It is often promoted as the last paradise on Earth, but the Maldives and its precious tourism industry were devastated by December’s tsunami. The island nation’s economy relies more heavily on tourism than any other tsunami-affected country.
Nowhere else is more aware of the threat posed by rising seas than the Maldives. About 99% of its territory is sea – and on the 1,200 low-lying coral islands that straddle the equator, nowhere is more than one-and-a-half metres above sea level.
The country campaigns against the effects of climate change to protect its very survival, but the tsunami made it face its worst fears.
A total of 49 inhabited islands were flooded and one-quarter of the 87 resort islands were put out of operation and are now undergoing repairs.
The tsunami cost 82 lives, with another 20 locals still missing. The death toll may sound small when compared with other affected countries – but this is a nation of only 300,000 people. Many here rely on tourism. It provides two-thirds of employment and the largest proportion of GDP.
It may seem at odds staying at a luxury resort while local communities struggle to get back on their feet, but with bookings down 50%, the Maldivians want tourists back.
“The tourist dollars do help in the recovery and rehabilitation of people and this is our lifeline, so if it’s disrupted it aggravates the situation,” says Hassan Sobir, the Maldives High Commissioner in Britain.
“Fortunately, because of the geography – maybe sheer luck – many islands have been spared in terms of damage.”
Scientists say the archipelago was spared the full force because the huge coral reefs that encircle the islands absorbed much of the impact – as did breakwaters built around the capital, Male, after previous flooding.
The set-up in the Maldives is an unusual one. A one-resort-per-island policy separates guests from locals and from other tourists, giving a sense of isolation that is one of the Maldives’ main selling points.
Central to this strategy is that each island is self-sufficient, generating power, waste management and water supply. It means the usual risk of water contamination and disease that often follow disasters has largely been avoided. It also means repairs will be localised.
However, rebuilding these remote islands, accessible only by seaplane or boat, will take months and cost an estimated $1.5bn.
Despite the crisis, the government still plans to develop 11 new island resorts over the next two years.
Hoteliers like Francois Huet, the general manager of the Banyan Tree Hotel, welcome the move.
“It’s an opportunity to develop different kinds of competition to stimulate the market,” he says.
The Maldives does not have a long history as a tourist destination – just three decades – during which it has moved to the top of the luxury holiday lists, is a favourite for honeymooners and a premier dive location.
When the first hotel, Kurumba, opened in 1972 it was very basic. Its founder is often credited with kick-starting the tourism industry. Back then there were only 1,000 tourists a year. Last year, there were more than 500,000.
Mohamed Umar Maniku built Kurumba and is now chairman of the resort development company, Universal Enterprises.
“When we started there were already three big destinations in Asia – Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Seychelles.
“We never had anything and so we thought if they can be successful, why not us?”
Developing tourism has also helped raise environmental concerns.
Some hotels like the Banyan Tree and Angsana have green funds where they match guest donations of one dollar a night for conservation projects.
Those contributions have now been doubled and are going towards tsunami recovery. Staff are also donating part of their salary.