بِسْمِ ٱللّٰهِ ٱلرَّحْمٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Dr Abdulla Mausoom, Minister of Tourism, His Excellency Ibrahim Mohamed Rasheed, Secretary-General of UNWTO, Ministers and officials from UNWTO member countries, Ambassadors, Cabinet Ministers, leaders of international organisations, professionals and experts from across the industry;

السَّلَامُ عَلَيْكُمْ.

And a very good morning to you all.

It is my pleasure to join you today for the opening session of the UNWTO Global Summit on Community-based Tourism, and I welcome you to the “Sunny Side of Life” – the Maldives.

Distinguished guests,

I can recall a time when developing tourism in the Maldives was deemed impractical. The naysayers quoted our climate and transportation costs and our dependence on imports as the reasons. It was a group of ambitious young people, with the assistance of an Italian tour operator, who saw great potential in an industry that would soon revolutionise the Maldivian economy.

They did, however, face formidable challenges. We had no proper accommodation, facilities, or modes of transport. We were just a mere chain of islands dotting the dark blue hues of the Indian Ocean. Nonetheless, the pioneers I'm referring to persevered and multitasked. In a single day, each of them wore multiple hats, from boat captains to chefs to housekeeping attendants to reservations and guest relations officers. Today, we must be grateful for their sheer ambition and dedicated hard work in bringing the Maldives to the forefront of the global stage.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Fifty years ago, the Maldives was nothing more than just a name. Today, a mere mention of the phrase "the Maldives" would spark images of the pristine beaches, far-flung lagoons, and picture-perfect islands that have since captured and dominated the world’s attention. Today, we are proud of the accomplishments of the pioneers and those who followed in their footsteps in making the Maldives a trusted brand worldwide. Last year, we cemented our reputation as the most definitive secluded sanctuary in the whole world. We were named the "World’s Leading Destination" for the second consecutive year at the World Travel Awards.

We now have 166 tourist resorts, 12 hotels, 762 guesthouses, 147 safari boats, and two homestays. Tourism is the main driver of our economic growth, fiscal revenues, and foreign exchange earnings. To promote faster growth, we have rapidly scaled up infrastructure developments, especially in the tourism sector. We have opened up 426 tourist facilities over the past three and a half years. That is 33 resorts, two hotels, 343 guesthouses, and two homestays, in addition to putting 19 new safari vessels into operation. With that, we have increased the bed capacity by over 14,000.

Another 107 resorts are currently in different stages of development across the country, of which we expect to open 22 new properties by the end of 2023. With these additions, our bed capacity will increase by over 5,000. Another 45 guesthouses are also currently being developed, featuring some 820 beds.

Distinguished guests,

Despite these developments, in 2020, we too had to shut down our borders and shutter our resort islands. The daily inbound flights, carrying groups of excited travellers, came to a total stop. Our safari boats lay moored to the docks. Our white sandy beaches, which once bustled with the joyful cries of our visitors, became bare. While our economy heavily depends on our tourism product, the global Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on our small economy. Ours was one of the hardest hit. Tourism income, the most significant contributor to our GDP, trickled down. The tourism sector staff, and other members of the workforce, were being laid off. The speed of our socio-economic development depressed to a stop.

Today, we owe our thanks to President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih for his vision and leadership in rallying us behind him, small to large businesses and the public alike, and guiding us towards resilience and recovery. We responded to the crisis with various measures, including income support, loans for struggling businesses, and the deferment of debt payments for individuals, households, and companies—tourist facilities and staff included. We must also not forget the valuable contributions of international aid agencies, our friendly neighbours, and international organisations such as UNWTO and UN agencies.

2020 only saw a third of the tourist arrivals from the level in 2019. We were able to reopen our borders in July 2020, which supported a more substantial recovery in tourism in the second half of 2021, with total arrival reaching 1.3 million by the end of the year. We see the growth momentum continuing this year. However, we must be vigilant, as future Covid-19 outbreaks could slow the pace of our recovery.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Our road to recovery is long, and building a resilient economy will face many challenges. We need to advance our tourism industry’s potential for inclusive development. We must step up our efforts to create conditions where all people can live, work, and thrive. We need to do more to foster our collective efforts to protect our environment while adopting new strategies to utilise and share the benefits of innovation.

While the climate crisis is the most critical issue of our times, we must ensure that it remains prominent on the international agenda. We are on track to do our part, and reduce emissions and reach our aim of net zero by 2030. If urgent climate action is delayed, and steps are not taken to meet the 1.5°C temperature limit enshrined in the Paris Agreement, our survival as a nation will be threatened. This is why we will continue our stand as the global voice for climate action.

I believe this summit is being held at the most opportune time, when the primary source markets are starting to open up, and an increasing number of destinations are easing Covid restrictions. We are also marking our golden jubilee of the introduction of tourism to the Maldives this year. At this moment, we must tackle the numerous challenges we face in ensuring inclusive community development and changing people’s livelihoods. We are working towards making the Maldives an accessible tourist destination for all.

Distinguished guests,

We must ensure a fair and equitable distribution of benefits across our communities. Innovative solutions are needed to reverse the slow development of micro and small enterprises. We must also tackle economic leakages due to our heavy dependence on foreign inputs to develop the tourism value chain. We must rebuild the tourism sector in a safe, equitable, and climate-friendly manner, ensuring that tourism yet again serves as a source of decent jobs, stable incomes, and the protection of our cultural and national heritage.

We cannot achieve community development through tourism alone. We are working on initiatives that factor in our nature conservation efforts and climate action. We are prioritising development consistent with environmental preservation and sustainability, building upon our longstanding vision of inaugurating and strengthening a Blue Economy.

Preserving the natural beauty and health of our fragile ecosystems is crucial for the sustenance of our tourism product. That is why we have embarked on an ambitious plan to phase out single-use plastics in the Maldives by the year 2023. We made this decision in the hope of negating the harmful effects of single use plastics on our vulnerable marine environment and on human health.

Investing in human capital, including re-training and upskilling workers, is another area of our focus. We have introduced numerous opportunities for our students, who will become the nation’s future leaders. We now have a free first-degree programme while simultaneously providing numerous higher education opportunities, scholarships and TVET programmes to build our workforce further. We are also developing and upgrading healthcare services across the country. We recently introduced the first phase of our "Integrated National Public Ferry Network," which will aid in our efforts by easing accessibility to healthcare and other essential facilities.

While I believe this administration is a champion of women empowerment, it is an achievement that the number of women joining the workforce, especially in the tourism and related fields, is increasing. This is a holistic approach to inclusive community development we strive to achieve.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I congratulate the tourism sector stakeholders on the 50th anniversary milestone we celebrate today. I extend my gratitude to all the dedicated and hardworking staff working in the tourism sector, for this is a celebration of their achievements and sacrifice.

We hope this summit provides a platform for innovation, diversification, and an exchange of ideas and best practises among the policymakers and stakeholders. I also hope this summit serves as a platform for you to speak and share your knowledge and expertise about building resiliency and opening doors for the community to reap the benefits of the tourism industry.

I thank you very much.

وَالسَّلَامُ عَلَيْكُمْ.