Luxury spas get caught in Maldives' political crossfire

A view of Coco Palm spa resort in the Maldives. The government has banned massage parlors and spas across the island nation

Story highlights

  • The government bans massage parlors and spas across the island nation
  • The hotel industry takes legal action to try to get an injunction against the ban
  • The move is the result of a political fight over the role of Islam in running the country
  • One resort says the hotel industry is ignoring the ban
Honeymooners and international hotel owners are at the center of an acrimonious showdown over religion between the government and opposition parties in the popular luxury tourist destination of the Maldives.
The Tourism Ministry last week banned the use of spas across the country, sparking a fiery debate over Islam's role in the governing of the island nation. The nation's pristine beaches and rich marine wildlife drew nearly 800,000 tourists in 2010.
The move has prompted confusion, legal action and civil disobedience in the Indian Ocean nation, which has a population of about 350,000.
"The government has ordered all the spas in the islands to shut down," said Mohamed Rashad, the manager of Royal Island Hotel and Aaramu Spa in the Maldives.
But the hotel industry "is not going for that," he said. "We are open today and never closed, and the other hotels are keeping their spas open as far as I know."
The standoff over tourists' rights to have massages and skin treatments at the high-end resorts, many of which charge thousands of dollars for a night's accommodation, came following calls from opposition groups for a stricter imposition of Islamic values in the Muslim country.
The opposition's demands conflict with the more liberal stance of President Mohamed Nasheed, who has urged the country to stick what he describes as the more "tolerant" strain of Islam that it has practiced for hundreds of years.
The situation came to a head after opposition groups staged a demonstration on December 23 in which they advocated, among other things, for a crackdown on massage parlors in the capital, Male, and other more densely populated areas.
Rather than ignore the demands, the government raised the stakes last week by issuing an order to close all massage parlors and spas across the country's nearly 1,200 islands.
The opposition groups had not sought such a blanket ban of spa activities, said Mohamed Shaheem, a spokesman for Adhaalath Party, which participated in the rally.
"We respect tourists," he said. "We are very happy with the tourism industry in the Maldives."
In a statement, the president's office suggested that the broader ban was an effort to highlight contradictions in the positions of some opposition figures.
"Ironically, the same opposition leaders who railed against spas and the selling of alcohol and pork to tourists are some of the country's biggest resort owners," the statement said.
Opposition leaders involved in the tourism industry include Qasim Ibrahim, the founder and chairman of Villa Group, which owns five resorts in the Maldives. Ibrahim is also the head of Jumhooree Party, which participated in the December 23 rally.
Repeated efforts on Monday to reach Qasim were not successful.
The hotel industry reacted to the ban by seeking a temporary court injunction and by holding talks with the government to try to get the spa services at major hotels excluded from the order, said Rashad of Royal Island Hotel.
"This was done for political purposes," he said. "Nobody has come out to check on us or to carry out inspections."
For its part, the government has suggested that it is willing to compromise with the big operators.
"Several have raised concerns over our decision," Mariyam Zulfa, the tourism minister, was quoted as saying over the weekend by the local news service Haveeru. "We are considering allowing resorts to operate spas."