Responsible tourism in the Maldives

The Maldives have something of a Catch-22 relationship with tourism. The islands are heavily dependent on the industry, which is responsible for 30 percent of the Maldives’ GDP. Yet air travel is a major contributory factor to the carbon emissions that are driving the climate crisis and threatening the Maldives’ existence.

Tourism in the Maldives is linked with many short-sighted practises, from overfishing on reefs to clearing vital coastal vegetation, which leads to erosion, and beachfront resorts that disturb sea turtle nesting. Yet at the same time, the need to keep the islands looking pristine for tourism is one of the reasons why local people are encouraged to act sustainably.

Ultimately, the islands’ survival depends on the rest of the world getting its act together on carbon emissions. And if we’re honest, it’s almost certainly too late already. Paradise will soon be lost. But that doesn’t mean that traveling responsibly in the Maldives is pointless. In fact, it’s more important than ever.

Wildlife & the environment

Overfishing in the Maldives

After tourism, commercial fishing is the largest industry in the Maldives, and recreational fishing is a significant tourist activity in itself. Tuna are caught using poles and lines, while foreign fishing fleets are prohibited from Maldives’ waters, so the tuna fishing here is actually pretty sustainable. Up until the 1990s tuna was a core part of the diet – some Maldivians ate it for virtually every meal, including breakfast.

Today, however, tastes have changed and while tuna remains popular, it is once-maligned reef fish that are the staple of Maldivian cuisine, such as groupers and snappers. Not only are they found on menus in restaurants and resorts, but most special occasions for local families will be marked with a reef fish meal. And reef fishing in the Maldives is distinctly unsustainable.

Reef fish live a long time, they sexually mature later, and they breed less. Overfishing, particularly of juveniles, has led to some Maldives’ reefs becoming under-populated, which has a depletory effect on the reef’s overall health as the ecosystem becomes unbalanced.

What you can do
Fish dishes in the Maldives are delicious, but you don’t need to eat them every day. Seafood and meat will usually have been imported too, so if you can give them a miss your trip will have a far smaller carbon footprint. All but the smallest restaurants in the Maldives will have a vegetarian option, and many resorts will happily cater for vegans and other diets with a little notice.

Don’t forget that the Maldivian cuisine is heavily influenced by neighbouring India, so excellent vegetarian dishes are in abundance, especially curries. None of this means you can’t enjoy a nice bit of fish in the Maldives – there’s just no need to eat it constantly.

People & culture

Do tourist taxes in the Maldives benefit local people?

It’s very easy to hold tourism accountable for many of the problems that countries like the Maldives must face, such as the climate crisis, wealth disparities and waste disposal. Yet if it wasn’t for the money that tourism brings in, the picture for local people would often be far bleaker. Before the advent of tourism here in the 1960s, the average life expectancy for the Maldives was just 36. The arrival of tourists to Kurumba Island, the first resort to open in the early 1970s, started to create income for the government through land purchasing, with subsequent tourist taxes and import duties further boosting the country’s economy.

In 2015, the Maldivian government introduced a Green Tax ($6 per day on resort islands; $3 per day at guest houses on local islands). Today it brings in around $60 million a year.

“Nobody really knows exactly where and how the tax is spent in all honesty; there are no records that can be accessed,” says Ruth. “We have been advised that it’s used mostly for projects such as the establishment of sewer systems, coastal protection, land reclamation, water and sewerage systems – all local island-based.”

It would be naive to think that all the money raised through tourism goes directly to local people. There is still a lot of poverty in the Maldives, not many jobs, and it’s very hard to call the present government a fully functional democracy. However, tourism has helped to pay for healthcare and education throughout the islands, as well as providing a significant source of employment and income. And the money that the Maldives earns from tourism is definitely making a difference.

What you can do
While the actual uses of paying the Green Tax might be vague, it will be levied by your accommodation provider when you arrive, so there’s no way of avoiding it. And really, $3 to $6 a day is not a large sum when considering the cost of a Maldives vacation, even when staying on a local island which is significantly less expensive than a resort.

When you think of the impact tourism can have on a destination, particularly a remote archipelago such as the Maldives, it’s hard to argue against the imposition of a small tourist tax that can help to improve infrastructure. When one considers the threat that the Maldives faces from the climate crisis, it’s even harder.

High-rise havens: tower block living in the Maldives

When you think of the Maldives you probably picture swaying palms, white sand beaches, villas perched above dreamy turquoise waters – not high-rise apartment blocks. Yet that’s a growing reality on the artificial island of Hulhumale, which is connected by a causeway to Malé, with many people moving there from the capital in search of more space.

“I live there myself,” says Ruth, “and yes, from a tourist perspective the modern block style architecture is quite an eyesore – the Hulhumale skyline can be seen from nearby resorts – but these new high rises have allowed families to spread and they also make rents much more affordable.”

While these towering apartment blocks may be the antithesis of the Maldives’ tropical appeal, they are both practical and convenient for local people, who can easily commute into Malé.

Ruth adds: “Remember that previously in Malé, where there is limited space, you would often get two or three families – so upwards of 12 people – sharing just a two- or three-room apartment.”
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Maldives or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Responsible tourism tips in the Maldives

Ensure you book with responsible tour operators for wildlife watching in the Maldives. Whether you’re scuba diving with rays or snorkelling alongside massive, graceful whale sharks, guides should be instructing you how to keep a safe distance to avoid causing stress or harm to the animals, and how to avoid damaging coral with errant flippers. Eat responsibly in the Maldives. Seafood and meat on the menu in resorts will likely have been imported, whereas fish is usually caught locally using lines and poles. However, the demand for reef fish such as grouper is leading to populations becoming seriously depleted, which means unhealthy reefs. If you can, opt for fruit and vegetable dishes, especially if they are marked as using Maldives-grown ingredients. Dress conservatively when visiting local islands, as unlike the resort islands they follow Islamic laws. Long dresses and trousers, t-shirts, and hats or scarves for the head are ideal. Recent years have seen trouble in paradise, with the Maldives racked by political instability, corruption, and high-profile assassination attempts, and there are growing worries about radicalisation. There are no signs that tourists are being targeted but, as you would anywhere else, follow FCO advice when traveling. Seek out resorts that are sustainability-minded, but keep an eye out for ‘greenwash’. Perhaps the most significant things to look for in a resort are serious efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. Do they shout about private jets or encourage people to arrive by boat? Do they source locally grown food? When it comes to supporting conservation projects, are they involved with restoring reefs or coastal mangroves, for instance? Bring as little plastic packaging as you can. Island nations such as the Maldives have difficulties when it comes to waste disposal and recycling, so the more that you can dispose of at home, the better. Not only do locally made handicrafts such as woven maps or lacquered bowls look great back home, but they are also a good way to support small businesses and craftspeople in the Maldives. When in doubt, however, it’s best to avoid anything made from coral or wood in case it has been unsustainably sourced, and swerve anything made of tortoiseshell. It goes without saying to pick up any plastic you find lying around on the beach, but that goes double if the beach serves as a nesting ground for the several turtle species that lay their eggs in the Maldives between May and June. Staying in a resort with beachfront villas, restaurant or bars? Ask if they turn off lights and music at nightfall to ensure turtles and their vulnerable hatchlings don’t become disorientated.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Pakhnyushchy] [Overfishing in the Maldives: Julien Bidet] [Hulhumale high rises: Zairon]