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Will Travel Save—or Destroy—the Maldives?

By  Lisa Abend

Jan 30, 2020

From the March/April 2020 issue

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Locals on the northern Maldives island of Villingili swim and play on one of the beaches that face the urban sprawl of Malé Island, located just over a mile away.

Photo by Thomas Prior

Locals on the northern Maldives island of Villingili swim and play on one of the beaches that face the urban sprawl of Malé Island, located just over a mile away.

Lisa Abend dives into a beautiful, confusing paradise that may be gone by the end of the century.

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It was about an hour before sunset when I walked to the ocean for one final swim. The edges of the sky were starting to tint in that Technicolor way I had come to associate with the Maldives. There was no one else on the beach, and for a moment all the human-engineered pleasures of the past few days—the seaplanes and speedboats, the plushly outfitted villa, the melting massage in a Himalayan salt chamber, the crisp sancerre at dinner—receded, and there was only nature at its most breathtaking. The cottony sand cushioned my feet; the palm trees glowed as if lit from within; the water glinted like some mad conquistador’s vision of pure turquoise. And just then, a plastic water bottle floated by.

It is fantasy that brings most visitors to the Maldives. On 115 of the country’s nearly 1,200 islands, Edenic nature and over-the-top luxury combine at resorts that provide a perfect, easily Instagrammed image of paradise, all sparkling infinity pools and coconut-scented herbal scrubs. But, of course, the Maldives is much more than a fantasy. A Muslim country that until recently subsisted almost entirely on fishing, the Maldives has close to  200 “local” islands where bikinis are banned, tuna is king, and the economy is, at best, developing. In many ways, the two Maldives remain separate: Tourists keep to the resorts and meet only the locals who work there. And yet there is a reality that unites them.

Twenty-three percent of the country’s gross domestic product comes directly from tourism—the largest sector by far—and that doesn’t include the transportation and construction that tourism has encouraged. If the country has risen out of poverty in the last couple of decades, it is in large part because of tourism. Yet the resorts, to say nothing of the carbon-spewing airplanes that bring visitors, contribute significantly to the environmental degradation to which the Maldives is so vulnerable. According to scientists, the country—both the tourist and the local parts—will largely disappear beneath the rising sea by the end of the century if global warming is not checked. In fact, the Maldives is already experiencing the soaring temperatures, coral bleaching, water shortages, and extreme weather that are hallmarks of climate change. 

So I wondered: What do these two Maldives see when they look at each other? Do the locals see in their well-heeled visitors the cause of the impending threat or a solution to it? Do the visitors see a place to escape their own reality, or do they recognize in the Maldives their not-too-distant future? Tourism will play a critical role in the fate of the Maldives. What will that role be? 

Malé is one of the few places where the Maldives’ two personalities overlap. Most visitors land at the airport there and are then whisked away on seaplanes headed to their resorts. But some spend the night, and though the city is admittedly short on traditional tourist sites—a grand mosque roofed in solar panels, a history museum, and a small market laden with silver-skinned fish and piles of breadfruit are about it—it is one of the most densely populated capitals in the world, and with high-rises, a university, and all-night restaurants, its buzzing energy is infectious. 

In 2016, coral bleaching caused by rising temperatures destroyed close to 70 percent of the Maldives’ reefs; an estimated 99 percent will die if temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius. 

I spent most of my time in Malé wandering the narrow streets, dodging motorbikes and balloon salesmen, and noting a surely disproportionate number of pharmacies. I had heard that some area residents were holding an information session on climate change at the U.S. government–sponsored American Center, so one evening I found myself seated in a room with 15 or so Maldivians, all of us surrounded by SAT prep books and posters bearing inspirational quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Steve Jobs. The group had gathered to discuss how best to convince their fellow Maldivians to take action on climate change. The problem, one woman began, is persuading them to care. “Many people don’t want to hear about it,” she said. “They just want development—the tall buildings and cars that they see in Malé. They think climate change isn’t going to happen to them.” The rest of the room seemed to agree. Thanzy Naeem, who organized the gathering, believes that if people are given solutions, they may be more willing to accept the problems. But even she admitted that in a survey her organization conducted a few years ago about how people view the likelihood of a climate disaster, one respondent wrote, “God would not do that to us.”

The day after the gathering, I met Shafiya Naeem (no relation to Thanzy) for quesadillas and coconut milkshakes at a Mexican-Italian restaurant. An aquatic pathologist and acting director general of the Maldives Marine Research Institute, she knows better than most how uniquely vulnerable the Maldives are. In 2016, coral bleaching caused by rising temperatures destroyed close to 70 percent of the Maldives’ reefs; an estimated 99 percent will die if temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius. “That will kill us,” Naeem said bluntly. “We don’t have oil, we don’t have coal, we’ve had challenges achieving large-scale agriculture. Our only natural resource is in the water.”

And yet, many Maldivian entities are pursuing the kinds of development that threaten the water and the reef even more. Developers reclaim sand from the bottom of lagoons, damaging the fragile reef ecosystem, to build artificial islands and expand existing ones, creating room for more housing, more beaches, and more resorts. Locals and resorts alike want more airports, which will only increase air travel. Meanwhile, Naeem and her colleagues at the Marine Research Institute urge the government to adopt a “passive” approach to coastal development, halting all reclamations in vulnerable areas during environmentally sensitive periods in order, as she put it, to “let nature do its stuff. The reefs that we have now are ones that survived the last bleaching in 2016, so we know they’re the most resistant.” 

The next day, I took an eight-minute ferry ride from Malé to the tiny island of Villingili. The streets were wide and mercifully quiet, canopied by trees and lined with bikes propped against brightly painted houses. A small grocery store named Happy Market was papered with handmade signs advertising chicken livers and cheese sticks, and on a broad, pretty beach, two older men napped in hammocks while another checked his phone. 

When I first met environmental activist Hassan Ahmed in a Malé coffee shop he had told me that the beach wasn’t always so lovely. Ahmed, known to locals by his nickname, Beybe, was among the first to move to Villingili when the government began developing the island in the late 1990s. His long dreadlocks that lighten to a sun-bleached caramel somewhere around his waist hint at the reason why: He’s a surfer, and the beach had big waves. It also had a lot of trash. 

Environmental activist Hassan Ahmed sits on a dock in Villingili harbor.

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 “For a long time, we didn’t really have rubbish in the Maldives,” Beybe explained. “We ate mostly fish and coconuts, and anything that was left over we’d throw back in the sea. When everything started coming in plastic, people kept throwing that in the sea too.” In Villingili, a popular picnic spot for people from Malé, it was piling up. So Beybe and some other environmentally minded residents formed an organization called Save the Beach Maldives and got together to clean the shore. On their first outing, in 2007, they collected three tons of trash.

Since its founding, Save the Beach Maldives has collected roughly 250 tons of trash on Villingili and other islands. The group has also started three coral nurseries, launched a citizen science program that trains divers to assess the reefs’ health, and collaborated with a locally run organization called Secret Paradise that brings local and tourist volunteers to cleanups. “We want people to come here and dive,” Beybe had told me. “Because then they see for themselves how fragile it is.”

The group’s most effective innovation may also be its simplest: distributing 40 trash bins on the beach that get emptied daily. The plastics deposited there are recycled into running shoes by a company called Parley, and the rest of the trash is collected, rather than cluttering the beach or ending up in some poor fish’s stomach. On the day I visited, the beach in Villingili was free of debris, and no one seemed to think it strange that I was taking pictures of the garbage can. I remembered what Beybe had told me: When Save the Beach Maldives’ efforts resulted in a 90 percent decrease in beach littering, he realized that people’s behavior could change.

They have to want to change it, though. Days later, I visited Hanimaadhoo, a local island in the north, and watched the fishing boats come back with the day’s catch. A few men unloaded heaps of yellowfin onto the floor of a harborside pavilion, then sharpened their knives and began methodically slicing their way through the pile, each flick of a blade freeing a tuna from its intestines. They told me they’ve been catching fewer fish than before—and that the tuna are smaller than they once were. But when I asked if they believed that their island was in danger of sinking, Maimon, 45, laughed. “They’ve been saying that for a long time,” he said, flicking fish guts toward the growing pile. “We’re still here, aren’t we?”

“For the moment,” I was tempted to respond. But, of course, he’s not saying anything that the rest of us don’t say, at least with our actions, every day. To get to that pavilion on the Hanimaadhoo harbor, I had flown thousands of miles from a part of the world where the industrialized consumer economy has done far more to create the crisis than Maimon and his fellow fishermen have. I bit my tongue. 

My next stop was Kulhudhuffushi, a larger northern island that had flooded badly enough a few months earlier that some families had to be evacuated. It was only after I arrived, however, that I fully understood why.

We reached a small clearing. Abdulla looked around with a beatific smile. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

When Adam Abdulla, an environmental activist who previously worked for the United Nations Development Programme, had offered to take me on a tour of his home island’s mangroves, I imagined we would walk along their edge or perhaps view them from a kayak. Instead, we stepped off the road, broke through a swath of prickly foliage, and waded straight in. The swampy water, disturbingly warm and so murky I couldn’t see my own feet a couple of inches below the surface, made me wonder if they have leeches in the Maldives, to say nothing of saltwater crocodiles. Abdulla, however, seemed unconcerned as he led us through the dense, mucky undergrowth that brought to mind every Vietnam War movie I have ever seen. We reached a small clearing. Abdulla looked around with a beatific smile. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

Mangroves are crucial to this local island’s ecosystem. They provide the habitat for fish and birds, serve as a buffer from sea surges, and protect against flooding by capturing and draining rainwater. So when the government announced plans to tear out a large swath of mangroves in order to build a small airport, Abdulla was alarmed. “They dangled the airport to get votes, promising it would bring tourism,” he told me. “But in the process, they were also destroying the nature that would attract tourists in the first place.” 

He and other activists held emergency meetings with the authorities and organized protests but to no avail. The mangroves were ripped out, and the airport, from which three flights to Malé leave each week, opened in August. By that time, the first repercussions had already been felt. In June, after just one day’s rain, the island flooded. “We didn’t want to say we told you so,” Abdulla recalled. “But . . . ” 

We met up with his friend and colleague Afa Hussain. After she finished high school, Hussain started an NGO called BeLeaf, which holds its own cleanups and environmental awareness sessions. In fact, she is something of a Maldivian Greta Thunberg, having faced a similar kind of harassment as the Swedish activist. “They would call us hippies, say we were too young to understand, accuse us of being anti-development,” she recalled.

The sun was going down, staining the sky pink and purple as Abdulla and Hussain walked me around the island. We came upon a group of four women, dressed all in black, seated in the shade of a country almond tree with heaps of reddish-brown fiber at their feet. They were making the coir rope for which this island is famous. These days, it’s mainly the resorts that buy it for decoration, but the rope still forms an important part of the women’s livelihood, and the mangroves are integral to the process. Each woman has “her” area in the mangrove swamp, where she soaks coconut husks for months until they’ve softened enough to pound them into fiber. Rolling a tuft through her palms, she painstakingly makes the rope by pulling the spun fibers through the crotch of a Y-shaped stick planted in front of her.

A woman on Kulhudhuffushi Island makes coir rope out of coconut husks.

When I asked the women, all in their late 40s and early 50s, if the climate had changed in their lifetime, they nodded yes. “It’s much hotter,” said Hawwa. “It used to be more pleasant.” “The weather is so unpredictable,” added Jameela. “It used to be that there was a clear dry season and a clear wet season. Now you can never tell from one day to the next.” Still, they are more resigned than anything. “I’m afraid for the future,” Sobira admitted. “But what can be done?” 

Abdulla and Hussain led me to the far side of the island, less than a mile away. There, along the beach, I could just make out in the fading light the hulking shapes of abandoned refrigerators and washing machines. Abdulla took me over to one, pulled aside a cloth, and shined a flashlight: Coconut husks floated inside. “When the women lost the mangroves to the airport, they started using these instead to soak the husks for their coir rope,” he explained. “They’re nothing if not resilient.”

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At this point in my travels, I had heard repeatedly about the ways that tourists unwittingly compete with locals for the Maldives’ limited resources—fish, drinking water, even the sand and palm trees themselves—and that resorts keep getting built. Some 20 more are scheduled to open in 2020. I had heard, again and again, about how important tourism is for the Maldives’ economy, but I had also learned that most of the resorts are foreign owned, and some of them employ few locals. I had seen how all that construction and all those exploited resources can damage the Maldives’ environment, and I had also heard how well-managed resorts can contribute to the country’s sustainability. It was time to confront the conundrum up close.

The seaplane landed in the ocean and docked next to a wooden platform where a private speedboat waited to take me to Kudadoo Maldives, which opened in 2018 and, in the Maldives’ ongoing race toward ever-increasing luxury, became one of the most exclusive resorts in the region. 

The main building of Kudadoo Maldives, which bills itself as one of the country

Kudadoo also bills itself as one of the Maldives’ most sustainable resorts. Its stunning main building, which houses the restaurant, spa, bar, and pool, was designed by architect Yuji Yamazaki so that it is cooled by crosswinds, and its roof is tiled with solar panels that, most of the time, fully power the resort. Its drinking water is desalinated on-site, the AC switches off automatically if guests leave a door open for more than a couple of minutes, and the toiletries are biodegradable. Like other resorts, it helps track mantas and sea turtles for scientific organizations.

I learned all this from Bahau, the resort manager, who, near the end of my stay, took me on a backstage tour. At one point, he opened a heavy metal door with a flourish and ushered me into the electrical room, where the solar batteries were at full capacity and the backup generators were silent. “Now,” he asked, “would you like to see the sewage treatment area?”

During my time at Kudadoo, I lived the fantasy. I lounged in my spacious over-ocean villa, which was outfitted with hand-printed robes, a set of pencils should I want to sketch the swoon-inducing views, and a gin and tonic bar that was separate from the well-stocked minibar that was separate from the even-better-stocked wine refrigerator. I watched the sun come up as I hung upside down in aerial yoga, spooned a mango smoothie from a bowl on a tray that floated in my personal infinity pool, and came home from yet another grueling spa treatment to find a bath filled with bubbles and hibiscus blossoms. I was stuffed at every turn with chocolates, champagne, caviar, and tropical fruit.

A floating breakfast at Kudadoo Maldives Private Island resort

Over sundowners one evening, I struck up a conversation with a couple from California who had clearly made their money—a lot of it—in tech. They told me that they’re concerned about the environment and chose this resort in part because of its sustainability credentials. He too had taken the backstage tour, and she told me how pleased she was to see the straws were bamboo, not plastic. But they also told me that they chose Kudadoo because of its cave filled with imported cheeses and its menu full of flown-in delicacies: Brittany oysters, wagyu beef, black truffles from Burgundy. It was enough to give a girl a good case of eco-schizophrenia.

On my final day in the Maldives, I went snorkeling. The previous afternoon, I had eaten lunch in an underwater restaurant at a neighboring resort and had found it magical, despite a mild existential crisis brought on when I recognized that we in the tank had switched roles with the creatures outside. (Worse still, the fish were watching while we ate . . . fish.) In the dining room’s glowing blue light, the showboaty damselfish and angelfish caught my attention first, but as the meal went on, the wallflowers came into fascinating focus. A giant clam coyly rippled its striated mantle; a patch of coral exposed, almost pornographically, its pink underbelly. 

But even those marvels hadn’t prepared me for what I found when actually immersed in the reef on a snorkeling trip: the doleful expression on the surgeonfish’s face, the massive manta ray winging silently through the water, the green turtle paddling determinedly out to sea, the trio of eagle rays floating by in fighter jet formation. At one point we were surrounded by a huge school of shimmering yellow-lined snapper utterly unconcerned by the humans in their midst.

It was so profoundly beautiful that I thought anyone who saw it must want to protect it, and when we were back on the boat, Rehan, the snorkeling instructor, told me he hears that a lot. “People who came here to dive 10 years ago come back and are devastated by how the reef has changed,” he said. “If you come back in five years, it will be changed again.”

“So what’s the solution?” I asked. “The Maldives needs development, but development harms the reef.”

“It’s true,” he said. “We have tourism and we have fish. And if we if lose the fish, we won’t have the tourism. What we need is development that isn’t just about making money. What we need is development that helps people become more resilient.”

Lynn Kessler, a project manager at the U.K.-based Manta Trust, swims to the surface after monitoring coral health near the Lhaviyani Atoll in the Maldives.

It was one more conundrum in a country full of them. As I traveled through the Maldives, I had heard about the pros and cons of luxury resorts. I had seen activists accused of undermining the country by fighting to protect the very things—sea, beaches, mangroves—for which it is renowned. I had met oblivious tourists annoyed to find that housekeepers had turned off the air-conditioning, and others who had chosen their resort in part because of its renewable energy program. I had wondered if all visitors should be required to spend some time in local island culture, in part to ensure that Maldivians themselves benefited directly from their presence, but also to remind travelers that the fantasy was just that.

I was still pondering the complications as I arrived back at Malé International Airport. Even the few days I had spent wrapped in Maldivian luxury made the international departures entrance a shock. There was no air conditioning, no hushed atmosphere of exclusivity, no helpful staff member in crisp linen whisking away my suitcase. My fellow travelers and I, drenched in sweat, dragged our baggage through the sticky heat to wait in long, irritating lines for a security check. Beyond, more lines—check-in, passport control, another security screening—and all the other discomforts of modern travel. I had more questions than I arrived with. But that word, resiliency, kept popping up, like the buoy Rehan brought with him as we snorkeled through the iridescent waters of the reef. It was the word the aquatic pathologist had used for the surviving reefs and the one that Adam Abdulla had used to describe the women of Kulhudhuffushi. And now, as I looked around at the crying babies and the bickering couples and all the other hot, restless travelers, the same word inspired in me a brief surge of optimism. For it was slow and tedious and at times utterly dispiriting, but we were all—tourists and locals—in it together.

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>>Plan your trip with AFAR’s Guide to The Maldives

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