Politics in paradise? Backpacking through the atolls? The Maldives may be a luxury holiday destination, but people still have to make a living, and political agendas are alive and kicking. Taking inspiration from India’s homestays, Maldivians are opening up their houses to travellers. Liz describes the two islands on the next part of our trip, and profiles the new generation of Maldivians looking for a fairer future.
Political slogans are daubed across pretty stone walls lining the coral sand lanes of island villages. Among the dashes and loops of the predominantly Thaana script, the letters ‘MDP’ catch my attention. The party’s logo – a simple set of blue scales on a bright yellow background – flutters on zigzag bunting in harbours, between houses, opposite a police station, a mosque, a school, and above yellow stages inside yellow marquees. It is May, and election preparations are reaching fever pitch in the Maldives. In Male’, the country’s hip capital, some of the slogans are in English, among the ‘Maldives Democratic Party’, ‘Anni for President’ and ‘Vote MDP’ we came across ‘The Witch is Dead’, a reminder that this is a savvy and educated population with a grip on world news.
Last month we anchored next to Guraidhoo Island, and watched the preparations from our boat. The men erected a 10m high tower at the water’s edge from which they flew an enormous yellow flag, while women swept the sand free of leaves and undesirable stones.
Later we heard music and speeches (mostly in Dhivehi, but punctuated with English phrases) floating across the water from a PA system. The next day we went ashore and walked round the tiny village in a few minutes. We noticed several signs advertising guest houses. Ducking under bunting, we wandered into a café where European football played on a TV screen high on a wall above men drinking coffee. Several of them sported football shirts: Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and the inevitable Man Utd. We ordered ‘short eats’ – savoury pastries flavoured with tuna and hot spices – from a shy boy who smiled when we said shukriyya, the local word for thank you.
My guess is that most visitors to the Maldives right now are oblivious to the frenzy September’s elections are whipping up around the atolls. In Hulhumale, the reclaimed airport island next to Male’, sea planes and sleek motor launches race back and forth from the resorts, whisking well-heeled tourists to a more elite form of luxury they already enjoy at home. But to understand what life is like for a modern-day Maldivian you have to get to the inhabited islands, from over-populated Male’ to the outlying dots in the Indian Ocean.
From Uligamu, our port of entry, we sailed south to Male’, stopping at uninhabited and inhabited islands as well as resorts. Most resort islands were accommodating, allowing us to anchor close by and make use of their facilities, a loose term for ‘bar’. The Maldives is dry, with alcohol strictly controlled and available only at private resorts. One little piece of private paradise wanted US$75 each to set foot on land before we could even take a sip, we gave it a miss. But the Island Hideaway Resort on Dhonakulhi is particularly welcoming to passing yachts, and quickly became our favourite of these beauty spots. Since it was Jamie’s birthday we stayed tied to a buoy for a few days, declining the offer of a berth in their marina at US$200 a night. The snorkelling was spectacular, with mantas, turtles, sharks and all kinds of reef fish in evidence. But these kinds of places can be found all over the world where there is coral and a clean white beach. You could be in the Caribbean or the South Pacific. Staffed by foreigners – most of the workers we talked to were from south India – they are measured by the quality of the reef and the size of the bathroom in your private villa.
But now, after four decades of expanding the exclusive holiday market, the Maldives is waking up to a new kind of tourism. It was the election of Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed in 2008 which shook many of its young generation into action.
“Our Maldivian culture had started to fade away as luxury destinations took a grip on our country,” said Sharaf, marketing director of the Rehendhi Inn and Rehendhi Residence on Mafushi Island, the first guest house to be opened in the Maldives.
“When Nasheed came to power he legalised tourism on inhabited islands. His government’s bill was ratified in 2009 and by 2010 it began.”
Other islands quickly followed Mafushi’s lead: Dhiffushi, Himmafushi, Guraidhoo, Gulhi and Huraa. Today even newly built Hulhumale, with its long, creamy west facing beach and close proximity to Male’, has sprouted guest houses. But for visitors to move between the atolls there needed to be some kind of transport system.
“Nasheed took care of that too. Before 2008 there were no regular ferry services between islands, let alone atolls,” said Sharaf.
So Nasheed introduced a new transport initiative and eight months later one million people had used the service. But in 2012 he was ousted from power and many of his initiatives have since lapsed.
“Reliable ferry services are fundamental to local tourism. Nasheed has promised to reinstate all his good work if he is elected in September,” said Sharaf.
On Mafushi the guest houses are sprinkled between local homes, and there is a private beach fenced off by palm leaves for foreigners ‘to wear bikinis and speedos’. The entrepreneurial islanders have sidestepped the no alcohol problem by forging agreements with local resort islands: visitors are offered trips to private islands where as ‘day guests’ they can use the five star facilities and enjoy a drink. In return luxury destination guests are brought to inhabited islands to wander the souvenir shops and sample some authentic local life.
On Uligamu a permanent barrier is being erected at one end of the island and central government permission has been given for the islanders to build a resort there. The area behind the barrier will be officially declared uninhabited, which means they will be able to serve alcohol to their guests. A bureaucratic loophole has lead to discussions for a ‘bar boat’ to be moored off the beach at Mafushi from which they will be allowed to offer their guests alcohol.
For US$60−$80 a night visitors can enjoy the same attractions found in the US$1,000 a night resorts − some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world, boat trips to desert islands, pale blue water and cloudless skies.
“I want to extend my house so that my family can have overseas guests,” Muzhid, our agent in Male’, told us. “Do you think that is a good idea?”
During our three year stay in India we chose home-stays as the best way to get to know the country, so yes, we told him, travellers are usually interested in the culture of the place they visit, and what better way to do that than to stay with a local family?
There were two hundred and fifty guests on Mafushi when we visited, some just there for the day, others staying on ‘safari’ boats which tour the islands, and the rest in guest houses. We joined families and couples on the beach at sunset, digging our toes in the sand while sipping fruit cocktails as the sun went down. I asked Sharaf what the future held for his kind of tourism.
“If Nasheed becomes president it will progress quickly and we will have government aid. If he doesn’t, the momentum is already there; nothing can stop us now.”