The Maldives are among the most breathtaking places on earth. They're also among the most endangered. With sea levels rising, conservationists are working tropical getaway from becoming paradise lost.
Author Sarah Horne
It’s late afternoon at Huvafen Fushi, a five-star island resort in the Maldives, and an assortment of soigné Europeans have emerged from their $2,700-a-night ocean bungalows, settling on mod loungers by the infinity pool. A Maldivian server, clad in a crisp white T-shirt and khaki ankle-length sarong, is making the rounds with glasses of champagne; another is proffering chilled, lemongrass-scented towels, a welcome relief in the dry spring heat. Were a Hollywood location scout looking for the ultimate tropical idyll—complete with a 6,000-bottle wine cave and underwater spa—this sliver of white sand and palm trees would certainly do the trick.
Less than four decades ago, the Maldives, or Dhivehi Raajje (Dhivehi for “Island Kingdom”), was a sleepy, all-but-untouched chain of 26 pristine coral atolls—natural breakwaters that protect some 1,200 shape-shifting sandy islands from the Indian Ocean—hundreds of miles from anywhere. A conservative Sunni Muslim country, it boasted a fishing fleet of traditional dhonis, graceful, sail-driven wooden boats, without a single motor among them. The only way of contacting the mainland was by ham radio or morse code. Until 1972, when an Italian tour operator was persuaded to take a charter flight 400 miles southwest from Sri Lanka to see the islands’ legendary beauty for himself, the area “was the same as it had been since the 17th century,” notes Adrian Neville, a photojournalist and the author of Dhivehi Raajje: A Portrait of Maldives.
Today, it’s a rather different story.
The tiny country, whose populace once sustained itself fishing for tuna in the rich local waters, now welcomes some 600,000 tourists a year. In 2006, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes spent their honeymoon yachting among the Maldives’ hundreds of uninhabited islands, completely inaccessible to the paparazzi. At Huvafen Fushi, guests are apt to spot Indian steel billionaire Lakshmi Mittal’s imposing mega-yacht moored in the distance. Supermodel Kate Moss, tennis star Roger Federer, and actors Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher have all been guests, lured by the promise of the ultimate jet-set escape.
But while the rarefied resorts of the Maldives are regularly lavished with praise in international travel magazines, last fall the remote country made headlines for a different reason. Shortly after Mohamed Nasheed, a charismatic 41-year-old, became the Maldives’ first democratically elected president, he declared that the country, which rises barely three feet above sea level in most places, would soon disappear beneath the waves. His plan, Nasheed said, was to divert profits from the billion-dollar-a-year tourism industry into a “sovereign wealth fund” with which to purchase a new homeland—possibly in Sri Lanka, India or farther afield, in Australia—for his 380,000 fellow citizens. “We can do nothing to stop climate change on our own and so we have to buy land elsewhere,” he told The Guardian, dubbing his scheme “an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome.” Indeed, though the islands are responsible for an infinitesimal fraction of the world’s carbon emissions, experts consider them among the most vulnerable spots on earth to the effects of global warming. If a September 2008 study published in the journal Science is to be believed, sea levels could rise by anywhere from two point six to six and a half feet by the year 2100— essentially erasing the Maldives from the map altogether.
A three-foot rise would be catastrophic for the island nation, predicts Konrad Hughen, a climatologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, since well before the islands disappeared, they would become increasingly vulnerable to high tides and storm surges. “At some point the vegetation would no longer be able to adapt,” Hughen explains. “As the salt water washes over the island more and more frequently, suddenly it’s transformed to a salt grass, something which is much less resistant to erosion. Then the next storm takes the island away.” For the moment, says Hughen, the coral reefs that surround the islands provide a measure of protection, but rising water temperatures are endangering these delicate organisms as well.
During the last 30 years, under President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (called the “CEO” for his eager protourism stance), the traditional Maldivian government made a delicate compact with the West, leasing individual islands for millions of dollars to international hotel chains, which would spend millions more—and accomplish stunning feats of engineering—to develop resorts on them. The resulting marriage of castaway fantasy and world-class luxury soon made the Maldives a hot destination. “What they’ve done is harnessed our imagination of what the perfect place might be,” Neville says of the hospitality industry. “It’s our dream and they’ve just kind of gone and done it.” There are some 200 inhabited islands in the Maldives, and the island chain now boasts more than 100 resorts, many of them located in remote atolls that until recently were closed to all but the most intrepid travelers.
“It’s the tipping point really,” Neville says. “A few years ago, the major five-star chains decided that the Maldives were a place they definitely wanted to be. Now every one of them is represented or is in negotiations to get a lease on an island,” he continues with awe and concern.
Royal Rowe, the American-born general manager of the Four Seasons resorts in the Maldives—Kuda Huraa, which opened in 1997, and Landaa Giraavaru, which opened in 2006—considers some of the dire projections to be overstated. “Contrary to what the new president is saying, no one is packing their bags here.” Nonetheless, the resorts he manages have taken steps to become more green. They employ marine biologists to work on identifying and tracking the eerily beautiful manta rays that call the Indian Ocean home, and to work on a “coral tray project” to help shore up the natural reefs around the islands. They also collect rainwater to take some of the pressure off of the island’s desalination plant, which runs on diesel. Even so, Rowe acknowledges that he can only go so far for the sake of eco-friendliness. Customers, he says, “are glad we’re doing something positive for the environment.” But there’s a limit: “Four Seasons guests want you to lower your carbon footprint in some way other than by not washing their sheets every day.”
Other resort companies, like Six Senses Resorts & Spas, are also working to make their luxurious getaways more sustainable. Anke Hofmeister, a German native who is the environmental manager at the company’s Soneva Fushi resort, says the company is aiming for zero carbon emissions by next year, utilizing such innovations as a deep-sea water-cooling system to help air condition its buildings and an organic garden project that provides fresh produce and serves to compost food waste on the island. Hofmeister considers conservation the responsibility of individual resorts, especially since the government has other domestic issues to tackle, including a burgeoning drug problem, healthcare and infrastructure challenges. Though Hofmeister feels the president’s statements were somewhat overplayed by the international media, she has seen changes in the islands. During the monsoons, for instance, the winds batter the beaches harder than they once did, now that the living breakwater of coral has been compromised.
“Many people in the world probably imagine the Maldives as a paradise on earth, which to an extent it is,” she says. “Sadly, it’s getting increasingly affected by the troubles that plague the rest of the world because of the actions of the developed nations.” Whatever the policies of the hotel industry and Maldivian government, she points out, the changes affecting the islands are global in nature and can only be reversed through international efforts. However, by adopting green policies and educating guests—many of whom are major international decisionmakers— she hopes to foster an increased awareness that will translate into action while there’s still time.
Back at Huvafen Fushi, Ulrike Kloiber, an Austrian marine biologist who has been employed by the resort since 2007, spends her days guiding tourists as they snorkel in coral gardens thronged by manta rays, but it’s her conservation work she’s most proud of. Kloiber has created a coral nursery, where coral “buds” are allowed to grow before being transplanted onto the adjacent reef, and she invites guests to assist in her efforts. “When they’re handling the coral, they see how vulnerable the animal is,” says Kloiber, who also runs educational talks on the island. “It’s quite obvious how fragile the system is once you’re immersed in it.” The resort also encourages visitors to participate in a carbon offset program, and through its spa, supports a local island that uses sustainable practices to produce virgin coconut oil for use in beauty treatments. Still, says Kloiber, “temperature and tourism are a permanent pressure on our reef.”
Later, during cocktail hour at the stylish thatched beach bar at Huvafen Fushi, house music thumps away in the background and sea water gently laps at the beach just a few feet away.
An Australian couple is toasting their honeymoon, the ice clinking in their caiparinhas. This getaway, which will cost over $10,000 by week’s end, was a nobrainer—“a once-in-a-lifetime trip” says the new bride, her forearms pink after a day of kayaking in clear-bottomed boats across the reef, spotting baby sharks along the way. “We wanted to see it before it’s gone.”