By AFPTourism officials in the Maldives on Monday denied that health spas at luxury holiday resorts operate as brothels and sought legal redress to squash the government orders to shut the facilities. Last week the tourism ministry instructed resort hotels across the nation's coral islands to close all spas and health centres offering beauty treatments and massages. The crackdown followed protests by an Islamist party that claimed they were a front for prostitution. "Sex tourism definitely does not happen in the resorts," Sim Ibrahim, the head of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI), told AFP by telephone from the capital Male. "The ban is very disruptive, not helpful for tourism and bad for our country's image. We have asked for legal clarity to protect an industry that has been in operation for 40 years." Tourism is a key foreign exchange earner in the Maldives, a popular destination for well-heeled honeymooners where rooms can cost up to $12,000 a day.
On Monday, the tourism industry filed two cases in the local civil courts, asking the judiciary to revoke the ban, MATI's lawyer Azima Shukoor said. "The circular violates the lease agreement signed between the government and resort owners and the constitution rights to protect investors," she said, adding that the association had also applied for a temporary injunction. At least 100 spas and health centres were shut immediately after the government announcement, but Ibrahim said tourism was crucial for the national economy and that he hoped the ban would be overturned within days. Home to some 330,000 Sunni Muslims, the Maldives has a reputation as a paradise holiday destination but this has come under pressure from a minority of religious fundamentalists who are growing in influence. President Mohamed Nasheed recently rejected religious extremism and urged his people to support a "tolerant" form of Islam practised in the country for centuries. Tourism Minister Mariyam Zulfa told AFP that a compromise was being considered. "The government is not against the tourism business," she said. The opposition Adhaalath party, a conservative religious movement whose website features an article criticising "lustful music", last month staged protests in Male accusing spas of being used as brothels.