Monday, September 21, 2015

Maafushi: From fish warehouse to prison island to a successful tourist destination

Translated and adapted by Dr. Abdullah Waheed

In addition to kurumba, there were also savories on the table.  While a Bangladeshi staff was cutting kurumba, Mr. Ibrahim Rasheed, the house owner was leaning on the doorway, waiting for the tourists sun tanning on the white sand. Some of them will buy his wares. Mr. Rasheed’s house which is located on the western beach was where Maafushi’s journey began to become the most successful guesthouse island in the Maldives. This small house was where the island’s most famous guest house ‘White Shell’ was located.

But today it is no longer a guesthouse, rather a boutique where Rasheed sells his wares to tourists. However, when all the beds on the island are occupied, he does take in guests.
“This is a huge development for the island,” Rasheed said, pointing at the tourists sunbathing in the beach and the sea.

“I’ll say that even if one sits with 100 coconuts, one can make enough money to feed a family of two kids,” he said. “We have that much opportunity here.”

Now the question is, how did Maafushi suddenly transform into a popular tourist destination?  The most apt person to answer that question is Ahmed Naseer, the economist who managed White Shell guest house.  According to Naseer, a native of the island, the reason is the large number of islanders who wanted to join the business, their financial capacity and the cooperation they got from the natives.

Naseer got the idea of tourism in a trip to Maafushi in November 2009. After seeing Rasheed’s house nearing completion near the beach, he developed an interest in making a guest house there.  By then the People’s Majlis had passed a law allowing guesthouse tourism. “Since the Majlis had passed legislation, I believed it was possible. So, using my savings and help from a close friend, I converted Rasheed’s house into a guesthouse,” Naseer who was Minister of State for Finance in MDP government said.

When on January 1, 2010, permission was granted to open the White Shell, the very first guesthouse on an inhabited island, Maafushi embarked on its journey to become the guesthouse island.  Five years later, the island has 40 guesthouses with 700 beds.  During the season about a million dollars (Translators note: This figure is questionable.) enter Maafushi every day. This means that the island is the biggest business center in the Maldives outside the capital.

Even Naseer didn’t believe Maafushi could become a tourist destination within such a short time. Even friends laughed when he began to build the guesthouse.  “Friends started laughing, but I decided to take a risk and do it,” Naseer said.

Just one year later, Naseer had made a new guesthouse at his father’s premises.  He managed four guesthouses before leasing out his properties.  “Honestly I must admit I never believed this could be developed so soon,” Naseer said.

Of the forty guesthouses in Maafushi, 38 belong to natives. This shows that they are enthusiastic about the business.

“I am very happy that I could come to an island like this,” said a Singaporean woman who was leaving to experience a resort after spending 3 days in Maafushi with her two kids. “This is a good community. I came here to spend a part of my holidays in an inhabited island.”

“The people of this island are very nice. Very kind,” her elder daughter interjected.

Maafushi now has its own place in the world tourism map.  It is a deviation from the Maldives’ one island one resort concept. The example of Maafushi shows that medium class tourism is viable in an inhabited island.  The name Maafushi is common in famous travel websites and some visitors to the island know of the Maldives in combination with Maafushi.

Maafushi first became famous as the home of fish ware houses. That was during the 1980s and early 1990s.  Later when the central jail was built there the island became famous as Maafushi jail.  But today it is a normal inhabited island in addition to being a “resort.”

“I tried a lot to include Maafushi as a separate city in,” Naseer said. “I have written to them to do it. Today Maafushi is listed as a separate destination.  I am very satisfied with that.”

While new guesthouses are burgeoning and Maafushi looks forward to reach the target of 1000 beds, the island can be described as a tourist village, with the natives engaged in their normal life and the tourists enjoying the quiet and beautiful environs of the Maldives.

The assistance and cooperation of the islanders was great in transforming Maafushi into a successful tourist destination. The north-west beach and lagoon of the island are now reserved for tourists. It is the most pleasant part of the island.

It is now unlikely that Maafushi will look backwards.  Considering the new guesthouses under construction and the new projects being launched by businessmen, Maafushi tourism is still in the expansion phase.

“From next month onwards, the island will start becoming full,” a guesthouse official said. “I don’t think any room will be available by December.”

Other islands near Male have not shown the success seen in Maafushi.  Even though they too have guesthouses, tourists don’t go there as much as they visit Maafushi. In fact, Hulhumale tourism still lags behind that of Maafushi.

Owning two fishing launches and selling food items to tourists, Rasheed exemplifies the success of Maafushi tourism.  He makes about 100,000 rufiyaa per month, taking tourists fishing, catering to the diving center staff and engaging in other tourism related work.

Maafushi tourism began from ‘Dhonveli Ge’ the small house where Rasheed was leaning against the doorway.  Only five years later prosperity has spread to the whole island.

Translated and adapted from:

Moosa Latheef, ‘mas gudhanun, bodu jalun, mihaaru tourism ge emme kaamiyaabu manzilakah’,  Haveeru Daily, 2015, , retrieved on 20 September 2015.

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