Keeping things local on the Maldives


Before water bungalows and Club Med, the 26 coral atolls of the Maldives were considered completely unsuitable for tourism with a 1960s UN report stating that there were just too many obstacles to overcome as well as little or no infrastructure to make a go of things.
Fast-forward 50 years, past the first paying Italian visitors from the early 70s who didn’t require passports, visas, or clothes, for that matter, and you’ll find a million tourists a year staying on over 100 islands that are privately owned and operated as vacation resorts. These resorts offer customers the kind of images that inhabit glossy mags and screensavers the world over, with all the trappings of luxury available at a click of your fingers alongside tropical sun, sea and spritzers by the spa. Islam is the official state religion, but rules don’t apply on resort islands with bikinis welcomed as readily as cocktails, all-inclusive packages and underwater nightclubs. Seriously.
But some may wonder why you’d travel halfway around the world just to not experience a country; resort islands offer no chance to discover the local culture, meet Maldivians or understand anything about the country they’re located in. But under new government regulations in 2009, non-resort islands, known as ‘local islands’, were given the opportunity to provide tourist facilities in order to increase job prospects for local people and allow them to benefit financially from the tourism industry.
Before long, guesthouses, coffee shops and restaurants were appearing on local islands and a small yet steady stream of likeminded travelers were heading to the Maldives in search of a more authentic piece of paradise where Muslim culture sits side by side with mocktails, watersports and engaging encounters with local people. Staying on a local island gives visitors unique access to the real Maldives at a fraction of the price of a resort and if you’re looking for a few more excuses to stay local then read on and don’t forget to bring back your flip-flops, golden or otherwise.

It won’t break the bank

The Maldives is certainly not a shoestring option, but going local is much more affordable than a resort island. Islands like Guraidhoo, Hulhumale and Maafushi offer a choice of guesthouse restaurants and neighbourhood cafes to help you keep within budget as you compare prices. Although you can’t actually stay overnight in a family home, you can be invited round for a home-cooked meal, if you're on a guided tour, and there’s nothing better than eating alongside Maldivian kids and grannies as you tuck into freshly cooked tuna curries flavoured with coconut and chili. In general, the following prices give you an idea of budget requirements and are certain to be much more favourable than resort alternatives: litre bottle of water – 30p; restaurant evening meal/seafood buffet - £5 - £10; cup of coffee from a coffee shop - £2.00; 1kg bananas at the market - £3.50.

Benefits for local people

With the exclusivity of the traditional resort islands comes the expense, and there are plenty of people making money and spending money in the Maldives with tourist taxes, environmental taxes and service facility taxes generating part of the tourist income that equates to 30 percent of the country’s GDP. So the 300,000 Maldivians that inhabit fewer than 200 of the 1,200 islands must be wandering around in golden flip-flops, right? Urm, no. It’s estimated that 80 percent of the money made through tourism leaves the Maldives and although several resorts do employ local people, not enough do enough to support local communities.

However, with tourists now able to spend time away from the resorts, tourism has begun to assist local islanders in terms of finance and increased employment prospects, and in many cases it has also improved some social aspects too. The extra cafés and restaurants have added to the number of meeting places for local people which provides more channels of communication as well as improving wellbeing through getting together with old and new friends.
Several dive and watersports centers offer subsidised rates for islanders and actively encourage kids and adults to get involved, including the chance to progress on PADI courses to Dive Master Level. This is a worthwhile initiative; nearly a quarter of the Maldivian youth population is unemployed. The chance to work within your own community is also very important as it gives people the chance to still live with and help their families without having to look for work elsewhere. Increasing numbers of islanders have been able to return home after working away from their families on resort islands. This improved work/home balance is essential for creating happy, healthy and sustainable lifestyles where everybody benefits and local people are proud of their island and looking forward to working with tourists to help create a unique experience that everyone can enjoy.

An authentic cultural experience

Although many resort islands offer daytrips to local islands, this sort of tour doesn’t scratch the surface when compared to staying over for a couple of nights or more. The early morning call to prayer, shouts of fishermen bringing home the catch and those smoky smells around dusk, where kitchen doors are opened and BBQs lit, are all authentic local island experiences that simply                         can't be recreated on a whistle-stop tour.
Staying on a local island as part of a cultural tour gives you more chances to meet local people and interact without feeling like a sightseer. Enjoying hedika with black tea and betel nuts (an acquired taste), evening meals around the family table and listening to the rhythmic beat of the bodu beru before watching a traditional dance; local guides can help these experiences come to life. Local people will benefit from cultural exchanges too, with a broader world view and the chance to improve their English without compromising traditional Muslim values and beliefs. In turn, organised stays on local islands offer guests a greater understanding of Islam and the need to preserve local culture as well as encouraging measures to protect the natural environment.
Photo credit: [Top box: Mark Hodson Photos] [Children on beach: Nattu] [Fish dish:] [Turtle: Ahmed Abdul Rahman] [Local man on boat: matthew lee] [Authentic experience - local children: Nattu]
Written by Chris Owen
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