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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2613

Maldives maintained trade relations with Sri Lanka for several centuries: Zahiya Zareer, High Commissioner

By Leelananda Ihalagamage, Editor / Travellanka
Colombo, 10 July, (

Written History is very little on Maldives other than oral tradition. Francois Pyrard in 1602 and the German Scholar, Geiger and later H.C.P. Bell rendered much service to the history by showing similarities of the shared history and culture between our two countries, between our languages and how they may have evolved. Also our physical features are quite similar, our habits, food items, complexion etc. show that we’ve had very close ties both culturally and historically – Maldivian High Commissioner.

In an exclusive interview Maldivian High Commissioner Ms. Zahiya Zareer answered questions regarding cultural and religious relations between the two countries, Maldives and Sri Lanka:.
Excerpts of the interview is given below:

How is the foreign relations between Maldives and Sri Lanka?

We established Diplomatic Relations in 1965. This year we are marking our 50th Anniversary of Independence and also the 50th Anniversary of the Diplomatic Relations between Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Records show that as early as 1934, (which was long before 1965), they opened an Office here and posted an Envoy representing the Maldivian Government. It is clearly evident that we have maintained trade relations for several centuries. Our people made Maldive Fish (Umbalakada) and sold to Sri Lankans. At present, both our countries have a long established and a very strong diplomatic relationship.

Ms. Zahiya Zareer, had served as the health minister and education minister in former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's administration. President Abdulla Yameen nominated the former minister Zahiya Zareer as the new High Commissioner of the Maldives accredited to Sri Lanka.

In Maldives, Tourism is one of the main sources of income. How do you promote and attract tourists to your country?

Tourism started in the Maldives in 1972 with the help of some Sri Lankan Companies. Ceylon Tours played an important role in bringing Tourism to the Maldives. Tourism has been developed with the participation of the private sector. The Tourism Promotion Board or the MMPRS does a lot of work – using various Marketing opportunities, participating in Publicity Forums and also participating in Several Big Tourism Fairs in Europe and elsewhere. The Hoteliers constantly do a lot of advertising and carry out several activities to promote Maldives Tourism in the West, East, and everywhere in the world. Eventually Maldives has become one of the most sought after Tourist Destinations in the world.

What about the Education and Trade?

I worked in the Education Sector of Maldives for over 30 years, although I am sitting here today. English Medium Education was first introduced to Maldives in 1961 and then we had almost 100% Sri Lankan teachers to teach us. We have been a Muslim Country for over 800 years, however our Literacy rate is very high. After the English Medium Education started we prepared our children to sit for the London GCE O’Level and A’Level exams and even today in all schools in the country children sit for the Cambridge and Ed-excel IGCSE and A Level exams. So, in the field of Education, we have had a very close and good relationship between our two countries.

There is a lot of potential for us to further develop trade between our two countries. Sri Lanka exports fruits and vegetables to the Maldives. There are Resorts in Maldives that are owned by Sri Lankan parties such as Aitken Spence, John Keells, etc. There are some other businesses as well, in which Sri Lankans have invested in. From last year, I have been communicating with the Sri Lanka – Maldives Business Council which is under the Chamber of Commerce of Sri Lanka. When I first went to their General Meeting last year, there wasn’t a single Maldivian trader. However, this year they have given the opportunity for 10 Businesses from Maldives to be part of this Council and we are now working on it.

The Maldives is currently Sri Lanka’s 3rd largest trade partner in the South Asian region after India and Pakistan. Your President’s recent visit to Sri Lanka has pledged to push ahead with joint Tourism Marketing to promote both Sri Lanka and Maldives as one package. What are your views on this?

I would say that the President’s pledge – we definitely take it very seriously and we will be working to honour this pledge. Already, I believe, that the Tourism Ministry and the Tourism Promotion and Marketing Agencies have started looking at ways of implementing this concept and are working on it. The MMPRS and Matato, which is a private Company, carry out a lot of Tourism Promotion activities. As far as I know, the Sri Lankan Tourism Promotion Board also visited Maldives recently and I believe, they are working in collaboration with our Tourism Ministry. Last year, we also had a Meeting of the Sri Lanka – Maldives Joint Commission, i.e after a long break of 7 years. It is a positive outcome that a sub commission to work on Tourism promotion in both countries, emerged from it.

Many celebrities, like Film Stars, Singers, Entertainers, and Sports Personnel come regularly to spend their holidays in Maldives. Many people from the Middle Eastern Countries, Russia, China and some other countries come down in their own private jets, to enjoy Maldivian hospitality. Also Royalty from several countries opt to spend their leisure time in Maldives on a regular basis. I think for them and for many high paying clientele, the biggest attraction to come to our resorts is the Total Privacy. The paparazzi cannot follow them, unless they pay the same amounts, and once these Clients go to our resorts they don’t meet anybody except the staff there. And of course other guests i.e. of course if they want to interact with them. So it’s basically far from the maddening crowd. They don’t even hear the sound of a vehicle, as long as they are there. And of course, people come to Maldives to enjoy the natural beauty as well. The pure white sandy beaches, the sun, the crystal clear aquamarine waters, the safe lagoons and of course the amazing diving places on our reefs and beyond. I would say that Sri Lanka is an amazingly beautiful country too. You have the sun and the beaches and you can access different kinds of ecosystems within a short time and distance - Mountains, jungles, beaches, bird sanctuaries, lakes, rivers etc. In addition you have many historical sites and cultural experiences for people to go, see and admire. You can offer different types of packages here in Sri Lanka for people, who have different interests, which I believe is an advantage for you.

We only have the sun, sand and the sea. But I believe that the type of clients or at least some of them that come to the Maldives today may not want a package tour. What you offer here may not be what they are exactly looking for. If the information I have is right, this means that you cannot even privatize the beaches here, I mean the Hotels cannot have their own private beaches. So that means that you cannot offer the type of privacy that we can offer in Maldives with our “One Island One Hotel” Concept. Nevertheless, working together to come up with some form of feasible packages or deals may be beneficial to both countries.

The establishment of Diplomatic Relations between Sri Lanka and Maldives coincide with the date of independence of Maldives, in 1965, and Sri Lanka is one of the countries that maintained an Overseas Mission in the Maldives. Building on the historic foundation, friendly ties between the two countries should expand in areas such as education, tourism, fisheries, trade, health, investment and culture. What are your views in this regard?

I agree with you. We have a lot of room for further development of our relationship in all those areas that you have mentioned, especially our trade relations. Sri Lankan Government is also inviting foreign investments now and so is the Maldivian Government. There are quite a few people who are interested in coming and starting businesses here and vice versa. Many people come to me and ask about opportunities for investing here and we give them whatever information we can get. But you see, I am the last person who should be giving business advice to anybody. Anyway, what I am saying is that people from both our countries are interested and they want to find the right links or connections to start off businesses.

In the Health field, we have had a lot of cooperation. Sri Lanka has in the past, and even now is providing a great deal of assistance to Maldives. Our health sector needs major developments and that is one goal of the current government. In the last few years the health services deteriorated further because the then Government privatized the sector. A Health Cooperation was established and provision of all Health Services to all citizens became their responsibility. I personally think it was not a very good thing to do, as issues of affordability and accountability came up. Today again, they are trying to develop the Sector. Last year, even I went and met your then Health Minister – now of course he is your President, His Excellency Maithripala Sirisena. We met and requested for some Specialist Doctors from Sri Lanka. We do have some surgeons in Maldives, but at that time there was not a single Anesthetist in Maldives and we were unable to perform operations. And the Sri Lankan Government helped us. This Year, in January 5 Doctors were released to go and work in the Maldives for short term. We have also requested for training opportunities in various areas of the Health Field and the Sri Lankan government is helping us training Nurses even now. We have signed a MOU in Health Cooperation between our two countries and there are various health related areas where cooperation need be continued.

Looking back over the last 50 years we can talk about many areas of cooperation in the fields of both Education and Health. Sri Lanka has helped us a great deal in these sectors, especially in the past by providing skilled Human Resources and we wish to thank the Sri Lankan Governments and the Peoples for this help. I believe that today, thousands of Maldivians come to Sri Lanka for higher education and many others to seek Medical treatment and thereby, making a substantial contribution to the Sri Lankan economy as well.

Over the years, we have remained as good friends and good neighbours. Our people consider Sri Lanka as their second home. Today we have about 10,000 Maldivians residing in Sri Lanka, mostly for education and health purposes.

Finally, I want to say that up to now, we have managed to maintain a very close and friendly relationship between our two countries. And I hope that our ties will get stronger and our relationship will grow from strength to strength in the future.

Thank You.

(PS: This interview also appeared in yesterday's issue of Travellanka)

- Asian Tribune –

Maldivian High Commissioner Ms. Zahiya Zareer
diconary view
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