The Republic of Maldives is a country made up of many coral islands. By turning individual islands into resorts, it has developed into one of the world’s preeminent resort areas over the past 50 years. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Maldives H.E. Mr. Hassan Sobir served as minister of tourism and as a member of the Cabinet before coming to Japan. Toshio Motoya spoke with H.E. Mr. Sobir about topics including the history and diplomatic policy of this unique island nation, and why it is so beloved by celebrities from around the globe.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. Many Japanese people are interested in Maldives without knowing much about it. I invited you here so you can tell us more about your country.
(S) Thank you for having me. The Republic of Maldives is made up of approximately 1,200 small coral islands in the Indian Ocean. With a population of roughly 550,000 people, the total area of these islands is just about half the size of Tokyo’s 23 wards. The capital is Male, which is also a single island. The official language is Dhivehi, an indigenous language, but many people also speak English.
(M) It sounds like a very unique nation. I’d like to hear about its history.
(S) Because Maldives is located on a trade route in the Indian Ocean, close to India and Sri Lanka, it has interacted with many different people and islands since ancient times. Most of the residents may have traveled from southern India and Sri Lanka, but there were also people from South and Southeast Asia, Africans, and Arabs. Citizens are followers of the Islam faith brought to Maldives by Arabs in 1153. Ancient traditions still have a major influence as well. Sultans came into power as Islam spread across the islands. Maldives was ruled by Portugal in the 16th century. It became a British protectorate in 1887 and was indirectly controlled by the British High Commissioner in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Maldives gained independence in 1965 and abolished the sultan system in 1968, when it became a republic. The diplomatic relationship between Japan and Maldives was established in 1967.
(M) So it used to be a British protectorate. What are the major industries?
(S) Traditionally we have a thriving fishing industry, and we eat lots of fish, too. Fish accounts for the majority of exports with large quantities of bonito and tuna. However, tourism is our main industry today. The first tourists arrived in 1972, totaling about 1,000 that year. This grew to approximately 1.7 million in 2019.
(M) That’s three times larger than the population of Maldives. Are most of the tourists from Europe?
(S) Europe is the major market, but many Asian tourists also travel to Maldives. The ranking in 2019 was China at 284,000, India at 166,000, and Italy at 136,000. Japan was number nine at 44,000, many of whom were honeymooners. South Korea was also in the top 10. Fewer people traveled during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the tourism industry is recovering. It also hasn’t been too seriously affected by the Ukraine conflict that began last year – there are still many Russian tourists, even after the start of the war. Of course, we would be much better off without a war.
(M) That’s great. I imagine people are drawn to Maldives’ marine resorts.
(S) Yes, we are implementing a plan to turn individual islands into resorts. So far this has been accomplished on over 145 islands. Maldives has all of the world’s most luxurious hotel brands, including the Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Sheraton, Waldorf Astoria, etc. You can enjoy the beautiful ocean and relaxing atmosphere on small, quiet islands that are unoccupied except for these resorts. The most popular activity is diving. Maldives has many different types of marine creatures, and you can see lots of rare fish at our coral reefs that are like natural aquariums.
(M) I’d love to go see it for myself. Can you enjoy the ocean throughout the year?
(S) You can; Maldives is close to the Equator so it’s warm all year round. But it’s not too hot. The maximum temperature is around 32 °C, but the average is 28°C. The cool breezes from the ocean make it feel pleasant.
(M) My impression is that many affluent and famous people like to vacation in Maldives.
(S) They do! Celebrities come from across the world because they are ensured privacy. They can stay on islands without encountering any tourists, and they don’t have to worry about paparazzi. Many soccer teams came to Maldives to relax after last year’s FIFA World Cup in Doha. I met numerous celebrities back when I was minister of tourism. I also think it helped that Maldives wasn’t heavily affected by COVID-19, since the distance between individual islands naturally helped prevent the virus from spreading. We were closed to foreign travelers for just three months in 2020. The vaccine rate is high among the general public. Almost 100% of resort staff members are vaccinated, which I think makes tourists feel more secure.
(M) How do you get between the islands? By boat?
(S) Seaplanes are the most common and convenient way to travel. We have the world’s largest domestic seaplane network, which connects island resorts to the international airport in Male. There are also 18 local airports for regular small airplanes.
(M) I’m interested in the political structure of the republic. Do you have a president?
(S) Yes, current President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih came to Japan in 2019 for the enthronement of the Emperor.
(M) What is the president’s term of office, and how many times can they be reelected?
(S) The president serves five years and can be re-elected one time, meaning the maximum term is 10 years. President Solih was elected in 2018. A presidential election will take place this year, closely followed by an election for the People’s Majilis, the unicameral legislative body with 87 members. I was a member in the past.
(M) So you have been both minister of tourism and a Cabinet member. Have democratic elections and regime changes been carried out peacefully since independence?
(S) Of course there are some points of conflict in elections, but they have gone peacefully, and government transitions have been smooth as well. United Nations election observers always come to monitor our presidential elections.
(M) You said Maldives was a British protectorate until 1965. Is that different from a colony?
(S) Yes, a colony has absolutely no national sovereignty, but a protectorate maintains its sovereignty while another country exercises some control. Maldives still had a sultan during that time. The United Kingdom built a military base in the south part of the country, but its presence never expanded past that.
(M) Was independence a smooth process?
(S) It was. Maldives immediately joined the UN afterwards and entered into diplomatic relations with 10 countries, including Japan. It was the world’s smallest UN member state at that time. Our policy is to form no alliances, but to interact the same way with countries across the world. Maldives is part of the Commonwealth of Nations, and some have asked how such a small island nation has maintained its independence. I think the answer is that Maldivians have long been possessed of an innocent, naive, non-agressive character. Even when people came with stances of some aggression, I think they were often won over by the heartfelt hospitality of Maldives.
(M) Maldives is a peaceful country, but does it have a military?
(S) We have a small defense army of 4,000 people. Of course we also have police forces to maintain legal order, but I think that good friends are more important than either of these. As a country in the Indian Ocean, we are friendly with India, Sri Lanka, and Africa. Japan is also an important country that has provided a great deal of development assistance. We are particularly thankful for the seawalls around Male, the capital city with 140,000 residents. Male is just 1.5 meters above sea level. It has flooded many times in the past and was greatly damaged by large waves during the cyclone of 1987. The Japanese government carried out emergency projects to build multiple seawalls from 1987 to 2002. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami caused great harm in numerous countries. More than 80 people died or were lost in Maldives, but thanks to the seawalls there were no deaths in Male, nor any serious damage. As a country that is skilled at risk management, Japan has provided different types of aid and reconstruction support since then. When many Japanese people were killed during the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, Maldives carried out a campaign for Japan in response to the help it provided. Civilians donated money, and the government and citizens also sent approximately 700,000 cans of tuna, one of our specialty products. It was a symbolic gesture of goodwill between Maldives and Japan.
(M) I didn’t know that!
(S) The government of Maldives is extremely grateful to the Japanese government and people. Your government has helped build schools on remote islands, and Japanese companies have provided solar panels.
(M) Are tsunamis and typhoons the most common types of natural disasters?
(S) No. Buildings must be no taller than a palm tree in tourist resorts. We’ve been able to mitigate harm in Maldives thanks to various types of aid from Japan.
(M) Does the fishing industry have any ties with Japan?
(S) Rather than nets, many fishermen in Maldives use Japanese-made fishing poles. Yamaki, a manufacturer of katsuobushi (bonito flakes) based in Ehime Prefecture, has a subsidiary in Maldives that makes katsuobushi from locally caught fish and exports it to Japan.
(M) Are there any Japanese resorts?
(S) A Japanese businessperson who was formerly in the used car export market has invested in Maldives and operates a resort there.
(M) There are many Japanese tourists. Do they experience any linguistic difficulties in Maldives?
(S) I made a friend in Japan who recently got married and spent their honeymoon in Maldives. They stayed at the Ritz-Carlton. They were worried about not being able to speak the language, but the hotel has a Japanese chef and they got by easily in their native language. Maldives imports foods from around the world, including Japanese sake and other traditional ingredients. Visitors can enjoy the finest sushi, Washoku, and sake. There are many all-inclusive resort islands where you can sample a wide variety of foods and alcoholic beverages without paying additional costs. The resorts also have good medical care systems.
(M) That sounds great. I’d definitely like to visit.
(S) I hope you will! Since arriving in Japan, I’ve felt that Japanese people have a strong spirit of persistence that makes them work too hard. People need rest, just like smartphone batteries have to be recharged. If you come to Maldives, you can truly relax and forget about your daily life while strolling around barefoot and enjoying the sea breezes. I hope your readers will travel to Maldives. I’d also love to see an APA Hotel there someday.
(M) For it to be profitable, an APA Hotel would need guests from lots of different countries, not just Japan.
(S) You wouldn’t have to depend only on Japanese people, of course. In the past many European tourists came to Maldives, but in recent years there are more from Asia, the United States, Russia, and other countries. Although Maldives is a luxury resort, you can choose from a wide range of accommodation facilities. Some hotels cost just 100 to 150 dollars per night. On the other hand, you can rent an entire island with seven bedrooms for four million yen per night. I think APA Hotel could operate in a variety of formats. About 160 Maldivian islands are occupied or used as resorts. This leaves 1,000 to choose from. The best islands go quickly, so I recommend that you make a quick decision. The island rental period can be 99 years.
(M) One issue is the lack of direct flights from Japan.
(S) That’s true. The most popular route goes through Singapore. However, direct planes fly from Male to 35 cities around the world, including Sri Lanka and Dubai. There are about 10 daily direct flights from Colombo in Sri Lanka, which is convenient for Japanese travelers.
(M) I’d like to travel to Maldives soon! At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.” Can you please share a message with the young people of Japan?
(S) I have deep respect for Japan and the Japanese people because of the support they have provided, including the young people who volunteer. I think we can learn a lot from you. I’m impressed by how safe and clean Japan is, and how kind and mannerly its people are. These qualities are all more valuable than sophisticated technologies. I hope young Japanese people will be aware of and cherish this.
(M) I’m happy to hear that you think so highly of Japan.
(S) I also hope more Japanese people will come to Maldives for rest and relaxation, which would surely boost their productivity and creativity. I had a great time talking with you today.
(M) Thank you for sharing such an interesting conversation with me.
Born in Male, the capital of the Republic of Maldives, in 1951. Has over 25 years of senior management experience in the government. Was a member of the Cabinet for 11 years. His past positions include minister in the Ministry of Fisheries & Agriculture and Ministry of Tourism. Has worked in diplomacy, business, and as a university lecturer. In 2019, he was appointed ambassador of the Embassy of Maldives to Belgium, Netherlands & Luxembourg, Mission to the European Union. In June 2022, he took up his current post as ambassador at the Embassy of the Republic of Maldives to Japan.