Actually Getting Rich

Maldives segregates the locals from the tourists, and sells sun, sand and coral.

In the late 1961s, a foreign advisor on foreign investment had, struck tourism off the list of potential industries for Maldives. At the time, Male's airport , had only a makeshift runway, and transport between islands was restricted to traditional dhonis. The economy was depended on and almost everything else had to be imported. The expert could see no local funding to develop resorts in this necklace shaped group of idyllic islands scattered southwest of India's southern tip, west of Sri Lanka. Certainly, he did not foresee any foreign investor pumping money into tourism in a country that at that time did not even have a bank to its name.

But the Maldives lure nevertheless managed to attract adventure seekers. The uninhabited islets, the perfect white beaches, the coral reefs and the deep blue of the Indian Ocean, turned out to be attraction enough. The adventure- tourists spread the word, and slowly investment trickled in for the setting up of resorts. At first, they were crude cabana-type hostels with makeshift toilets, and lacking even a freshwater supply. Gradually, the offerings improved. In the mid-1970s, the government finally shook off the legacy of that long-departed investment expert and decided to accord priority to tourism. It began to organise for future growth in a planned manner.

Today, a visitor to the Maldives finds a high level of luxury attached to the rustic ambience in the 80-odd resorts that cover the Maldives. The Hilton, Four Seasons and Banyan Tree each have an island for themselves, and the biggest yet, Sun Island, is an investment of USD 47 million, a project of local hotelier Quasim Ibrahim. Hotel groups from neighbouring Sri Lanka have also invested heavily in the Maldives.

The archipelago's tourism development is upheld today as a model for countries that still market stereotypical beach-holidays for low end travellers. In addition, the Maldivian holiday has made it fashionable to go rustic while paying top-dollar. While developers elsewhere were still stuck on putting up ugly hotels by the beach — rooms piled upon each other, concrete and artificial lighting — the pioneers here dared to be different. They stayed with the single-storey cabana and outdoor concept. The success of the thatched-roof cabins—with the sea for a swimming pool — went far beyond their own estimation. Europeans loved it and no price was too dear to be locked away in a private island with the sea at the yourfront door.

Maldivian tourism has maintained its high product price. Even when competing destinations were slashing their rates during the Asian financial crisis, the Maldives sailed on unperturbed. When other beach destinations were selling as low as USD 10 or 20, the Maldives resorts managed to maintain their prices at above USD 50. (The rates generally range from USD 65 to 500 for two, inclusive of meals.) In keeping prices high, Maldives tourism has developed a niche market — a segment that looks for quality and tranquility. The government, too, has been keen on restricting the industry to the 'right kind of tourist' and is less than keen to merely pump up statistics by concentrating on quantity.

Tourism is a year-round business, but the best season is from October to April. Last year, arrivals to the Maldives topped 350,000. At over 75 percent, room occupancy was very high, and average stay per visitor was eight to nine days, which is rather high for a country with beaches, corals and little else to show. Over 20 percent of arrivals are those who have enjoyed previous holidays in the Maldives.

Environment-conscious tourism, which is now all the rage, actually began almost inadvertently here. The earlier developers, out of necessity, kept things modest and incorporated their resorts into the island environment, using local materials as far as practicable. The clients loved this, and a whole new kind of beach tourism was born. Guests arriving at a resort see little beyond the tall coconut palms and thick ground vegetation— the rooms and restaurants are cleverly tucked away. Besides using natural materials in building, the government and private sector are both aware of the need to preserve the lagoon, coral and mangrove eco-systems, and to keep the beaches clean of garbage and sewage. These unwritten rules were being adhered to by hoteliers long before the government brought in regulations for eco-friendly tourism in the late 1980s.

Today, the Male government enforces a strict set of rules for developers. It allows a resort to build in only 14 percent of an island's land area. If hoteliers are building cabanas on stilts over the water, an equal area must be kept free inland. Every island must incinerate its waste. Plastics are discouraged and littering taboo. The Maldives does not have industries that spew effluent, nor large rivers that dump silt into the beaches, and so the lagoons remain clean and the waters clear.

Gayoom's baby

Another aspect unique to Maldivian tourism is that, by governmental directive, tourism is confined to individual, otherwise-uninhabited, islands in several atolls. The tourists may visit the islands inhabited by locals to buy knickknacks, but the resorts must themselves be isolated. Meanwhile, the one-resort-per-island rule allows the tourists maximum space, comfort and privacy— which is also why the industry is able to demand premium prices. As far as the government is concerned, the separation of the local and the tourism population protects the locals from cultural 'despoilation'. A positive aspect of this arrangement is that the problems of a beach culture transplanted in an unprepared society —prostitution, drugs and thuggery— rampant in neighbouring Sri Lanka, are avoided.

All of the Maldivian experience with tourism has happened while Maumoom Abdul Gayoom has been president, since 1978. A 10-year tourism plan was drawn up almost as soon as he came to power, and a bed tax was imposed to make the industry worthwhile for the state. A five-year tax holiday encourages investors to bring in foreign dollars. Airport procedures have been relaxed and now visitors can get visas upon arrival.

Proposals for resorts pile up at the Ministry of Tourism in Male, but not everyone is approved. Nevertheless, 20 new resorts are presently under construction. In 1972,arrivals were at 1097, today they top 350,000. In 1982, tourism accounted for 20 percent of the GDP, today it is over 28 percent. Employment generation has been so huge that neighbouring India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh—and even faraway Nepal—have stepped in to meet the shortage in supply. While the Maldivians get rich and richer on tourism, it is perhaps not unfair that other South Asians at the very least make some employment out of this particular pot of gold.

The most proximate environmental danger to Maldivian tourism is the possible disappearance of the archipelago itself— if some scientists are to be believed, the ozone hole, CFCs and resultant global warming, will end up melting the polar icecaps and raising the sea level by just so many inches that the Maldives may be wiped off the southern Indian Ocean map. Given that most of the tourists who dip into the Maldives come from the very nations which create the environmental conditions for global warming, the Maldives does its bit to sensitise the tourists so that they carry back the message home. If global warming is a myth, then Maldives can hope to cash in on tourism into the distant future. If it is a scientific fact, then the government will have to start making plans.

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Himal Southasian