A blog for Guardian Environment about a green tourist tax being proposed by the Maldives’ new environment minister…
With the rain coming down and the crowd in boisterous mood waiting for their beloved Paul Weller to take to the stage, it took a very brave politician to step before the microphone and make a speech about rising sea levels and carbon neutrality.
But this is what Mohamed Aslam did on Friday night at the Eden Project in Cornwall. Following a short introduction by Tim Smit, Eden’s founder and permanent source of renewable energy, the 6,000-strong crowd greeted Aslam with warm applause. Any home-grown politician would have no doubt received a one-finger salute, but Aslam spoke with genuine authority and passion on the issue of climate change as he is the minister of environment (and housing and transport) in the Maldives, the Indian ocean island state that now lies at the “frontline”, as he describes it, of any future rise in sea levels.
(By contrast, Prince Charles was jeered when he addressed the crowd by pre-recorded video to talk about his Rainforests Project and, somewhat incongruously, to thank Paul Weller and Florence and the Machine for playing at the Green Britain Day event, which was being controversially sponsored by EDF Energy.)
Aslam, an oceanographer by training, told the crowd that his country – which not only has to confront climate change, but has also had to recover from the 2004 tsunami as well as last year’s volatile presidential elections – now seeks “partners” to help it become the world’s first carbon-neutral country.
Once Paul Weller had completed the last of his encores, I got the chance to speak to Aslam about why he had travelled all the way from the Maldives to address the crowd in person. (I didn’t remember to ask him what he made of the main act, but did see him at one stage tapping his toes to Eton Rifles.) He said:
The science is sorted and politicians around the world have been going on and on about tackling climate change, but nothing really is being done. Ordinary people must stand up to this. I would rather speak to a crowd here at Eden than to politicians at Copenhagen. We want to make our problems everyone’s problems. We need partners. We want to invest in green technology. As a frontline state, we want to demonstrate this technology works. If we perish we want to show that we were trying to do the right thing. But we don’t want to be beggars and we can’t tell our people they can’t have development. There are 196 inhabited islands which need power. We use marine diesel generators now, but we can easily replace them.
It’s not long before we are talking about the subject of tourism and that fact that 60% of the Maldives’ economy is reliant on a wealthy few jetting in from thousands of miles away to spend two weeks in paradise. It’s a paradox that Aslam is ready to admit and one that his government is keen to address before the climate talks in Copenhagen at the end of the year.
“We will continue with tourism,” he said. “We have to. It will hurt us a lot to lose them. But we now want to reach out to tourists who visit the Maldives. They must help us go carbon neutral. A green levy for tourists is now being discussed by the new government ahead of Copenhagen.”
Aslam wouldn’t go into specifics about exactly how much tourists would be expected to pay – the cabinet is to discuss the idea shortly, he said – but he did say the revenue raised would be ring-fenced and only used to develop sources of renewable energy. Such a move would be both risky and controversial, though.
“Green” tourism taxes have been tried before, but were met with fierce resistance by tour operators and hotel owners who fear that the taxes drive potential custom away. In 2003, the Balearic Islands abandoned a modest “€1 per day per person” green tourism tax after just a year in operation, and when the New Zealand tourism minister mooted a similar idea last year it provoked an immediate industry backlash. However, the Maldives’ new government has already pledged to redirect some of the revenue it generates via tourism into buying a new homeland – possibly in Sri Lanka or India – for the time when its 300,000 islanders are finally forced to flee their homes and become environmental refugees.
It is rare to meet a politician who has such a genuine sense of urgency and priority when it comes to climate change. As he says, his frontline status demands it. But what, I asked him, is it like to live with the realities of climate change – sea level rises, coral bleaching, etc – so close at hand?
“It’s like a terminal disease for us,” he said. “It’s in our people’s minds all the time, but they also have to get on with their day-to-day lives. They also have to worry about reliable power, fresh water and sewage.”