The impressive reconstruction of the Maldives’ tourism industry over the past year is overshadowed by a much greater existential threat: the climate crisis.

The gates of the airport reopen. After 20 months of locked borders, people across Asia are starting to book vacations, visit family abroad, and most importantly, reconnect with the world.

Already in November, Australia and Thailand resumed international travel. New Zealand has announced that its travel bubble with the Cook Islands will restart in January. Bali is open, South Koreans are taking off on honeymoons and golf trips, and Singapore is expanding its vaccinated travel lanes.

More positive developments are expected in the days and weeks to come.

But one nation stands out with its tourism renaissance on the move: the Maldives.

The Maldives reopened to tourists last year, when most countries still restricted their borders. Photo by Mike Swigunski on Unsplash

It’s been 16 months since the Insta-compatible Indian Ocean archipelago welcomed international visitors again on July 15, 2020 – and the progress has been impressive.

One of the first countries in Asia to readmit tourists, the Maldives is seen as a case study for pragmatic reconstruction of tourism after the great pandemic disruption.

Despite a four-month closure from March to July 2020, its seaside resorts, white sand beaches and colorful reefs welcomed 555,000 visitors in 2020. By the end of October 2021, more than a million tourists had registered and had slap. on sunscreen this year.

Rebuild without Chinese tourists

The rebound is even more impressive given the absence of Chinese tourists. Like many countries in Asia, the Maldives must find ways to fill the China-shaped gap in arrivals.

China accounted for 17% of the 1.7 million visitors to the Maldives in 2019. After a good start to 2020 before the intervention of Covid-19, China still ranked 6th among visitors last year.

Another story takes place in 2021. As Chinese tourists stay at home, the Maldives has also had to deal with the temporary closure of another vital market, India, as the Delta variant crossed the country earlier. This year.

Despite this interruption, India remains the main source of arrivals in 2021. Together with Russia, it represents 41.3% of all visitors.

However, with 33 airlines making round trips, Maldives destination marketers were able to spread their net more than before the pandemic.

So far in 2021, the top 10 visitor markets include three countries – Kazakhstan (previously 46th), Ukraine (23rd) and Saudi Arabia (15th) – which previously ranked much lower.

As a result, optimism in a destination that bills itself as the Sunny Side of Life is at its highest level in two years.

“With the number of October arrivals exceeding 142,000 and the fact that we are entering the holiday season with many properties reporting no or very low availability, there is a strong possibility of meeting the Ministry’s goal. Tourism of 1.5 million arrivals in 2021, ”says Ruth Franklin, co-founder of Secret Paradise Maldives, which offers local tourism experiences that combine Maldivian culture and sustainability.

The great dilemma

The economic importance of tourism is indisputable. Tourism contributes 26% of Maldives’ GDP directly and 70% indirectly, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP)

“Tourism is our lifeline. We cannot survive without tourism, ”Thoyyib Mohamed, CEO of Visit Maldives, told the BBC last week at the World Travel Market in London.

Therein lies the great dilemma.

Tourism fuels the economic well-being of the Maldives, but also contributes to climate change and sea level rise, which put its future existence at risk.

The Maldives, one of the lowest countries in the world, faces the danger of rising sea levels. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

The Maldives is one of the lowest nations in the world, and therefore one of the nations most vulnerable to the effects of global warming.

This picturesque archipelago covers 90,000 square kilometers, but only 298 square kilometers of this area is arid land. The vast majority are oceanic. In addition, 80 percent of the 1,192 islands reside just one meter above sea level. There is no high ground, and therefore no refuge from rising seas.

“More than 90 percent of the islands report flooding each year and 97 percent report coastal erosion,” said Aminath Shauna, Minister of Environment, Climate Change and Technology of the Maldives, in a recent interview with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Ms. Shauna adds: “50% of all our housing structures are located just 100 meters from the coast. Thus, most cannot withstand flooding caused by tides, let alone tsunamis. “

“The Maldives will cease to exist”

Ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, which was held in the UK in November 2021, the President’s office of the Maldives released a short video captioned: “Our reefs are dying. Our islands are eroding and being inundated. We lack clean water.

Image from the Maldives Ministry of Environment, Climate Change and Technology.

The video story poignantly continued, “For most people, this is a dream vacation and honeymoon destination. But for us, it’s home. It’s a question of survival.

At COP26, Maldives President Ibrahim Solih told delegates: “Our islands are slowly being flooded by the sea one by one. If we do not reverse this trend, the Maldives will cease to exist by the end of this century. “

As a small island nation, the Maldives are powerless to prevent global greenhouse gas emissions from impacting its ecosystems. He calls for a collective effort to secure the future of the nation.

The government is also seeking international funding for essential environmental conservation initiatives.

“The link between conservation, biodiversity and the climate crisis is obvious,” says Aminath Shauna.

She notes that the islands’ first protective barrier is its coral reefs, and protecting the health of these reefs is now an urgent priority.

A target has been set to protect 20 percent of the Maldives’ ocean resources by 2030, including vital reefs and mangroves. In addition, 103 species – including all migratory birds, turtles, rays and sharks – are now fully protected.

The government is working on two major waste management projects with the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank.

The Maldives are also planning to convert their economy from diesel to solar power, a renewable resource that they benefit in abundance.

Make travel more sustainable

As the Maldives recognize their dependence on inbound travel, plans are in place to diversify the tourism sector. The aim is to shift development from large, resource-rich resorts to local island travel – and to distribute the economic benefits among smaller communities.

“Earlier this year, we participated in the Reimagining Tourism project led by UNDP Maldives and the Ministry of Tourism to explore, develop and test ways to make tourism in the Maldives more inclusive, resilient and sustainable,” said Ruth Franklin of Secret Paradise. Maldives.

As a result of this project, the Maldivian Minister of Tourism announced in August that homestay tourism would be launched in January 2022. Families living on non-tourist islands will be able to open their homes to visitors.

“If implemented well, homestay tourism will provide a direct source of income that benefits locals and a unique experience for tourists,” said Franklin.

Secret Paradise Maldives is jointly developing a training program for a boutique 8 bedroom guesthouse tailor-made for travelers staying on Fulhadhoo Island.

“The principle is to include the community in all aspects of the operation. Twelve local people between the ages of 17 and 30 embarked on a special hospitality training program that we developed to form a 100% Maldivian customer service team. This would represent a real milestone for guesthouse tourism in the Maldives, ”said Ms. Franklin.

Undoubtedly, the scope of tourism in the Maldives is changing and guests are looking for responsible activities beyond just lounging at their private resorts.

“Today, the tours and activities industry enjoys a much greater focus and visibility than when we started in 2012,” says Franklin. “I am very proud that we have become the first sustainable travel agency in the Maldives. We consider it our responsibility as a travel agency to protect the environment and limit as much as possible any negative impact on local life. “

As the nation grapples with various sustainability challenges, it is preparing to celebrate as well. Next year, 2022, will mark the 50e Golden jubilee of tourism in the Maldives.

A calendar of events throughout the year will mark the 50th anniversary as the government prepares for the next half century that will define the future of this island nation.

– Asia Media Center