They have become the short-hand for a tropical paradise. A nation of islands off the southern tip of India, the Maldives are the home of cobalt-blue seas and white-sand beaches. Every year the country attracts up to half-a-million tourists in search of a picture-perfect getaway.
But how much is too much? For a country that depends so heavily on tourists lured by the prospect of pristine beauty, at what point does that flood of tourists start to threaten the very environment that attracted them in the first place?
The debate about the sustainability of the country's development and the threat to its environment has been thrown into sharp focus by the resignation of its Tourism Minister over government plans to lease 31 uninhabited islands for new resorts.
Mahmoud Shaugee said he was opposed to the government's plan to lease the untouched islands and had – for the sake of his "conscience" – resigned rather than be forced to pursue a policy that he believed was wrong. "There is only so much that an economy can absorb," he said. "I think it is important that we protect the future of the tourism industry for the people of the Maldives ... I have not specifically detailed the reasons for my resignation but I shared with journalists here that I have a difference of opinion with the government's policy. There are certain issues I have a difference of opinion over and I do not want to move forward with those policies."
A resort typically consists of a single luxury hotel on a previously uninhabited island. So the only people living on the island are the hotel staff, who have moved from other islands and whose families live elsewhere.
There are already 92 such resorts in operation in the Maldives and another 60 are in the process of being built. But the Maldives government, led since 1978 by the authoritarian Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, recently announced plans to lease a further 31 islands for development. The move is at least partly to make up for a budgetary shortfall of about £90m facing the government, caused by the postponement of development of a port in the north of the country with private investment.
Additional bad economic news came in the form of a warning from the International Monetary Fund, which earlier this month said the Maldives government needed to cut its "extraordinarily high level" of expenditure on state wages and subsidies and increase revenue collection. If it did not, it was risking high inflation rates, said the fund.
Confronted with such problems, the new leases would provide the government with an immediate injection of cash from an advance of "bed rents" from each of the islands being set aside for development. But last week Mr Shaugee told a hearing of a government committee that the proposals contravened the government's current tourism master-plan. Effectively the projects would be going ahead "without any planning", he said.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of tourism to the Maldives, a former British colony that gained its independence in 1965 and which consists of 1,192 islands – 250 of them inhabited – located around six atolls. The most recent data suggests that it accounts not only for 28 per cent of GDP but provides 60 per cent of the country's foreign currency earnings. As such, the decision of Mr Shaugee to stand down will be a fresh embarrassment to the government of Mr Gayoom. It represents the sixth ministerial resignation in the past 18 months. Just last week, the country's Finance Minister also quit after the budget shortfall was officially announced.
But beyond that, Mr Shaugee's decision has been seized on by campaigners who argue that the development of tourism is being carried out at a pace the country cannot maintain. Furthermore, they say, environmental issues have never been a priority for the government, to the extent that environmental impact assessments for new resorts are often carried out after the completion of the project rather than before.
Ali Rilwan is a founding member of Bluepeace, an environmental campaign group set up in the Maldives two decades ago to ensure that the natural environment was used wisely and continued to be available for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations.
He said the country, which has a population of around 360,000, was facing a host of environmental problems, including the loss of habitats of endangered species and the destruction of its coral reefs. Yet all the while the development of the tourism industry was going ahead "wholesale". "We need nature reserves," he said. "We need some areas to be protected as reserves. A lot of the ecology that is vital to the island has been lost to tourism. It has been happening without consultation. No environmental assessments are done before, only after. This is the scary scenario."
For all its natural beauty, experts say the environment and ecology of the Maldives is remarkably fragile. They say the growth of tourism has already had an impact on the island's limited water resources and has damaged coral reefs, which help protect the islands from erosion.
Yet perhaps most terrifying is the threat the Maldives is facing from rising sea levels caused by global warming. While Male is surrounded by a 3m-high wall that cost more than £30m to build and took 14 years to complete, around 80 per cent of the country's islands are no more than one metre above sea level. In the immediate aftermath of the Asian tsunami, up to 40 per cent of the Maldives was left lying under water. Remarkably only about 100 people were killed but the incident provided the government with the impetus to draw up plans to relocate people from the lower-lying islands to some of the larger ones. In Kandholhudhoo, a densely populated island in the north of the country, about 60 per cent of residents have already volunteered to evacuate over the next 15 years.
The government wishes to see a total of 60 per cent of its inhabitants relocated to higher islands, where two and three-storey buildings will be built. But plans have not gone without a hitch. Confronted with the rising population on Male, which is home to about 100,000 people but which measures just one mile square and counts as one of the most densely populated cities on the planet, the government constructed a new, rectangular-shaped island from sand dredged from the seabed and dumped in the shallows near a reef. It had hoped that the new island, named Hulhumale and more than two metres above sea level, might attract up to 150,000 people lured by the prospect of cheaper rental prices, more space and greater protection against rising tides. So far it has just 5,000 residents.
The dire tidal threat may explain the government's decision to try to lure as many tourists as possible to the islands while they are still above water. Mr Shaugee, however, says that tourists could still be persuaded to come to resorts that had been developed on islands that already had some habitation. This would have two advantages, he said. Not only would it help preserve the environment of those islands that had not yet been developed but it would also mean that resort workers would be able to live at home with their families. As for the tourists, the slice of the tropics they were getting may no longer be completely untouched, but it would still be paradise.
A brief guide to the Maldives
Situated in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is a collection of about 1,200 islands with a population of 360,000. A former British protectorate, the country gained independence in 1965 and became a republic in 1968 following the abolition of its monarchy.
Almost 30 per cent of the country's GDP comes from tourism, with Britain providing the most visitors. The majority of the islands are uninhabited, and tourists are only allowed to leave the capital, Male, to visit other inhabited islands for brief periods.
* POLITICAL SYSTEM
President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is the longest serving ruler in Asia and has ruled the country since 1978. He has been accused by human rights groups of running an autocratic state and in 2003 the country suffered its worst ever anti-government rioting following the deaths of four prison inmates. In 2005 opposition parties were legalised, and in 2006 Mr Gayoom presented a "roadmap" of democratic reforms. These included promises to hold the Maldives' first presidential elections, due to take place later this year. Currently, a single presidential candidate is chosen by parliament, and voters can only choose "Yes"or "No".
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