COLOMBO (Reuters) - Luxury spas in the Maldives archipelago along with massage parlors in places like the capital Male must close, the government ordered on Saturday, bowing to pressure from opposition parties in a move that may imperil the mainstay tourism sector.
Pristine white sand beaches and turquoise waters attract honeymooners and celebrities from around the world to the Indian Ocean nation, pumping in $1.5 billion to the economy, or 30 percent of GDP, annually by travelers willing to spend as much as $1,000 a night at hideaway resorts.
The country's president issued the decree, saying the idea came from opposition parties who claimed widespread sales of pork and alcohol in the mainly Sunni Muslim nation of more than 1,200 atolls housing a population of 400,000 were offensive.
"The government has decided to close massage parlors and spas in the Maldives, following an opposition-led religious protest last week calling for their closure," President Mohamed Nasheed's office said in a statement.
"Ironically, the same opposition leaders who railed against spas and the selling of alcohol and pork to tourists are some of the country's biggest resort owners."
However, former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's opposition coalition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) said the government move was aimed at leisure business owned by some opposition members.
"We never asked for the ban," PPM spokesman Ahamed Mahloof told Reuters.
"We wanted the liquor and massage clinics banned in inhabited islands to prevent prostitution and spread of drugs and alcohol to locals. Nasheed is misusing the demands to take revenge by imposing the ban on resorts owned by the opposition members."
The Four Seasons Resort at Kuda Huras in the Maldives charges $600 for a two-and-a-half hour spa treatment, according to the resort's website. Other resorts also charge similar amounts.
The country's tourism minister said the move has already prompted calls from resorts affected.
"Several have raised concerns over our decision. We are considering allowing resorts to operate spas. They are also aware of the reasons that led us to take the decision," Tourism Minister Mariyam Zulfa was quoted as saying on the local Haveeru News Service.
$1 = 15.4 Maldives rufiyaa
Reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Ed Lane