I received an email from Mr. Ibrahim Faizal, erstwhile general secretary of the Airport Facilitation Committee of the Republic of Maldives. This entity is backed by presidential authority and comprises all the relevant ministries and departments including immigration, tourism and national security. Once the committee makes a decision, it is final. “We have made sure that tourism can be sustained,” said Mr. Faizal.
Until recently, he was also the chairman of Maldives Civil Aviation Authority and director of operations in their international airport. Last week, as he waited for his flight to Bangkok, Mr. Faizal came across my column which was a brief version of the paper I was about to present at the conference on sustainable tourism at the University of Malaya. I made reference to the Boracay clean up and “Open Skies,” a bitterly polemical issue when I was secretary of tourism. He said that initially, tourism in Maldives was all inbound because none of the natives could afford to fly; surely, that was why sustainable tourism was the criteria from the very start. Allow me to share some relevant points I culled from Mr. Faizal’s kind letter.
- The government of Maldives affirmed that the interest of the country is paramount to that of the airport and the local airline, even if the latter is 100 percent state-owned.
- From the very start, all stakeholders of tourism were involved in its development as well as all tourism-related authorities, in particular the Airport Facilitation Committee, the Ministry of Tourism, and industry representatives.
- The “open skies” policy rules. The more people come to Maldives, the better it is for the economy and the country. It may affect the local airline which is government-owned, but the advantages of having more people coming to Maldives outweighs the interest of the local airline. Tourism will thrive only if you can fly tourists from point A to point C by passing through point B.
- Even slot coordination at the airport takes into consideration the tourism aspects of the flights.
- Every resort needs to have its own sewerage treatment before it can be approved for operation. Regulation and inspection of resorts are very vigorous and robust.
- Faizal says that the Philippines being such a vast country, the only way tourism can expand is to make regional hubs in Cebu, Davao, and Laoag. Perhaps there are plans to develop the Davao airport, but his experience tells him that it is not going to help much with tourism as the location is wrong.
- There is no industry close to Davao that could sustain an airport, economically. It is far too westward. If an airport has to live off the airline or the passengers alone, it will not be self-sustaining.
- Last year, Mr. Faizal signed the air service agreement between Maldives and the Philippines, but their local airline was not invited to join the signing.
- He studied civil aviation in the Philippines, witnessed People Power in 1986, has traveled a bit around the country (by motorcycle) so he is no stranger to the tourism problems of the Philippines. He says there are lovely white sandy beaches (aside from Boracay) that have not been developed at all.
- He highlighted Pagudpud (Ilocos Norte) and Dahican (Davao Oriental) where access for tourists is a problem. There are landslides on theroad from Tagum.
- He has never understood why hotels are so expensive in the Philippines compared to Thailand and Malaysia.
- He still wants to promote the Philippines in the Maldives. Right now, a lot of Maldivians go to Thailand for their holidays; the main reason is for shopping. And though our country promotes “Malling is better in the Philippines,” in his opinion, it is not.
Be that as it may, Mr. Faizal wrote: “… you should continue to write and highlight these issues so that people may understand better why the current situation exists in the Philippines. As you rightly stated it doesn’t have to be the President who has to make these emergency decisions. It should have been routine and really in the system. I love the Philippines and hope that it gets developed in a way that can be sustained.”