Part of a trip that brought me to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Palau, the Philippines and the Solomon Islands before being cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic in Fiji.
– visited February 2020 –
Writing about the Maldives is writing a tale of two countries. One is the Maldives of the tourists, where people lounge on the beach in revealing (western) swimwear, drink alcohol and eat pork. The other is the Maldives of the Maldivians, where people go to the beach and into the sea fully dressed, where alcohol and pork are forbidden and frowned upon. For decades, these two countries coexisted with only limited contact and only a few employees of the tourist resort would straddle the line. Since 2009, the two worlds have started to mix.
The Republic of the Maldives is a country with a unique geography. 26 atolls are grouped in a double chain that stretches 871 kilometres from north to south. The atolls are composed of live coral reefs and sand bars situated atop a submarine ridge that rises abruptly from the depths of the Indian Ocean. Whereas atolls in other regions of the world are often very narrow but long stretches of continuous land, in the Maldives the atolls are usually broken up into isolated islands.
It is one of the world’s most dispersed countries, the territory of the Maldives is spread over roughly 90,000 square kilometres but only 298 square kilometres out of that is dry land (0,33%). You could take all the islands of the Maldives, put them into Germany’s biggest lake (Lake Constance, 536 km²) and there would still be plenty of space for everybody to swim around. The more I think about this idea, the more I like it. If you would put them into Russia’s Lake Baikal (31,722 km²) they would cover less than one percent of the lake’s surface and in Lake Michigan only about 0.5 percent.
The country has about 1,190 coral islands of whom about 200 are inhabited. If we only count the inhabited islands, we realize that the average island has a territory of less than 1.5 square kilometres. In fact, most of the islands are significantly smaller. Of the islands I visited, Dhiffushi is only about 950 metres long and 200 metres wide (0.19 km²), Himmafushi clocks in at a whopping 0.68 km², Felidhoo with its 0.2 km² is considered the biggest of Vavuu Atoll’s seven islands and Maafushi, the epicentre of independent tourism in the Maldives packs all its punch into 1,275 metres of length and 260 metres of width (0.33 km²). The capital Malé sits on a whopping 1,95 km².
It is often considered the lowest country in the world; the highest natural elevation is at 5.1 metres on the resort island of Villingili (at tee number eight on the golf course) and the average is only 1.5 metres above see level. Again, an average is an average and more than 80 per cent of the country’s land rises less than one metre above sea level. Wikipedia has a list of Maldivian islands that includes so-called “disappeared islands” meaning islands “which during recorded history, have been completely eroded away, claimed by the sea due to the sea-level rise or [have been] assimilated by other islands. Some of these islands were previously inhabited and have been important in the history of the country”. The tsunami after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake cost the Maldives six islands. As I hurry to the ferry in an early-Dhiffushi-morning, I find that the nightly waves have washed onto the land, nearly reaching the village square. The UN’s environmental panel has warned that, at current rates, sea level rise would be high enough to make the Maldives uninhabitable by 2100.
I ask one of my hosts about the threat. With the wisdom and arrogance of old age he dismisses the danger. “My friend, when I was young, if you would lie on the street outside and you would look to the sea you would actually notice that the land was lower than the sea. I always say a house that you do not take care of will fall.” The situation he described from his youth was clearly impossible and could only be imagined if a wall of glass would stop the water from doing what nature would otherwise force it to do, run onto and cover the land that is lower than the level of the sea. But still he has a point, on all islands I visited, I found human activity with the aim of stopping erosion to protect the island or even projects to enlarge the island. These enlargements are done at a considerably higher level than the natural parts of the island, providing a safer island but also robbing the islands of their charm.
I left the Maldives with another impression as equally threatened countries like the Marshall Islands or Kiribati. There, I got the impression that people felt helpless. The sea was there, the sea would come, the sea would take and the places they call home would be no more. People would be sad, full of desperation but had to accept their fate. In the Maldives, the impression was that people would fight. If the sea rises, we will rise as well. Stone walls will be built, sand is plentiful. Our homes are threatened but we will protect them and they will stay our homes. I just fear that at some point, the rise of the sea will be too quick to be effectively fought, you can raise an island, but can you also raise the reefs protecting these islands?
Compared to the Marshall Islands and especially Kiribati, the Maldives have the means to mitigate rising sea levels. At 15,308 US$ its GDP per capita (PPP, 2018 numbers) is nearly four times higher than the Marshall Islands (3,989$) and nearly six times higher than Kiribati (2,294$). The Maldives can afford to import the stones to build their protective walls with (none can be found at home).
With about 375,000 inhabitants, the population density is 1,258 people per square kilometre. Worldwide, this brings the Maldives on rank number five with only Malta, Bahrain, Singapore and Monaco having a higher population density. Don’t expect unspoilt nature on the inhabited islands, expect it the moment your gaze reaches across the open sea, or when your eyes reach underwater.
The Maldives became independent (from being a British protectorate) in 1965, becoming a republic three years later the 1970s were marked by political instability. Still, one of the most consequential events happened in 1972 with the opening of the Kurumba Maldives Resort. The concept was simple, the resort was located on its own island a short boat ride from the airport. Tourist would fly in, be taken to the resort straight away and could then have a happy holiday and could engage in as much scandalous behaviour like bathing near-naked (swimsuits on of course, that is scandalous enough), drinking alcohol, eating pork or being on holiday together without being married. They would see some Maldivian staff but otherwise be far removed from anything Maldivian. People loved the concept, the beautiful beaches, the underwater world. More and more resorts opened and the concept remained the same. There were inhabited islands with real Maldivians and there were resort islands with foreign tourists and a lot of foreign staff. The Maldives became known for upmarket holidays. Depending on the price of the resort and the distance from the airport, the tourists would take a speedboat or a waterplane to get to their destination. They might take a cultural tour with a guide showing them around one of the inhabited islands but besides that, they would stay at their resort. Staying overnight on an inhabited island was forbidden. Maldivians not working there could not go to any of the resort islands. Over the decades, tourism became the most important pillar of the Maldivian economy, visitor numbers have reached 1.7 million (2019) and tourism accounts directly and indirectly for two-thirds of the country’s GDP.
In 1978, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom became President of the Republic and ushered in a period of relative politic stability. He would stay in power for 30 years and as so often political stability led to political fossilisation. A few people held political power, a few people got rich from resort deals and the rest had to get on with their lives somehow. Discontent grew and that led to sometimes-violent protest in 2003, 2004 and 2005. In response, independent political parties were established and a new constitution in 2008 prepared the country’s first multi-party presidential election that was won by opposition candidate Mohamed Nasheed. He embarked on a programme of reform, allowing foreigners to overnight on inhabited islands, instituted a national ferry network that would link every inhabited island to at least one other inhabited island and warned about climate change. In 2009, he held a famous underwater cabinet meeting to show the world the danger his country was facing.
Nasheed’s presidency ended in 2012 with his resignation in disputed circumstances (at gunpoint or not at gunpoint is the question) and his eventual imprisonment. Two elections later he is back in the game as the speaker of the Parliament and the Maldives hopefully looking at a more stable democratic future. For tourism, his presidency had great significance, his reforms opened the country for independent travellers and this is exactly the way I want to explore the Maldives. For reasons of costs and simplicity, I focus on the islands that can be reached by boat within a few hours from Malé. On my next visit (whenever that may be) I will have to venture out further.
To get to Dhiffushi, I could take a speedboat straight from the airport for about 60$ or I can take the local ferry from the airport to Malé, walk through town to the public ferry port (have lunch on the way) and take the local boat to my destination. That costs me three dollars, takes a lot longer but gives me a much better experience. That boat ride is something I would recommend everybody traveling to the Maldives to take, it is a three-hour introduction to the country. First, you circle Malé, the capital that looks like a city rising straight out of the sea, you pass the airport and the still-operating Kurumba resort while on the other side the new apartment blocks on the completely artificial island of Hulhumalé rise up into the air. We pass the inhabited islands of Himmafushi, Huraa and Thulusdhoo and we get a glance of the Paradise Island Resort & Spa (double room from 326€ per night), Gili Lankanfushi Maldives (2,732€), Cinnamon Dhonveli Maldives (1,126€), Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa (1,378€), Adaaran Select Huduran Fushi (811€) and the Club Med Finolhu (priceless). Arriving at Dhiffushi, I look over the channel to the nearby Meeru Island Resort & Spa (500€) before settling into my residence of choice.
I look at these resorts with a certain astonishment and am glad that I am not staying there. I would not mind visiting for a day but even if I had the money, I would have no interest in this artificial world. I travel because I want to get to know places, I am looking for experiences. I want to be with Maldivians, not only other tourists.
The Home Maldives charges me 58 € which brings it into the top 10 of the most expensive accommodation I have used in all my travelling. Iland, the owner is a lovely guy and we talk about Dhiffushi and his business. Things are good, Dhiffushi is a popular island and tourist numbers have been steadily growing. At one end of the island a tourist enclave has developed, with several hotels and guesthouses of various sizes. Nearly all of them have restaurants which gives you some choices. One is especially lovely, being located right on an empty stretch of beach (mains around 10-20$, payable in Rufiyaa or US$). The bikini beach is right next door. Bikini beach? Yes, you have heard right. Bikini beach is the moniker used to describe a beach that can be used by western tourists in their usual attire. The opening of the inhabited islands has been done in a tactful way; tourist have been asked to adapt to the local cultural norms. Alcohol is not available (except in some cases from swimming bars (I did not see one), pork is forbidden and to bring local and tourist concepts about enjoying the sea into a balance, bikini beaches have been established. These are usually separated by a visual barrier and are the only places where it is allowed to swim in short swimwear. On all the other beaches you can swim as well but then please adequately dressed. I head to the bikini beach but am greeted by a big signboard telling me not to swim in bikinis or short swimming shorts. I ask Iland. No, worries, he says, the island council has decided to open that beach and another one at the southern end for tourists anyway. He recently gave free accommodation to an influencer and she did not believe him so he even got a member of the town council to confirm it to her. Iland is a bit worried about the future though, there has been a recent incident where a British girl was arrested for walking across Maafushi Island dressed only in her bikini and refusing to dress up when confronted by police. Instead, she accused them of sexually assaulting her and videos of her arrest are circulating online and he fears that might make people think twice about visiting his country. And then there is this coronavirus. The Chinese are nowadays the biggest group of visitors and they have already been banned, if the virus spreads wider (still an open question in early February 2020) tourism could suffer.
Dhiffushi is a lovely island, 950 metres long, 200 metres wide with a beach in the north and a very beautiful beach in the south. The interior of the island is taken up by mostly one-storey houses, arranged along narrow lanes in a grid pattern. The houses have no gardens, no courtyards, if you want to go outside you are on the sandy street. But why not just take a chair and put it out onto that street. I saw a tricycle, a few motorbikes, some bikes but besides that there are only pedestrians. Well, why not, ten minutes bring you wherever you want to go.
But signs of overdevelopment loom. There is a big hotel under construction, at least seven storeys high, other projects are also under way. How many tourists can tiny Dhiffushi take? The nicest beaches have been taken over by the tourists. And speaking with my host, I was surprised how often he talked about what he was doing for the community, paying for this, paying for that. The hoteliers seem to know that they need to keep the community on their side.
I could stay in Dhiffushi but why not explore another island? Himmafushi is on the way back to Malé and the feel of the island is different. First, it is low season. Himmafushi is known for surfing and this time of year does not have the proper waves. It is also generally less touristy, whereas on Dhiffushi I could choose from maybe ten restaurants (9 tourist and one local) there are only three (and-a-half) restaurants on Himmafushi, two of them serve the local standard fare like kotu roshi or fried fish noodles with an egg and these supertasty Maldivian chips for a few dollars. Western ideas of eating, like grilled fish with sautéed vegetables can only be had at one restaurant and at higher prices.
I find some men working on protecting the shoreline. They have sunk big plastic bags filled with sand into the sea to stop the waves and now they bring more sand to hide the plastic. But the real feat of island engineering can be found on the other side. Himmafushi has grown by nearly half recently. A proper stone dyke (imported stones, not Maldivian coral stones) has been put up towards the sea, at least 1.5 metres high. Behind that, sand has been taken from the sea to create new land. The souvenir seller (I buy some postcards) tells me that this land will be given to citizens of Himmafushi that have currently no home of their own, the process works according to well-established rules. It is certainly effective, and I can well understand the desire to have more land on these tiny islands but the stone dyke is certainly not beautiful.
On Himmafushi, I first notice a feature of the Maldives that I greatly appreciate. We are all used to remove our shoes as we enter the homes of other people. We are not used though to removing our shoes as we enter a shop. On the Maldivian islands this is a common practice.
Back to Malé, the boat passes the airport again. Velana International Airport is located on its own island. The airport hotel is the only place in Greater Malé where you can buy alcohol, probably to allow addicted tourists to keep their alcohol level steady while waiting for a plane to fly home. The repeated warnings in my guidebook about not being able to buy alcohol make me think about Western society, are we really that dependent on that stuff?
I see the planes start and land, blowing carbon dioxide into the air. The Maldives is one of these contradictions of the modern world. On one hand, the country relies on the income from tourism (2/3 of GDP), on the other the emissions this tourism causes are part of the problem threatening the country. I am part of the contradiction myself; climate change is a fact and we are responsible for it. There is no doubt and I am very concerned about it. And still, with all my concern, I am here in the Maldives, thousands of kilometres away from home, of course I arrived by plane and with the aim of even heading further away from home soon. At least, I have committed to offset my emissions at a price of 180€ per ton of CO² as this is supposed to be a credible price a ton of CO² should have.
In 2009, then president Mohamed Nasheed proposed a plan to make the Maldives carbon-neutral by 2020 but with his removal from office the plan seems to have died. What I saw on the ground did not look too encouraging. Malé is full of motorbikes, all the boats are running on diesel and every island has a power-plant with diesel generators. Solar power has been established in some places (usually with outside help) but most of the time the generators are running.
Aerial photographs of Malé are breath-taking. The city proper occupies only 1,95 square kilometres in an egg-shaped island. The whole island is covered with buildings about ten storeys high. The population density is only slightly lower than in Manhattan. There is a road around the island but seen from afar the buildings seem to begin right at the water’s edge. A few bigger roads crisscross the town but most houses are only accessible through narrow lanes. I like these compressed spaces where every square centimetre is utilized. It is a lively place, with a museum, a few mosques and a bustling market to visit.
Big change has been coming though recently. With the opening of the Sinamalé bridge (formerly known as the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge) in 2018, Malé has been linked to the airport island of Hulhulé and thereby also (over an already existing causeway) to the completely artificial island of Hulhumalé. Hulhumalé was conceived as a way to relieve the population pressure that Malé could no longer handle. At 4km² it is by now larger than the original. With the bridge transportation is easy between the two. Whereas Malé is a chaotic, naturally-grown city, Hulhumalé is a planned development. Neatly arranged rows of apartment blocks line the street, suburbia at its best or worst. There was also space for a park. On the northern half of Hulhumalé a massive development is currently under way. Scores of 24-storey towers that all seem to be near finished. I am not sure if this is a good idea, if all this housing capacity becomes available at once it will turn the market upside down.
The boat ride will take five hours. The sea is a bit rough today and to protect us from waves and spray, the crew is pulling down the plastic sheeting along the sides of the boat. The ride is a lot less enjoyable than the one to Dhiffushi, first because of the closed sides and second because there is a lot less interesting stuff to see, instead of a steady stream of islands and resort we pass a lot more open ocean.
We stop at Maafushi (many people leaving, some coming) before reaching Fulidhoo, the first island in Vaavu Atoll (some people leaving, less coming, beautiful minaret). Maafushi has its own transport boats but for Fulidhoo (and all the others) the ferry also serves as a conduit for necessary goods. A crew of young men sweeps onboard and searches all the packages destined for this port. Another stop in Thinadhoo (beautiful beach, the island will be quarantined 23 days later) and for the last bit to Felidhoo we are only two tourists onboard. No one seems to visit Keyodhoo and Rakeedhoo today.
Felidhoo is the most beautiful of the islands I visited. A tiny speck of land with the neatly narrow lanes I already know from other islands. With a population close to 500, it is a regional centre and has a hospital. The ambulance is the only car on the island. A few guesthouses, two small local restaurants (most tourists eat at their guesthouses but I follow my “sleep here, eat there” policy), a lovely beach (20 seconds of walking) and a very beautiful reef. It starts 20 metres out from the beach and then you find a riot of corals and fish. I just miss out on the turtles, I learn too late that they usually come around mid-day, a time I try to avoid because of the sun. Enjoying the underwater world, I decide to finally buy an underwater camera. I regret not having done so before coming to Felidhoo.
Maafushi was the first island to embrace independent tourism, it has become the hub of the backpacker scene. Prices are lower on Maafushi than on the other islands. That goes for accommodation but mostly for tours. 25$ dollars would have bought me two hours of snorkelling on Felidhoo but a half-day adventure on Maafushi (but probably with twice or thrice the number of people on the boat). Maafushi is full of guesthouses and hotels but the bikini beach is comparatively small and packed with people. It looks similar to a popular beach in Spain or Italy. Yes, there are some tropical fish in the water but it is a far cry to Felidhoo. Besides tourism, Maafushi is famous for the prison that occupies the southern end of the island.
Most Maldivian islands have a rubbish problem. I found the dump for smashed bricks and anything else on Dhiffushi, Himmafushi hid its secrets well, Felidhoo had a massive dump with everything from washing machines to discarded refrigerators lying around but Maafushi is the worst. Passing other islands, I had already noticed smoke rising in what seemed like slowly smouldering rubbish heaps. On Maafushi there is big dump, right at the edge of the water with flames slowly crawling around.
The Maldives has more to offer than this island. I only visit because the transport connections back to the airport are good. Speedboats go every half-hour; the journey takes less than an hour and brings me straight to the departure area.