Sustainable Tourism Forum concludes in Malé

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Images courtesy of IMTM

The third edition of the annual Sustainable Tourism Forum (STF) took place from 3 to 4 December at the Manhattan Business Hotel in Male’. 

Organised by the International Maldives Travel Market (IMTM), the forum provided a platform for tourism industry stakeholders and fostered a multi-sector dialogue on issues pertaining to the social, economic and environmental sustainability of tourism in the Maldives.

This year’s forum explored the theme, ‘What is Sustainable Tourism? Interpretations and Discourses of Sustainable Tourism in the Maldives.’

“The tourism industry is undoubtedly one of the biggest contributors to our economy. It makes up 20% of our GDP whilst many people’s income relies on it focusing on families’ livelihood and economic equality. The natural beauty of the islands and our local culture is what attracts so many tourists to our country. It is important to protect this industry and ensure that we are able to sustain it,” said Shiuna Khalid, the Managing Director of IMTM, in her opening remarks. 

She shared the vision and passion with which IMTM began the initiative to promote sustainable tourism in the Maldives.

“Sustainable practices differ based on each country’s context, its geography, environment, economy and people,” she continued. “This is the key focus of this forum. We want to know how different establishments define sustainability and what it means to them. With this, we hope to create a list of criteria for sustainability in the Maldivian context that the tourism industry can use as a reference.”

The opening ceremony was attended by representatives from the government, NGOs, resorts, guesthouses, and dive centers together with students and official partners of STF 2022. The deputy resident representative of UNDP Maldives, Vera Hakim, was the Guest of Honour, who officially launched the forum and the official video of STF 2022.

Dr Naushad Mohamed, the deputy minister of tourism, delivered the keynote speech, highlighting the government’s efforts to ensure that sustainable practices are enforced in the country. 

“It is generally established that tourism is the largest and fastest growing sector in the world. This itself has become a bit of a concern. For this reason, the concept of sustainability has been coined as the way forward with the aim of reducing the negative effects of economic activities,” he said. 

“Tourism must benefit local communities, preserve natural resources, and cultural values. As we celebrate 50 years of tourism in the Maldives, the government is keen to explore international best practices in sustainable tourism. Maldives is working very closely with international organisations such as the UNDP.”

The deputy minister also stressed the government’s plans to expand tourism across all local islands. A key project in the pipeline is ‘Blue Seal,’ a standard developed with the objective of introducing a certification for guesthouses, which looks at how they implement sustainability in great depth. 

The Fifth Tourism Master Plan will meanwhile address key issues of waste management, renewable energy, use of technology and innovation, resource development, tourism infrastructure development, and the protection of natural and cultural resources as tourism develops across the Maldives.

Naushad concluded his speech by highlighting the benefits of tourism to the local community, and the potential of generating more opportunities for youth to improve their livelihoods. 

“Every effort must be made to preserve our cultural heritage and natural attractions. We need to work together if we are to transform the industry,” he said.

Speaking at the forum, Vera Hakim observed that ‘Sustainable Tourism in the Maldives’ was a timely as the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of tourism. 

“Tourism is a catalyst for economic growth in the world and is a key driving factor for accelerating our progress towards the SDGs by 2030. The Maldives has the 5th richest reef biodiversity and the 7th largest reef ecosystem in the world. Its biodiversity contributes to 71% of the employment, 89% of the GDP and 98% of all exports,” she said. 

In her speech, Deputy Resident Representative Vera Hakim also highlighted the relationship between tourism, society, the economy and environment. 

“A joint publication by UNDP and WTO put forward that tourism and its growth must be in harmony with its socio-environmental assets of countries. As tourism increases in growth, if well-managed, it can provide employment, reduce poverty, and even incentivise environmental conservation. It means we need to find a way to manage the adverse effects of tourism such as its contribution to carbon emissions, environmental degradation, and economic inequalities,” she said.

“Tourism preserves and promotes the unique social norms, customs and heritage of the host community. It provides opportunities for, especially women, youth and differently abled people, and vulnerable groups left behind in the socio-economic spectrum. But our entire consumption model puts an unbearable pressure on nature, and there is simply not enough anymore. The benefits tourism draws from nature and the community must be equitably distributed back into the community.”

“If we want to achieve and sustain a net positive contribution for people and the planet, the effects on the fragile ecosystems must be kept under close check. It’s crucial to have balanced and well-planned strategies in place to ensure that environmental conservation and sustainable business practices form the foundation of business models and not just the CSR promotion, or an afterthought.

“The pandemic has shown us how dependent the Maldives is on tourism and how susceptible the economy is to global shocks. One thing for certain, in all the uncertainty around us, is that we all need to prepare for and the choices we make today will return in the future pathway for this country. What will it take for the tourism industry to transform its fossil fuel dependence to a long clean renewable energy model, innovating and investing in smart technology in the Maldives?

“Sustainable tourism means investing in local capacities, offering new skills and capabilities ready for the 21st century, skills and digital technologies, innovation and entrepreneurships, supporting our natural ecosystem and cultural heritage, at the forefront of local tourism and development. The biggest barrier and challenge to local councils, SMEs and individuals in entering sustainable tourism is access to finance. It is excellent forums such as this gathering that encourages private-public partnerships and gathering of knowledge and good practices that helps the industry understand their full potential of achieving the SDGs,” she said.

The IMTM said: “This year is an important year for the Maldives and its tourism industry, given it is celebrating the milestone of 50 years of tourism. With this, STF 2022 offers a timely contribution for the industry to pause, reflect and rethink the way we have been doing work and how we may improve and implement sustainable practices.”

“The forum’s focus is, as mentioned by the UNDP Deputy Resident Representative, to foster multi-sector dialogue on issues of sustainability. STF 2022 brings together the industry stakeholders to discuss the topic of sustainability in length, with the vision of making a mark in the industry – a clearly defined criteria for sustainable tourism establishments and a policy paper published early next year based on the forum’s findings and recommendations. This policy paper aims to help the government get more insight into the industry and complement their efforts in the hopes of assisting them in making changes on a policy level, including the introduction of a Sustainable Tourism Policy.”

Launched in 2019, the first Sustainable Tourism Forum was held alongside the IMTM Travel and Trade Fair. The following year, the forum themed ‘Fostering Rural Tourism in the Maldives’ was held online.