Paradise Returning

Maldives: The Indian Ocean resort islands try to rebuild tourism after the great tsunami

September 04, 2005|By Howard Shapiro | Howard Shapiro,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

Where are all the Europeans? The Japanese? The people who, since the first resort opened in 1972 in the Maldives Republic, have been making the tiny nation of 1,200 islands one of the world's great tourist pamperers?

The travelers are not coming, at least not in force, not since the tsunami in December. Tourism, the Maldives' No. 1 moneymaker, 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.

In the Maldive Islands -- sunny, serene, with high-end accommodations, some of the world's best diving and snorkeling, and the general ambience of paradise -- 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.

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.

The Maldives are in the Indian Ocean, to the west and south of Sri Lanka. They are far from North America -- about 8,000 miles and 10 time zones from the Eastern Seaboard, which is one reason Americans have been few among the tourists. Last year, about 6,000 vacationers came from the United States and 2,000 from Canada, a small part of the record-breaking 600,000 vacationing visitors.

But since the Dec. 26 tsunami -- in which as many as 179,000 people died, mostly in Indonesia, and another 50,000 are still missing -- the Maldives have been off the radar of many tourists, particularly from Asia and Europe, who might otherwise have come.

The Maldives (usually pronounced MALL-deevz, but also with the last syllable rhyming with "hives") 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, whose streets are made of sand almost everywhere but on the island of the nation's capital, Male (MAH-lay). One of the densest capitals in the world, with 80,000 people on an island of less than 1.3 square miles, the city's sea wall failed to protect it.

There are, of course, ironies. On another island, Rasdhoo, with about 850 residents, a builder of dhonies, the stately boats that are the basic transportation of the Maldives, got a gift from the tsunami. He was able to use wood from full trees that came to rest on Rasdhoo's beach, roots and all, probably from Indonesia.

All resident Maldivians, the people without foreigners' working papers, are Sunni Muslims, and the Islamic nation has friendly relations with the United States, which has no embassy staff living in the country.

Most young Maldivians speak both their national language, Dhivehi, and English, and although the nation has its own currency, cash registers are full of U.S. ones, five, tens and twenties, a virtual shadow currency. The average salary is about $2,200 a year, according to United Nations figures.

Women play major roles in society and some cover their heads by choice. Men may have up to four wives, but Maldivians say the practice is rare, because no one can afford it.

If you were able to push all 1,200 islands together, you'd get 115 square miles, which is 21 less than the city of Philadelphia. Many of the islands look like those in cartoonists' survival gags and take about five minutes to walk around, provided you dawdle.

Traditionally, Maldivians can claim coconuts that fall to the street by circling the sand around them, then come back and pick them up later -- and then go home to watch Maldivian and American channels on their satellite TVs. Most get around on bicycle or foot. The fact that secondary public education is not available on each island does not stop people from learning crafts or professions; the nation's literacy rate is 98 percent.

One result of the tsunami has been a liberalization of politics. The government of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, president for almost 27 years, has allowed opposition parties for about two months, after pressure from other governments, and many Maldivians see the country as an emerging democracy. Some also see the government as slow to filter relief funding.

"The effects of the tsunami galvanized more people to understand that rebuilding cannot happen with a single party apparatus," says Mohamed Nasheed, chairperson of the largest opposition party.

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