The islands of the Maldives, a South Asian nation in the Indian Ocean, are among the world’s many locales threatened by climate change: By some estimates, in 100 years, most of the low-lying country might be underwater due to rising sea levels. For AFAR’s March/April 2020 issue, contributing writer Lisa Abend considers the cost of maintaining paradise—and how the travel industry may be able to help. As it turns out, there are a few ways conscientious travelers can be a part of the solution.
Do your research
There are more than 150 resorts in the Maldives—17 of which opened just in 2019—and another 115 in development. To narrow it down responsibly, start by doing a little digging. “There are things you can find out just from their website,” says Susanne Becken, a professor of sustainable tourism at Australia’s Griffith University. “Do you see solar panels in their photos? Do they have a bottling plant on the island so they don’t have to use plastic? Do they work with the local community on conservation projects?” In the southern Maldives, Six Senses Laamu not only reduces water consumption with low-flow fixtures in all its faucets and gray-water recycling for landscaping but also distributes reverse-osmosis filters to schools and households in the Laamu Atoll, which bring clean water to locals without having to package it in plastic.
But don’t trust everything you read
“Greenwashing” is rampant in the hotel world, and while it’s great for a resort to do away with plastic straws, the impact is negligible if all the water still comes in plastic bottles. Instead, look for evidence of substantive initiatives, like Kudadoo Maldives resort’s near-complete reliance on solar or Banyan Tree’s facility that captures and purifies rainwater for drinking. Professor Becken says that “there is no universally accepted, robust sustainability certification,” but EarthCheck, an organization that works with travel and tourism businesses to improve sustainability and has its own certification program, is reliable.
The lease of islands to resorts is the government’s single biggest source of income, and tourism has contributed significantly to the Maldives’ economic development. Some high-end resorts also lead sustainability efforts. But luxury resorts can pack a heavy carbon punch, given the fossil fuels that drive the golf carts and cool the villas, the delicacies flown in from around the world to feed Western palates, and the trash created: Resort guests produce on average 7.7 pounds of trash a day, more than twice as much as Malé residents, and more than four times as much as Maldivians on other islands. It may be kinder on the environment, notes Gregory Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel, to choose local guesthouses. Accommodations at places such as Cerulean View Residence in Hanimaadhoo or Carnival in Kulhudhuffushi are simple, but what they lack in indulgences they make up for in access to Maldivian culture and a lighter carbon footprint. And unlike lodging in the resorts, which tend to be owned by foreign corporations, “staying in a guesthouse means a greater percentage of your expenditure is going directly into the local economy,” Miller says. An organization such as Secret Paradise, which arranges trips to local islands and employs local guides, can be a good place to start.
There’s no getting around the environmental damage of that plane ride: According to one emissions calculator, a traveler on a round-trip flight from New York to Malé will expend 3.9 metric tons of carbon, the same as 90 barrels of oil. To mitigate the impact, consider purchasing offsets through a nonprofit organization such as Gold Standard. On the ground, some resorts, like Lux, are carbon neutral. Soneva Fushi resort goes even further: It includes not only directly and indirectly produced emissions in its carbon assessment but also those racked up by guest travel, and it charges an offset fee that goes to social projects around the world.