Where are all the Europeans? The Japanese? The Americans. The Germans and Italians? The people who, since the first resort opened in 1972, have been making this tiny nation of 1,200 islands one of the world’s great tourist pamperers?
The travellers are not coming, at least not in force, not since the tsunami in December. Tourism, the Maldives’ No. 1 money-maker, usually accounts for more than a fifth of the national income, and it’s down by 49 percent so far this year. The government had expected tourism tax revenues to come to $43 million by December’s end; new projections put the figure at $31 million.
The Maldive Islands are sunny, serene, with high-end accommodations, some of the world’s best diving and snorkelling, and the general ambience of paradise. But some who depended on vacationing visitors for livelihoods now depend on government aid or help from private foundations and, in the small, close-knit communities that make up most of the 200 inhabited islands, the generosity of family members and friends.
Some have joined fishing fleets, the nation’s second-largest industry, according to islanders. And others have moved to new, less-damaged islands where work may be easier to find.
The tsunami took 82 lives in the Maldives, claimed 26 others whose bodies have never been found, damaged about 4,000 buildings, displaced more than 8,000 people, and caused general havoc to individual island infrastructures. The World Bank estimates that the Maldives will need $304 million, in U.S. equivalency, to rebuild.
Even so, of its 87 resorts – one to an island – 67 are fully up and running. The coral reefs and bright blue lagoons that surround the islands are awash in many colors of sea life.
The ocean water is a steady 84 degrees. Beachfront villas and in-room whirlpools are polished, king beds are made, diving equipment is double-checked and chefs stand by imposing beachside charcoal grills, filets of tuna and mignon piled at the side.
Last year, the nation welcomed more than 600,000 tourists – that’s more than twice the Maldivian population of about 280,000 – only about 6,000 of them from the United States.
On Dec. 26, the tsunami set a record of another sort, becoming one of the worst natural disasters in modern history – about 179,000 people dead, mostly in Indonesia, another 50,000 still missing. Since then, the Maldives has been off the radar of many tourists, particularly from Asia and Europe, who might otherwise have come.
The Maldives were not hit by mountainous waves. But most of the nation’s 1,200 islands are no more than four or five feet above sea level, so the three waves that crashed onto beaches moved through the islands to inundate communities, where most streets are made of sand.
On the nation’s capital, Mal