK-based NGO Friends of the Maldives, which had previously been associated with a targeted travel advisory asking tourists steer clear of resorts owned by figures alleged to have a direct roll with brining the present government to power, warned against blanket action.
Friends of Maldives – established in the UK in 2003 during the autocratic rule of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to focus on human rights issues in the country – raised concerns against seemingly penalising the entire tourist industry in the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
“A boycott is a last resort and I don’t think it has reached that stage,” Friends of Maldives founder, David Hardingham told the paper. “It’s easy for people like us to tell tourists not to visit, but it is the people of the Maldives who will suffer – and they are the ones who must decide whether it’s worth it. Any campaign for a boycott needs to be a grass-roots one.”
However, Friends of Maldives said it continued to reject the legitimacy of the present government of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan, which the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) linked to Mohamed Nasheed has since alleged came to power in February through a “coup d’etat”.
As of the time of going to press, the official Visit Maldives Twitter service’s last tweet – posted 18 hours ago – read: “Did you know that #Maldives was mentioned in 2008 Jumper movie …#SunnySideofLife http://www.imdb.com/title/tt048909 …”