From a young age, a ticket to a dream role in par­adise

When Ahmed Asim was a boy his ca­reer path had al­ready been laid out be­fore him

China Daily European Weekly - - Spotlight - By ZHAO XU

“My job is to make peo­ple feel at home, lit­er­ally, since this has been my home for the past 30 years,” says Ahmed Asim, room di­rec­tor of the St. Regis Vom­muli ho­tel in the Mal­dives.

Be­tween his generation and that of his par­ents, his coun­try has turned from a gath­er­ing of specks in the In­dian Ocean to one of the world’s best-known and most de­sired es­capes.

Yet for Asim, the no­tion of es­cape is vir­tu­ally nonex­is­tent, if not laugh­able.

“For me, this only pro­vides an ini­ti­a­tion to the out­side world as they are com­ing to us in planeloads.”

His en­try into this world came early, he says. When he was at pri­mary school, prop­erty own­ers in­vited him and his class­mates to tour the resort is­lands, where hu­man en­deavor tries to em­u­late nat­u­ral beauty in cre­at­ing par­adise on Earth — some­times with un­in­tended re­sults.

“‘Wow!’ was my re­ac­tion,” Asim re­calls, cast­ing an in­cred­u­lous look. “Then I told my­self: ‘Some­day I’m go­ing to work here.’”

The wide-eyed child has given way to a soft-spo­ken man with a con­fi­dent air, and in the mean­time he has gained a diploma in hos­pi­tal­ity and worked as a trainee but­ler and then as a but­ler for many years in a num­ber of ho­tels, some of them lux­ury ones. He joined the St. Regis at Vom­muli as room di­rec­tor in Oc­to­ber, when prepa­ra­tions were be­ing made for the ho­tel’s grand open­ing.

“Be­tween 50 and 60 per­cent of our 300-strong staff are Mal­di­vians,” Asim says. “Quite a few of us, in­clud­ing me, are in man­age­ment.”

Spend­ing the bulk of his time in air­con­di­tioned rooms or trav­el­ing in bug­gies from villa to villa, Asim’s life is a world apart from that of his par­ents, who have seven chil­dren in to­tal.

“Like most Mal­di­vian fam­i­lies of their generation, my fa­ther made a liv­ing out of fish­ing while my mother did house­hold chores. The sea around here is prob­a­bly the calmest on Earth. I’ve never heard of any­one who died out fish­ing in the sea. But still, the sun and the wind can be un­for­giv­ing; that’s why few young peo­ple are in­volved in fish­ing to­day.”

His fa­ther usu­ally left home about 5:30 am and fished for tuna all day be­fore re­turn­ing in the evening, he says.

“Ours was a small boat. There were also big­ger boats on which one can go out fish­ing in the sea for weeks at a time. But what­ever you go out in, small or big, fish­ing in the Mal­dives has to be by pole in­stead of by net. We do an­gling all the time. The fish nets are re­served only for the cap­ture of bait­fish — fish used as bait when an­gling.

“Our gov­ern­ment has been very ag­gres­sive when it comes to en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion. That’s why we still have what we had 20 or 30 years ago.”

Asked whether an­gling is a fi­nan­cially vi­able way of fish­ing, Asim says that on a good day, a good an­gler can catch up to 2,000 tuna. The fish tend to ap­pear in groups, and when you re­ally think about it, that kind of catch sug­gests the fish must be vir­tu­ally jump­ing onto the hook, if not di­rectly into the boat.

Th­ese days, though, fish­ing has de­creased com­pared with 20 years ago. Asim’s par­ents stopped fish­ing about 15 years ago and now live in Male, the coun­try’s cap­i­tal. The catch, apart from ful­fill­ing lo­cal needs, goes on to the din­ing tables of tourists.

At the St. Regis, amid of­fer­ings of caviar, lob­ster, truf­fle, foie gras and Kobe beef, I dis­cov­ered a course un­pre­ten­tiously ti­tled “Catch of the day”. I tried it and did not re­gret my de­ci­sion. Later, as I spent my last day in the Mal­dives at the Sher­a­ton on Full Moon Is­land, I en­coun­tered the same of­fer­ing and re­al­ized that it was a lo­cal sig­na­ture dish.

Ayy­oub Salameh, di­rec­tor of culi­nary ser­vice at the St. Regis, says the ho­tel buys 600 kilo­grams of fish each day from lo­cal fish­er­men for the con­sump­tion of guests and ho­tel staff. It also buys pro­duce from lo­cal farm­ers.

“I don’t think I’ll stay in the coun­try for life, so I’m go­ing to de­liver some­thing for it,” says the master cook, a Jor­da­nian, who is also cre­at­ing a gar­den for lo­cal spices and herbs.

Sim­i­lar will­ing­ness is also ex­pressed by Wong Chiu Man and his wife Maria Warner Wong, the ar­chi­tec­tural duo and Har­vard grad­u­ates who de­signed the St. Regis at Vom­muli.

“The Vom­muli House is in­spired by the ex­tend­ing roots of banyan trees,” Warner Wong says. “The parts were pre­fab­ri­cated and pre-en­gi­neered be­fore be­ing sent to Vom­muli for rapid erec­tion with the help of Mal­di­vian work­ers. In this way we have tried to be en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly while pass­ing on con­struc­tion skills to lo­cals.”

Once, the cou­ple was in­vited for a drink at a nearby is­land, only to dis­cover that the host­ess, a Mal­di­vian who had pre­vi­ously worked on the con­struc­tion site at Vom­muli, had fash­ioned her lit­tle bar us­ing dis­carded ply­wood she had gath­ered from the St. Regis site.

Wong Chiu Man, asked about any mis­giv­ings he has about the ho­tel’s de­sign, said that if he had his chance again he would pay greater heed to any risks such a project posed to the en­vi­ron­ment. “The con­struc­tion of the wa­ter vil­las did cause the bleach­ing of corals on a scale I hate to see.”

But as tourists pour in, won’t fur­ther stress be put on the coun­try’s un­spoiled beauty and frag­ile ecosys­tem?

“I don’t see that hap­pen­ing,” Asim says. “First of all, the Mal­dives is a high­end tourist des­ti­na­tion, as we cater to a niche mar­ket. This is es­pe­cially true in our case. For the mo­ment, the gov­ern­ment has adopted a very pos­i­tive at­ti­tude to­ward de­vel­op­ing tourism. A col­lege in Male of­fers a master’s de­gree in hos­pi­tal­ity and tourism.”

How­ever, he ac­knowl­edges that even though tourists started com­ing to the Mal­dives in the 1970s, it is only in the past five years that the coun­try’s tourism in­dus­try has re­ally taken off.

Asim, mar­ried with a two-and-a-hal­fyear-old son, sees dif­fer­ences in the ways child­hoods were spent be­fore and now.

“For me it was just the sun, sand and sea; for him it’s more about col­or­ful toys.”

Be­cause of Asim’s job, he can see his wife and son as of­ten as he would like to.

Fan Qianyi, a Chi­nese div­ing coach at Vom­muli, says this kind of fam­ily liv­ing ar­range­ment is com­mon among young Mal­di­vians.

“I’ve been here for four years but haven’t seen many Mal­di­vian women. Usu­ally men work out­side, on resort is­lands, while women and chil­dren stay be­hind, in what’s known as the lo­cal is­lands. It re­minds me of mi­grant work­ers in China — cer­tainly not the best so­lu­tion.”

Twenty years ago, when Asim first vis­ited a lux­ury ho­tel at a resort, he dreamed of be­ing part of what he saw. He has higher hopes for his son. “I won’t ob­ject if he wants to go into the tourism in­dus­try — my par­ents have been very en­cour­ag­ing and all my broth­ers work in cater­ing — but it would be great if he be­comes a doc­tor or a lawyer.”

For some Mal­di­vians, a sim­ple life, though hard, may have started to change along with their long-held sense of con­tent­ment.

But with all the build­ing and open­ing of lux­ury ho­tels, is there any talk about pos­si­ble gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, the ef­fect of which might be mit­i­gated by the ge­o­graph­i­cal iso­la­tion of each is­land?

“Such an idea has yet to come to the Mal­dives,” Asim says.

AHMED ASIM, room di­rec­tor of the St. Regis Vom­muli ho­tel in the Mal­dives

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