Allow me to begin by thanking you for convening this High-Level Thematic Debate on “Putting sustainable and resilient tourism at the heart of an inclusive recovery” in collaboration with the World Tourism Organization. For the Maldives, tourism lies at the very heart of our recovery from COVID, and the achievement of the SDGs and this debate could not be more timely.
The Maldives is among the most famous holiday destinations in the world. Our beautiful country is a paradise of 1200 islands, floating one and a half meters above the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. We are synonymous with natural beauty, luxury, relaxation and peace.
However, this has been a tremendous effort for us – an excellent example of collaboration between the private sector and the government in starting an infant industry. Given our well-documented constraints, including our small size and remoteness our development challenges are profound and our prospects limited, Since the advent of tourism, 50 years ago, it has been the main driver of our economic growth, and today it accounts for more than 45 per cent of our GDP.
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc across the planet. At the height of the pandemic, Maldives was forced to close its borders. Tourism is the very lifeblood of our economy. Our GDP contracted by 60 per cent and we faced losses in excess of 4.6 billion US dollars, an astronomical amount for our small island economy.
We have since been able to successfully re-open our borders and welcome back tourists from across the globe. Our economy is on the road to recovery. In 2021 we were able to exceed our target of one million tourists by over 30 per cent.
Our recovery required a number of government interventions. Under the astute leadership of His Excellency President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, together with the collaboration of our private sector, we have managed to weather the storm and come out stonger. We have over 13,000 Maldivians employed in the tourism industry. One important step taken was the 2022 minimum wage law enacted by the Government, which significantly benefitted tourism industry workers. Additionally, in 2021 a 10 per cent tourism industry service charge, of which 99 per cent must be distributed to employees was put in place. These measures have ensured significant improvement of take-home pay for workers across all industries, especially the over 13,000 Maldivian employees in the tourism industry. The Maldives is very much focused on tourism diversification and localisation, taking tourism to the island communities to encompass culture and heritage and island ecosystems to tourism products and enhance community participation, especially women in tourism.
Although, direct employment of women in tourist facilities in the Maldives are less, we have seen a huge rise in their participation throughout the years, with the introduction of guesthouse tourism in 2009. We anticipate this engagement even more, with the newly introduced home stay tourism in the Maldives. It is time to enable their progress, and celebrate their participation.
The reason why tourists flock to our islands is that we have the privilege to host some of the richest biodiversity in the world, including 5 per cent of our planet’s coral reefs, and the seventh-largest reef ecosystem in the world. Our seas are home to over a thousand fish species, two hundred species of corals, twenty species of whales and dolphins, and forty species of sharks.
Our livelihoods are directly tied to the health of our oceans, corals, beaches and natural resources. They underpin both our tourism industry and our vital sustainable fisheries sector. Our rich biodiversity is responsible for over 80 per cent of our GDP and over 90 per cent of our exports.
In this regard, our government has taken a number of steps to protect the oceans, including formulating a marine spatial plan, which will allow for better planning to ensure the sustainable use of our ocean resources, while simultaneously working actively to protect our waters from IUU fishing. We are also designating one island, one coral reef and one mangrove in each of our atolls as protected areas, thereby establishing over 70 protected areas in our national waters. In addition, three of our atolls have been declared UNESCO biosphere reserves.
Our natural environment and biodiversity not only serve as the backbone of our economy; they are also deeply connected to our culture and history and it is imperative that we take urgent steps to protect these vital resources that sustain us all, by redoubling our efforts to limit the impacts of climate change, protect biodiversity and ensure the achievement of the SDGs. We are doing all we can in order to protect and preseve the environment for generations to come.
Our Tourism Master Plan reflects our commitment to ensuring that our tourism industry is grounded in protecting the environment, conservation and sustainability. We have witnessed an increased uptake of sustainable practices, including the use of renewable energy sources such as solar instead of fossil fuels, eliminating single-use plastics, and aiming to be carbon neutral and waste-free as soon as possible.
We look forward to today’s programme, including the various roundtables, and look forward to engaging with member states and other stakeholders in working to ensure that tourism can play a central role in not just our COVID recovery, but in the achievement of the SDGs and ensuring that we leave no one, and no country, behind.