Maldives confronts a crisis bigger than Covid-19

The impressive rebuilding of the Maldives’ tourism industry over the past year is overshadowed by a much greater existential threat: the climate crisis. 

Airport gates are reopening. After 20 months of locked borders, people across Asia are starting to book vacations, visit family overseas and, above all, reconnect with the world.

Already in November, Australia and Thailand resumed international travel. New Zealand announced its travel bubble with the Cook Islands will restart in January. Bali is open, South Koreans are jetting off on honeymoons and golf trips and Singapore is expanding its Vaccinated Travel Lanes.

More positive developments are expected in the coming days and weeks.

But one nation stands apart for its in-motion tourism renaissance: the Maldives.

The Maldives reopened to tourists last year, when most countries were still clamping down on borders. Photo by Mike Swigunski on Unsplash  

It’s 16 months since the Insta-friendly Indian Ocean archipelago welcomed back international visitors on 15 July 2020 – and progress has been impressive.

One of the first countries in Asia to readmit tourists, the Maldives is considered a case study for pragmatically rebuilding tourism after the great pandemic disruption.

Despite a four-month shutdown from March-July 2020, its over-the-water resorts, white-sand beaches and colourful reefs greeted 555,000 visitors in 2020. By the end of October 2021, more than one million tourists had checked in and slapped on the sunscreen this year.

Rebuilding Without Chinese Tourists

The bounce-back is even more impressive given the absence of Chinese tourists. Like many countries in Asia, the Maldives must find ways to bridge the China-shaped hole in arrivals.

China accounted for 17 percent of the 1.7 million visitors to the Maldives in 2019. After a strong start to 2020 before Covid-19 intervened, China still ranked 6th for visitors last year.

A different story is unfolding in 2021. While Chinese tourists stay home, the Maldives also had to contend with the temporary closure of another vital market, India, as the Delta variant scythed through the country earlier this year.

Despite that interruption, India remains the top source of arrivals in 2021. Together with Russia, it accounts for 41.3 percent of all visitors.

Travellers from India have kept up the demand for tourism in the Maldives. Photo by Praveen Thirumurugan on Unsplash  

However, with 33 airlines flying in and out, the Maldives’ destination marketers have been able to cast their net wider than before the pandemic.

So far in 2021, the top 10 visitor markets include three nations – Kazakhstan (previously 46th), Ukraine (23rd) and Saudi Arabia (15th) – that formerly ranked much lower.

As a result, optimism in a destination that promotes itself as the Sunny Side of Life is at its highest level for two years.

“With October arrivals in excess of 142,000 together with the fact we are moving into the festive period with many properties reporting no, or very low, availability, there is a strong possibility of meeting the Ministry of Tourism’s target of 1.5 million arrivals in 2021,” says Ruth Franklin, Co-Founder of Secret Paradise Maldives, which provides local tourism experiences combining Maldivian culture and sustainable development.   

The Great Dilemma

The economic importance of tourism is inarguable. Tourism directly contributes 26 percent of the Maldives’ GDP, and 70 percent indirectly, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP) 

“Tourism is our lifeline. We can’t survive without tourism,” Thoyyib Mohamed, CEO of Visit Maldives, told the BBC last week during the World Travel Market show in London.

Therein lies the great dilemma.

Tourism fuels the Maldives’ economic wellbeing, but also contributes to climate change and rising sea levels, which imperil its future existence.

The Maldives, as one of the world's lowest-lying countries, faces danger from sea level rises. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash  

The Maldives is one of the most low-lying nations in the world, and therefore one of the most vulnerable nations to the effects of global warming.

This scenic archipelago spans 90,000 square kilometres, but only 298 square kilometres of that area is dry land. The vast majority is ocean. Moreover, 80 percent of the 1,192 islands reside just one metre above sea level. There is no high ground, and consequently no safe haven from rising seas.

“Over 90 percent of the islands report flooding annually, and 97 percent are reporting shoreline erosion,” said Aminath Shauna, Maldives’ Minister of Environment, Climate Change & Technology, in a recent interview with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Ms Shauna adds, “50 percent of all our housing structures are within just 100 metres of the coastline. So most cannot withstand tidal floods, let alone tsunamis.”

“The Maldives Will Cease to Exist”

Ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, held in the UK in November 2021, the office of the Maldivian President released a short video captioned: “Our reefs are dying. Our islands are eroding and flooding. We’re running out of clean water.”

Image from the Maldives Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, and Technology.

The video narrative continued poignantly: “For most people, it’s a dream holiday and honeymoon destination. But for us, this is home. It’s a matter of survival.”

During COP26, Maldivian President, Ibrahim Solih, told delegates: “Our islands are slowly being inundated by the sea one by one. If we do not reverse this trend, the Maldives will cease to exist by the end of this century.”

As a small island nation, Maldives is powerless to prevent global greenhouse emissions from impacting its ecosystems. It is calling for a collective effort to ensure the nation’s future.

The government is also seeking international funding for critical environmental preservation initiatives.  

“The link between conservation, biodiversity and the climate crisis is evident,” says Aminath Shauna.

She notes that the islands’ first barrier of protection is its coral reefs, and protecting the health of those reefs is now an urgent priority.

A target has been set to protect 20 percent of the Maldives’ ocean resources by 2030, including the vital reefs and mangroves. In addition, 103 species – including all migratory birds, turtles, rays and sharks – are now fully protected.

The government is working on two major waste management projects with the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank.

The Maldives also plans to convert its economy from diesel to solar power – a renewable resource that it enjoys in abundance.

Making Travel More Sustainable

While the Maldives recognises its reliance on inbound travel, plans are in place to diversify the tourism sector. The objective is to shift development away from resource-heavy large resorts to local island travel – and spread the economic benefits into small communities.

“Earlier this year, we were involved in the Reimagining Tourism project led by the UNDP Maldives and the Ministry of Tourism to explore, develop and test ways to make tourism in the Maldives more inclusive, resilient and sustainable,” says Ruth Franklin of Secret Paradise Maldives.

As a result of that project, the Maldivian Tourism Minister announced in August that homestay tourism will be launched in January 2022. Families living on non-resort islands will be able to open their homes to visitors.

“If this is implemented well, homestay tourism will provide a beneficial direct source of income for locals and a unique experience for tourists,” says Ms Franklin.

Secret Paradise Maldives is jointly developing a training programme for a custom-designed 8-room boutique guesthouse catering to home-stay travellers on the island of Fulhadhoo. 

Fulhadhoo in the Maldives. Photo by Ibrahim Mushan on Unsplash  

“The premise is to include the community in all aspects of the operation. Twelve local people aged between 17-30 have embarked on a special hospitality training programme we developed to achieve a 100 percent Maldivian guest services team. This would represent a real milestone for guesthouse tourism in the Maldives,” says Ms Franklin.

Unquestionably, the scope of tourism in the Maldives is changing, and guests are seeking responsible activities beyond simply luxuriating in their private beach resorts.

“Today, the tours and activities sector has a far greater focus and visibility than when we started in 2012,” says Ms Franklin. “I’m very proud that we became the first sustainable tour company in the Maldives. We see it as our responsibility as a travel company to protect the environment and limit wherever possible any negative impact to local life.”

As the nation confronts the diverse challenges of sustainability, it’s also preparing to celebrate. Next year, 2022, marks the 50th Golden Jubilee of tourism to the Maldives.

A year-round calendar of events will mark the 50th anniversary, while the government prepares for the next half-century which will define the future of this island nation.

- Asia Media Centre