Reporting by Raini Hamdi and Feizal Samath
The Maldives President’s Office has ordered the newly-opened Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi to remove life-size human-form sculptures that form an underwater art installation at the resort, citing “significant public sentiment” they constitute idol-worship.
The nearly 30 sculptures were created by renowned British environmental sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor for the resort’s Sculpture Coralarium which – aside from the unique value as being the world’s first semi-submerged underwater art gallery – is intentioned by the artist and the Accor hotel as a deeper dive into the connection between man and the environment. It is also a coral regeneration project that sees art & design aiding coral rehabilitation.
“Our marine environment is really changing rapidly and there is really a need to start to protect it…the overall aim of this work is to sort of connect visitors to the sea, and to kind of open up a portal to this incredible world which is still very little understood,” said the artist in a short video that’s part of a press kit given to TTG Asia by the resort during an interview at ILTM Asia Pacific in Singapore in May.
But Islam, the official religion of the Maldives, prohibits the creation of images of sentient beings, and this latest incident once again reflects the uneasy co-existence that may arise between religion & culture and travel & tourism.
That said, industry members interviewed largely believe this order was politically motivated, i.e. the government is playing to religious sentiments in light of presidential elections next month.
Many are baffled, as a project such as this, weighing over 200 tonnes in all, would not be installed had it not have received a series of approvals from the authorities, they said.
Said Hussain Sunny Umar, CEO of Maldives Getaways: “Religious issues have been surfacing recently as we are moving towards the election period (September 23). Sections of the public have taken the underwater museum phenomenon to social media using an absurd comparison relating it to mannequins in clothing stores and selling alcohol and pork in resorts.
“Although certain rules are black and white – for instance, selling alcohol and pork are haram (forbidden) by law in the Maldives – it is available on resort islands throughout the history of tourism.
“I truly believe Fairmont would have taken the necessary approvals from the required institutions and it’s sad to see this unfortunate event has cost them dearly.”
Said a local hotelier on the condition of anonymity: “This is due to a religious uproar and because elections are in September, the government is playing to religious sentiments. If the claim is that it is sensitive to Islam and that idol-worship is not permitted, then why are resorts selling alcohol and pork, which are banned in Islam? Also, people are not supposed to live together unless they are married, according to Islam, but this is permitted in resorts, whether it is locals or foreigners is immaterial.
“This will be negative to the country as Fairmont has spent a lot on its investment on this world’s first undersea museum.”
It is however unclear if the installation has been or is being removed. TTG Asia understands the owner of the hotel, and even the tourism ministry, are “checking the facts”.
Accor has declined comment “until we know more about the situation”. At present, however, the Sculpture Coralarium does not appear anywhere on the hotel, Fairmont or Accor websites, or the artist’s website.
The President’s Office on July 27 issued a statement that it had consulted with the tourism ministry and asked the ministry to facilitate the removal by July 28. It added the ministry was working with the resort management on the removal from the lagoon of the resort island.
Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi opened in April, while the Sculpture Coralarium was launched in May. “As the location for the Maldives’ first underwater art installation we hope to raise awareness that encourages long-term reef protection and sustainable tourism,” its general manager, Denis Dupart, said in May.
The semi-submerged building is cube-shaped, six metres tall and reached through guided tours led by the resort’s resident marine biologists several times a day. The design of the walls is based on natural coral structures and is porous to allow the tides, current and marine life to pass through it and the structure to “breathe” within its location, the artist described.
“The complex structural formation is designed to dissipate oceanic forces while creating a protective space that encourages nature to colonise and seek refuge. The construction, using high grade, polished, marine stainless steel aims to reflect and mirror the surrounding blues of the coral atoll and the sky above. A mirage on the horizon, that over time will take on the patina of the sea as it becomes colonised by algae and weathers within the environment,” he said.
“It is an immense challenge, and the first time a building like this design has ever been attempted,” said deCaires Taylor who felt a great responsibility to produce something that is worthwhile and meaningful for such a spectacular environment as the Maldives.
The race to provide visitors with unique experiences continues in the Maldives, where overwater accommodations and six-star villas are no longer differentiators.
Aside from the Sculpture Coralarium, Conrad Maldives Rangali is now taking bookings for its US$15 million undersea residence, believed to be the world’s first, for stays starting in November. The villa can accommodate nine guests.
In March, Jumeirah Vittaveli inaugurated the first ice rink in the Maldives with a celebrity performance by Russian Olympic Gold medallist Evgeni Plushenko. The resort said the country’s first ice skating rink was manufactured using Glice, a novel material from Switzerland that allows for eco-friendly ice rinks, eliminating the need to keep the ice rink cold.
“This enables guests to experience a world-first at Jumeirah Vittaveli when they go for a swim in the crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean, followed by a quick stroll across the beach to put on their ice skates and glide along the picturesque backdrop of a tropical winter wonderland,” it said.