THE EQUATOR ZONE
Two weeks after Mehdi had the discussion with President Capricorn, three important government posts changed to an order of the high command. Mr Mohamed Faizal replaced the Tourism Minister. Two other faces replaced atoll chiefs of Addu and Fua Mulak.
One month later, on 11th November, President Capricorn declared the Equator Zone open for freehold tourism south of 0° latitude, in his Republic Day speech. He claimed it was an important step towards democracy and duly did. He pledged that the airport in Gan Island would be open for international flights. He said that the banks could part loans to private sector to open service outlets; restaurants, bars, spas, shops, laundries, taxi centres, sports clubs, excursion services, rentals, travel agencies, supply departments, diving centres, including sale of liquor in permitted areas under license. He even flexed a muscle to allow foreign investments to expand and disbanding former ideas of holding tourism within the exclusive class of exotic resorts previously secured through direct negotiations with world famous groups and hotel chains.
The Matadors and several international sources knew it was a gamble to win support of the southerners. However, there was no room to argue since it was the right move intelligently applied. The Matadors promptly decided to support this new plan. With encouragement from western countries the Matadors turned to facilitate investments to the open market. The rich Addu people were not easy to turn in. It occurred 70% of the Addu public were enthusiastic to make deals and seek capital to construct hotels, motels and services in their garden villas, large backyards that appear abundantly beautiful with tropical undergrowth. The Capricorn Government had efficiently put in place such means to finance them before the bargain began and even raised a 60% salary increment for the servicemen from another huge loan obtained from Kuwait.
Prior to the introduction of the Equator Zone, wealthy Addu businessmen egoistically sat back like lame ducks, hating the government but saying nothing because they own the resorts in the Maldives. These rich people never spent a dime to build their own homeland of Addu. An atoll full of resources and conditions most favourable for commercial venture remained a deserted ring of stunning coral islands and empty space since the British left in 1976. Now they faced the real challenge. They owned long-vacated houses, property, assets, land and money. If they failed to act now they would hardly share a portion of tourism wealth in Addu Atoll because freestyle tourism was indeed challenging; an ordinary person could sweep a hotel front or wash clothes and make money. A woman could run a massage parlour or treat a client on the beach and make money. The people would benefit from entrepreneurship. Thus the wealthy rushed to invest in their forgotten homeland. Some of them had never seen Addu for the last three decades.
The Equator Zone would also bid out ten luxury hotels along the reef between Gan Island and Hithadu. Formerly, five were leased though no hotels came up. Thereby every year its plan was to spread luxury hotels along the coast of the inhabited and uninhabited islands after reclaiming the lagoon.
Capricorn applied an additional manoeuvre to establish a tourism police in the region. He transferred the military in police uniform to strengthen a force with outposts on the highway from Gan Island to Hithadu in order to control host and guest conduct, rocketing high drug abuses, sex and crime, illegal trade and offenders. Mehdi obtained finance from Estado Mello to support logistics for the forces.
Fua Mulak islanders supported the new plan. Previously it was planned to construct one luxury hotel monopolising tourism in Fua Mulak; a nine-thousand strong population expected to make an income from shopping interactions alone. Either Capricorn fear of deviation from religion or his craving to commission business for his own interest, this government usually maintained a control strategy.
Fua Mulak MP asked, “Will it serve the entire population of 9,000 with one luxury hotel of 200 beds built on the agricultural ground used by the islanders and blocking the famous beach from its public and the owner of the facility hires Bangladeshi employees?”
Former Tourism Minister said, “Yes,” answering the parliamentary session and that was it.
A tax was applied to all businesses dealing with tourism in this new zone. The government hired an international auditing firm to study in one year how all other businesses including agriculture could be taxed in the Equator Zone. Every business to deal with tourism got to be registered in this new zone and otherwise the government bore authority to close down any business. Capricorn also decided not to risk by applying strict tax policies in his run for election.
Some 30% of the public saw the Equator Zone would colonise their homes by foreigners and deviate the people from religion and culture. Foreign employees would multiply and worse of the fear that Bangladeshis and regional Asians would influx. They firmly opposed the scheme. While Capricorn gained 70% of the support, the Matadors failed to win the remaining and instead the Dogs took over. It strengthened Capricorn’s position as the Matadors dropped in popularity though the Dogs pushed up slightly.
In three months a well-equipped airport in Gan was speedily converted to Gan International Airport. It required airworthiness certification, insurances, human resources and international licenses from ICAO, IATA and other organisations. Navigational equipment, ATC radars and computers installed were more sophisticated with a brand new convoy of ground handling equipment because this was actually a plan undertaken five years ago and only a decision waited to push the former RAF airport in operation for international flights.
In three months, Addu people and southerners moved back home from Malé because job opportunities suddenly increased. Land owners in Malé experienced prices go down, streets lessened traffic, demand fall of lodges. Low electricity consumption, no peak hours and consequently prices dropped of commodities. Moreover, northerners made a move to the Equator Zone to start new business.
For Addu islanders, they looked for a day to call dollar their currency. During the British era when Addu was an RAF base, islanders never used Maldivian currency – their currency was sterling pounds. That was how they acquired the wealth and when the British were gone, Addu islanders left to Malé, bought houses and started businesses from their riches. Most vacated their houses and left to rot.
Plainly it required no big deal or a billion dollar contract from the western world, nor a fund from IMF but the islanders managed to open the Equator Zone on their own money and sweat. Addu Atoll with a 25,000 strong population got an educated people, hospitals and secondary schools, other service centres and institutes, instantly providing resources and labour. In its physical characteristic, Addu Reef connected some 17 kilometres from Gan to Hithadu, empty spaces of beaches stretch along the coasts and numerous outlying reefs, tropical beauty and mangroves. Excellent diving spots and reefs located in the inlet sea and great waves for the surfers on the outlying barrier reef, the area rich for fishing. Fua Mulak situated in the middle of Addu Channel; 4.4 km long with two large mangroves, strong waves hitting the island bounds all the time.
In six months time, western tourists poured in summer clothes to walk on sand-filled roads, for total relaxation under the lush green tropical trees, swim in turquoise lagoons and watch the white fairy terns and the stars to the naked eye. Schedule flights and charters flew directly to Gan International Airport from all over Europe and Asia.
President Capricorn awarded Mehdi with three estates outside the bid zone. He acquired plots in Kào Herà, Herétheré and Gan Island owing for investment he covered to kick start the operation in the Equator Zone. Mehdi’s investments covered land surveys, aviation fees, insurance, tax initiatives and audit study, etc. A branch office of Faruman Riyal Company was established in the heart of Hithadu lending money to private enterprises.
Gerardo Mello visited the Maldives for the first time in February 2008 to inspect the estates to pilot the projects of hotels construction. He promptly decided to go for the bids as well because the estates were located in three different areas and one disconnected by two sea channels. The island of Herétheré was lying on the south of Meedu Island; the island of Villingili between Meedu Reef and Gan Island enclosed two sea channels on either side. The island of Villingili was leased to an international hotel chain prior to the introduction of the new zone. He was pleased with the location of Kào Herà on the northern tip of Hithadu; the most beautiful area in Addu far off from the hotel range that would appear along the shores of Hithadu, Herékendé, Maradu, Fèydu and Gan – chain of key islands in Hithadu Reef.
Mehdi brought his flights and did three other major transfer companies in the country. The President wanted Fua Mulak Island to have a domestic airport and Gerardo appealed to finance the project too. However, the President wished to make it a state-owned business and with this plan of the Equator Zone several western countries and companies approached with interest. The airport was awarded to Denmark scaling its history of contribution in the country’s development. Japan took over transport and communication, building roads and piers. Germany acquired bid for installation of water systems and power generation.
Gerardo Mello flew to Brazil insisting Mehdi to send a group of job-seekers to train in Brazil before his hotels open. Hythem Wasym was one of the lucky ones awarded with a scholarship. He was seventeen years old when he left for Brazil to study a foreign language and to do a cooking course.
In August 2008, Mehdi introduced Brazil made Marko amphibious cars. They looked like big SUVs with luxury cabin interior, in-built toilet, kitchen, GPS, radar and satellite navigation, front wheel turbo engine drive on land and water jet drive in water, no propeller, an auto-lift top of the rear hood converts the craft to serve a fishing deck. Driven by both ethanol and diesel fuel, a Marko SUV could cover 500 km at 30 kph and reach a maximum speed of 120 kph, sufficient for roving within atolls and ideal to cross open seas and run aground on wheels. Mehdi imported five cars in the first shipment, sold before unloaded. While Hybrid cars turned up with no sale at all, more expensive Marko cars were high on demand. He ordered a shipment of twenty cars.
No bank, no private company, no organisation showed interest in social welfare. All funding and loans were paid for the construction of the tourism industry. Hence, charity groups tried to fill in the gaps offering funds for schools, hospitals, mosques, stadiums and recreational centres. Faith based organisations brought disturbing matters and political parties like the Dogs denounced their actions condemning the government for allotting an Equator Zone with mismanaged foreign investments. Nothing did go smoothly. Demonstrations sprung sporadically, people trying to stop work at the construction sites. Hostility continued in confrontations with the police trying to protect the business interests, prevent chaos and bring law and order.
Mr White, the leader of the charity foundation, Fellows of Maldives, arrived at Addu in July 2008 on a charter flight direct from London. He tried to educate the local audience on how to overcharge riot police and ways to infiltrate them. The authorities took charge and deported him. This rose to question about Capricorn’s democratic reform plan in breach from time to time and not genuine. Relationship with the EU levelled in tension while election turned up in October. Nonetheless, one such organisation, the Southern Cross, believed to be of a local enterprise was permitted to build a hospital in Fua Mulak.
The Matadors acquiring support from the EU countries, mainly Britain, did extremely well in funding private businesses and city hotels in the region. Most of the bids on luxury hotels were approached by European countries and undeniably only Europe could still bring in tourists. Therefore, the hotels and the airlines would belong to Europe no matter how Mehdi wished it to be.
On Gerardo’s second visit in August 2008, he impressed the President by a new plan; construction of a freight train that travels underwater and something that never exists anywhere in the world. The submarine train was given a name, the Equator Cross, and a huge belly train to serve for freight and ferry with passengers onboard, would take off from Gan Island on a railway track connected to Meedu Reef built underwater. Somewhere on the track it would dip and dive, therefore after closing its doors with cargo and passengers it turned into a submarine. The ‘subtrain’ would be designed for buoyancy to reduce weight on the track. On emergency, its buoyancy would allow the vessel to float over water after releasing its clutch wheels. The plan was to drive it on magnetic power underwater with a leak-proof charge casing its body. The subtrain would serve commuters from Meedu and Huludu to cross to Gan and the chain of hotels on Hithadu Reef for work on a daily basis and in their cars or on cycles. It would also transfer tourists to Herétheré and the cost would become cheaper than operating flights. Construction of a subtrain and laying down a submarine track-way was an extraordinary cost and nothing Maldivian Government could undertake. But it was essential just for the sake to show the world that the Maldives had arrived at world stage; as former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamed, did in Malaysia with the Patronas Towers.
Gerardo in return asked for 60 years of Equator Cross submarine-way guaranteed for operation in the hands of Faruman Riyal Company and he was blessed with it mainly because once the project was proven for flawless operation, the second project would connect Malé to Hulumalé – the dream of President Capricorn.
Gerardo Mello called it ‘Equator Cross’ with a dream to connect the underwater train from Addu Atoll to Fua Mulak Island and conclusively to the Suvadives in perceivable time. And only a connection from Fua Mulak to the Suvadives would allow crossing the equator every time it passed the Equatorial Channel.
For deep seas of hundreds of metres in depth, there was no easy way to build bridges or underwater tunnels particularly when the islands lacked space and height to hold a single structure of bridge foundation. However, a suspension bridge or cable sunk underwater with similar mechanism applied on overhanging bridges between land masses of viable heights, it could be done. To connect low-lying islands across deep sea, the bridge or cable would hang deep in water as if the islands were mountains. Now the question was whether it should be a bridge or a track or a cable that serve best for a vessel in shuttle to the Suvadives. Citing a cost-effective cable method, this cutting-edge subtrain was predesigned to arm for the cable if need be to cross the ocean.
In the 17th century, Napoleon fantasized several ways to connect England and France. One of his theories was a submarine railway. Finally, the Channel Tunnel was completed in 1994. Gerardo borrowed his idea from Sugar Loaf Cable Car and Rio-Niterói Bridge in Brazil.
A second importance for Gerardo was that he could acquire a billion dollar project from the Maldives where he planned every module to be manufactured in Brazil and steelworks of the underwater track assigned to Suresh Brothers & Co.
President Capricorn approved this project with such authority to carry out surveys on oceanography, topography, currents, technology, financial side and etc. He even won majority support in the Parliament for the project being attractive. It also collided with the election and the Dogs were beaten.