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Maldives reverses spa ban

By Jethro Mullen, CNN
updated 4:53 PM EST, Wed January 4, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The president says that the ban has been reversed
  • He expects the top court to agree with the reversal
  • Opposition groups wanted a ban on massage parlors in urban areas only, not resorts, they say
  • One resort says the hotel industry is ignoring the ban

(CNN) -- The government of the Maldives has reversed a ban on the sale of spa treatments, alcohol and pork, the country's president told CNN Wednesday.

The country's Supreme Court is expected to rule similarly in favor of reversing the ban Wednesday, President Mohamed Nasheed said.

The court originally was to rule whether the ban was constitutional.

The court's involvement stems from an acrimonious showdown between the government and opposition parties over Islam's role in the governing of the nation, an archipelago of almost 1,200 coral islands south-southwest of India.

After calls by opposition groups for a stricter imposition of Islamic values -- including a clampdown on massage parlors in parts of the country -- the Tourism Ministry last week banned the use of spas across the nation, whose population consists of about 350,000 Muslims.

The move caused controversy in a country whose pristine beaches and rich marine wildlife drew nearly 800,000 tourists in 2010.

The ban resulted in negative critiques, Nasheed said, and "as a quality control measure, the government had to look into the issue and give confidence to everyone who comes to the Maldives."

Resort and hotel owners, many of whom charge thousands of dollars for a night's accommodation in the Maldives, had reacted to the Tourism Ministry's order with a combination of legal action and civil disobedience.

The industry had chosen to ignore the ban, Mohamed Rashad, the manager of Royal Island Hotel and Aaramu Spa in the Maldives said Monday.

Nasheed said that after the ban was imposed, "the silent majority woke up and they wanted to reverse the ruling or the cry of the extremists."

"Such extreme calls don't really quite find resonance with the majority of the people in the country," he said.

The opposition's conservative demands conflict with the more liberal stance of Nasheed, who became the country's first democratically elected president in 30 years in 2008. Nasheed has urged the country to stick to what he describes as the more "tolerant" strain of Islam that it has practiced for hundreds of years.

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 coral 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."

The president's office issued a statement suggesting 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.

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