Tourism authorities in the Maldives have withdrawn the country from the New7Wonders campaign, after claiming the private company behind the competition began demanding increasingly high fees in order for the Maldives to compete meaningfully for the remainder of the competition.
The decision was made during Tuesday’s cabinet session after weeks of deliberation between the Ministry of Tourism Arts and Culture, the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) and industry stakeholders.
State Minister for Tourism Thoyyib Mohamed announced at a press conference on Wednesday morning that the Maldives was withdrawing from the competition “because of the unexpected demands for large sums of money from the New7Wonders organisers. We no longer feel that continued participation is in the economic interests of the Maldives.”
The Maldives has only invested US$12,000 over the lifespan of the campaign, mostly significantly on banners and voting terminals at Male’ International Airport, Thoyyib said.
Minivan News understands that the company behind New7Wonders, the ‘New Open World Corporation’ (NOWC), initially levied a US$199 participation fee upon signing of the initial contract in early 2009.
However, once the Maldives was announced as a finalist, NOWC began soliciting additional fees and expenses not clearly articulated in the original contract, which tourism authorities estimate will cost the Maldives upwards of half a million dollars.
Requests have so fair included ‘sponsorship fees’ (‘platinum’ at US$350,000, or two ‘gold’ at US$210,000 each), and funding of a ‘World Tour’ event whereby the Maldives would pay for a delegation of people to visit the country, provide hot air balloon rides, press trips, flights, accommodation and communications. According to tourism authorities, these services would amount to a total cost to the country’s economy of over US$500,000.
Minivan News understands that NOWC also attempted to charge telecom provider Dhiraagu US$1 million for the right to participate in the New7Wonders campaign – approximately US$3 for every citizen in the Maldives – a fee that was dropped to half a million when the telco complained about the price.
When tourism authorities expressed concern about the skyrocketing cost of participating in the competition, billed as a global democratic selection of the new seven wonders, NOWC expressed sympathy for the Maldives’ economic situation and instructed it to solicit money from the resort industry.
“We require sponsorship if you are going to benefit from a full World Tour visit,” a company representative said in correspondence obtained by Minivan News. “We believe it is perfectly within the financial means of the leading resorts, when combined, to afford this sponsor fee (especially considering the extraordinary image, economic and marketing benefit it brings to the Maldives and therefore to their businesses).”
The correspondence reveals that should the Maldives be unable to provide the money demanded by NOWC, it would be offered an alternative “protocol visit to your capital city, lasting one day. This visit includes the presentation of a certificate to the appropriate authority and a short press conference. The N7W team arrives in the morning and leaves the same day.”
New7Wonders emphasised however that “during our first campaign (for the man-made wonders) all the seven winners had very strong and exciting World Tour visits.”
In the terms and conditions on the organisation’s website concerning participating candidates, NOWC “ultimately decides whether a nominee, candidate or wonder is able to participate and or retain its status in the New7Wonders campaigns.”
Vague terms such as ‘non-compliance’ “may result in the temporary suspension of the participating nominee, candidate or wonder from that country. Persistent or un-remedied non-compliance may result in the permanent elimination of a nominee, candidate or wonder.”
“Essentially we’re paying a license fee for the right to throw a party, at our own cost, for an unproven return,” a senior tourism official told Minivan News, suggesting that claims a billion people were voting in the competition did not add up, as the Maldives had fluctuated wildly between 19th and 2nd and the tally was not transparent.
Furthermore, “any media that drops its price 50 percent at the first complaint is totally unprofessional, and in a mature media market this is considered highly unusual and poor practice. It means they haven’t justified the original cost,” the source said.
The Maldives is not the only country to have been stung by surprise demands for sponsorship cash, not clearly outlined in the contract. NOWC reportedly demanded US$10 million in licensing fees from tourism authorities in Indonesia, which had fielded the Komodo national park as a wonder, and required that it foot an estimated US$35 million bill to host the World Tour event.
In February this year, the Jakarta Post reported the country’s Tourism Minister Jero Wacik as stating that the Ministry had received a letter on December 29, 2010 claiming that NOWC would “suspend” Komodo from the list of finalists if it refused to pay the US$10 million license fee.
“It’s not fair and irrational,” Wacik said. “I refuse to be extorted by anyone, including this NGO. I thought these are about votes, if the world votes for it, then it will win, what does that have to do with hosting the event?”
In response, New7Wonders founder Bernard Weber, a Swiss-born Canadian who describes himself as a “filmmaker, aviator and adventurer”, accused the Indonesian Ministry of Culture and Tourism of “reacting with malicious misinformation, invented financial commitments and prejudicial action to cover up for an apparent lack of moral responsibility and duty. In my view, with this behaviour, the Ministry has also reduced the chances for Indonesia to host other major global events that create goodwill in the world, such as the Olympics or the World Cup.”
He then announced that New7Wonders was revoking Indonesia’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism from its status as ‘Official Supporting Committee’ for Komodo, claiming that “last week strengthened the case for us to withdraw from Indonesia completely. If we depended on the Ministry, then today we would be forced to announce a complete pull-out.”
Although the New7Wonders site contains a link ‘United Nations Partnership’, the UN’s World Heritage body UNESCO in 2007 disavowed participation in the first New7Wonders campaign, claiming it was “a private initiative by Bernard Weber” with whom the organisation had decided “not to collaborate”.
“There is no comparison between Mr Weber’s mediatised campaign and the scientific and educational work resulting from the inscription of sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The list of the 7 New Wonders of the World will be the result of a private undertaking, reflecting only the opinions of those with access to the Internet and not the entire world. This initiative cannot, in any significant and sustainable manner, contribute to the preservation of sites elected by this public,” UNESCO stated.
After the world’s sole remaining ancient wonder of the world, the Pyramids of Giza, failed to garner enough votes in Weber’s first New7Wonders campaign, Egyptian Culture Minister Farouq Hosni criticised the project as “absurd” and described its creator as “a man concerned primarily with self-promotion”. The pyramids were subsequently made an ‘honorary’ wonder of the world.
The fate of the money apparently now being paid to NOWC by tourism authorities all over the world is unclear, although New7Wonders claims on its site that funds from the first campaign “have been entirely used to fund the running and campaign costs. The mission is thus to create a surplus during the current New7Wonders of Nature campaign which ends in 2011.”
Funds beyond that, the site states, are used “to set up and run the global New7Wonders voting platform, to run the first campaign that chose the Official New 7 Wonders of the World, to run the current campaign electing the Official New7Wonders of Nature, to run the New7Wonders organisation, [and] to create a surplus for distribution.”
Fifty percent of its surplus net revenues, the site states, are pledged “ to the main New7Wonders Foundation cause: the promotion of Global Memory, specifically the documentation and 3D virtual recording of all New7Wonders.”
Minivan News confirmed that a ‘New7Wonders Foundation’ is registered in the Swiss canton of Zurich as a charitable foundation, however the New7Wonders own website describes it as “a major, global-scale proof of a business concept based on mass virtual online dynamics creating concrete economic positive outcomes in the real world”, and the contract signed with the Maldives gives NOWC’s address as a law firm in the Republic of Panama.
Responding to enquiries from Minivan News, New7Wonders Spokesperson Eamonn Fitzgerald said the Maldives remained in the competition despite the government’s decision.
“We accept the resignation of the Ministry [of Tourism] as Official Supporting Committee (OSC), and we plan in due course to replace them therefore with a new OSC,” he said.
“As we enter the final months of the campaign we clearly see the difference between those who are ready for the unique opportunity of participating in the New7Wonders of Nature — such as the people and workers of the Maldives, who remain strong and active supporters — and those who are not able to step up to the challenge for whatever reason. New7Wonders always listens to the people, the voters, first, and therefore I can confirm to all the fans of the Maldives from all over the world, who are actively campaigning and voting, that they will be able to continue doing so.”
Fitzgerald further denied New7Wonders had requested sponsorship from the Maldivian government.
“We have offered the opportunity for Maldivian companies to come on board as sponsors, in the same way as other global events and campaigns are sponsored,” he claimed.
Asked whether the organisation was a charitable foundation or a commercial enterprise, Fitzgerald claimed it was both.
“At the heart of New7Wonders is the officially Swiss-registered not-for-profit Foundation, the New7Wonders Foundation. As with other Foundations, who cannot themselves by statute operate commercially, New7Wonders has formally transferred the commercial operation to its licensing company, New Open World Corporation, which then runs the commercial aspects.”
Addendum: This story has been updated to include a response from NOWC, received subsequent to publication.