Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Troubling Paradise

February 14, 2020

To most, the Maldives is simply the name of their screensaver; or that of yet another set of paradisiacal islands—often bundled with the Seychelles or the Micronesian nations—where people are willing to pay big bucks to play pampered, post-marital Crusoes. Few would be able to pin them near the Laccadive Sea even after visiting, perhaps because they occupy a space more aspirational than geographical.

Large as the honeymoon market is, there’s also the competitive fraction of marine-life-lovers and bucket-list-tickers who’ve heard that the islands are sinking, with the IPCC betting on 75% submergence by 2100. Ninety islands have disappeared in the last decades alone. Only these hardy groups—impervious to the inane clichés of ever ‘sugary’ sands and ‘teeming’ seas—tend to make it through to booking the destination’s improbably expensive resorts, where $2,500 per night is fairly typical.

For these lucky few, arrival in the archipelago involves landing at a tin-shed airport carved into little corporate fiefdoms known as ‘lounges’ that operate a bit like embassies where, to paraphrase Frank Herbert’s Dune: “he who harvests the resorts controls the Maldives”. Visitors are then dispatched on seaplanes or speedboats that remind them they’re in a country consisting of 1,192 islands spread over 90,000 sq km in 26 ring-shaped atolls, not one of them more than 1.9 metres above sea level. It’s a view that sends travel journalists scrambling for the names of over a dozen hues of blue, likely by googling Farrow and Ball catalogues.

The first warning shots that luxury journalism is a game of bullshit bingo include, first, a glance across at neighbouring Male—where over two-thirds of the 400,000-strong population live—to reveal a city that looks as if it had fallen out of a Judge Dredd plot. [1] Second, there’s the fact the seas are hardly empty. Alongside the occasional cargo ship—Male is near busy shipping lanes—and safari boats—there are over one hundred and sixty live-aboard vessels—countless resort speedboats sashay across the waters, pausing only to ride out each other’s wakes. Last but not least, there’s yet another Chinese Bridge (see The Chinese Monkey Trap). Boasting a typically innocuous name—the “Friendship Bridge” [2]—this one links the airport to Hulhumale, an artificial island built to release the strain on Male’s space and resources for not-so-friendly prices ‘negotiated’ mainly by paying off the top brass.

Indeed, according to its central bank, as of January 2019 the government owes China $600m (including $374m to expand its airport), on terms so grievous that the finance minister, Ibrahim Ameer, has sought to renegotiate (in vain). [3] Worse, the bridge manages to terminate near an even greater eyesore: the King Salman mosque—the biggest on the islands—gifted by Wahhabist Saudis.

Once upon a time, Maldivians could make money just by scooping it off the beach in the form of cowry shells. Harvested as currency up to the twentieth century, they were scarce and impossible to counterfeit, which ensured their circulation in Africa and a part in influencing the classical Chinese character for money. Above a tuna subsistence economy, this was their only means of financial firepower until an Italian with the unlikely name of George Corbin arrived in the Maldives in the seventies.

In spite of a UN-sponsored assessment from a decade earlier that noted beach tourism would never take off in the islands because of a lack of airports, banks and electricity, Corbin created its first tour operator. Early complaints included menus that rarely strayed from tuna, intermittent electricity and poor transport links. This was fixed by two Maldivians he employed who changed the menus to Italian, organised seaplane transfers, installed two generators, and had thirty traditional-style huts erected to service Kurumba Village, the first Maldivian resort.

Fast forward to today, and Kurumba is clearly the model for almost all but the latest hotels. These are spread over roughly one hundred and twenty islands to the two hundred inhabited by nationals.

Yet the ecological playing field is hardly an equal one. Tourists generate 7.2 kilos of waste daily, compared to 2.8 produced by locals. [4] That’s not to mention the average carbon footprint (or food miles) of a tourist travelling from London to Male is five tonnes of CO2; which means even well-wishers contribute to spikes in sea temperatures that kill coral, erode coastlines and drive tuna deeper, making them almost impossible to fish.

This is compounded by resorts that refuse to abide by the seasonal patterns of tides that shift sands onto different parts of the islands, and who seek to fix their beaches in one place by using giant sand bags and sand pumps. These not only affect sea-life, but lead to flooding, erosion and less predictable events, like ruined water tables.

Not that it’s all the fault of tourism. While Thilafushi—the island of rubbish—attracts column inches in the West, it’s the obvious solution for a country that lacks proper landfill sites. The real scandal surrounds locals who measure mounds of rubbish in terms of the expense in  boat fuel and insist on ocean fly-tipping. Or of locals barbecuing endangered turtles, leaving only severed heads and hacked shells behind. It is a crime matched by the ignorance or malice at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has no qualms about dining on turtle-egg omelettes or routinely ticking their boxes for resorts in exchange for gifts.

Perhaps some of this could be justified if the resort experience was extraordinary, but the Maldives share the shortcomings of all-inclusive islands anywhere else in the world. The most exciting part of the ‘no shoes, no news’ package tends to be the villa. Its timber beams, thatch roof, marble floors, baths, TVs, multiple showers and four-poster beds can enthrall you for roughly an hour. Then one’s day will be consumed in eating. Breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, dinner, supper: if the meal has a name, the hotels will fuss over it. No matter how swanky, every franchise thinks Nespresso machines make acceptable coffee (they don’t), nobody can cook a sausage—chicken or otherwise—and bacon is invariably a brittle beast that snaps like tuile.

One starts to eat because, let’s face it, it has started to get dull and lonely. No matter how much you love your partner, there’s a creeping sense that no relationship was meant to be imprisoned in a tropicana-themed suburbia, among couples who are so tired of one another that the hot-tub’s a more likely venue for a murder than a bonk.

A few brave souls venture into the death-ray sun. Most scuttle back to the air-conditioned room like hermit crabs to their conchs. The more desperate emerge, dehydrated, at one of the restaurants—two shades off the lobster—asking why only a single litre of water is complimentary each day before it rockets into Champagne prices. A quick glance at the alcohol menu will reveal the reason: it’s priced like a jeweller, which in turn is priced like a NASA storeroom. Before long, gaolers and monopolists have fused into the same thing.

You can smell the financial pecking order at each resort by seeing who’s bothering to have fun. The less wealthy have shot their load on this holiday and are determined to justify sunk costs. They laugh at dinner, insist their second cocktail has made them drunk and refuse to blush at shoddy wines beginning north of $100. It’s all good! Isn’t life curious! If you listen closely you can hear the echoes of 3am tears in their 10pm giggles.

Though this optimistic camaraderie might work in a full resort, where shouts and chuckles reinforce each other, most resorts feel empty. Averaging 60-80% occupancy, these numbers feel far lower on the ground because a most visitors prefer the privacy of their villa pools or the vastness of the ocean—for admittedly incredible snorkelling or diving opportunities—to the public beaches, restaurants, bars and pools on every island. Even when there are encounters, they’re rarely rewarding, thanks mainly to the fact most visitors are honeymooners, reducing eggshell interactions to potential intrusions. In short, everybody lives in fear of traducing intimate moments.

Meanwhile, the rich can be found scanning the islands from their superyachts or booking resort ‘residences,’ which house several families. When needs absolutely must, they skulk into the public domain. My favourite example of this rare breed is an apoplectic Frenchman who fumed every time staff, rather reasonably—given he’d sat at an empty table at breakfast time—asked him if he wanted anything:

 “I have come here for peace and quiet, you f***ing idiots. Why do you disturb me? I think you are an idiot. My privacy is paramount, idiot. I have come here to think. My [galaxy] brain needs: silence!”

His tirade, which went on and on till out of earshot, was more redolent of Allo Allo’s Rene Artois than Vincent Cassel.

At least the Maldivians are benefiting from their golden goose, right? Well, yes and no. While most tourists feel they’re giving more than their fair due when each bill comes with roughly a quarter added in 12% service charge, 12% GST and 12% green tax ($12 per night per couple), the sad fact remains that the welfare state is non-existent in many atolls, only ever showing its face as bribery at elections.

It’s the bloated state—with its 40% of total employment—that benefits. The big money remains in the hands of a tiny group of bankers of Qasim Ibrahim’s acquaintance. The ex-finance minister used his controlling stake in the Bank of Maldives to loan himself (and mates) almost all of its assets in order to set up—what else—resorts. [5] The slightly less well-connected, who could only call on another sort of minister as a relative, had to settle for leasing an island: letting debts pile up to then play landlord to a resort brand who’d agree to square their debts and offer them rent in return for their non-interference.

The real issue in the Maldives is not money, though, but how resorts now operate as parallel states with their rulebooks as legislation, their GMs as philosopher kings, and so forth. On the surface, this results in a vaguely pleasant, somewhat awkward Stepford Wife-ishness. But even the densest of plutocrats can pick up the tremor in a fake smile now and then.

One of the most obvious ructions in the matrix takes place every morning. No matter how punch-drunk or hungover tourists are whilst wandering to breakfast, they will pass labourers doing renovations, tending gardens etc., and the workmen will invariably be scowling Bangladeshis who have reason to glower, given they’re the most human trafficked minority on the islands. Next on the rung are some of the very few women—hijabed locals sweeping the walk-ways, their eyes fixed demurely on the floor—who number only 3% of all tourism employees. Before long, it becomes perceptible that all the boatmen are Maldivian with traditional names like “Didi”; the bar staff, Filipino; security, Nepalese; middle management, Indonesian; spa staff, Thai—and upper management, European, in a bizarre Alice in Wonderland apartheid.

Not all this feudalism is fuelled by Western prejudice. Many locals refuse to let their women be employed unless resorts become “more Muslim,” which means cancelling alcohol, pork and bikinis. Other locals are nigh on unemployable because they riot on the smallest pretence, safe in the knowledge they’ll be in demand among the other resorts on account of a law dictating that 50% of nationals must be employed in the resorts’ 20,000 jobs. [6] These disturbances can range from leaving the gas taps on at restaurants to leaving upturned pins on doormats.

Nor is their venom directed solely at upper management. It’s often targeted at the tourists themselves, who’re little better than kafir in the eyes of many. This was famously the case in 2010, when newspapers across the world covered a vow renewal in the national language, Dhivehi. When translated, the pledges—conducted by a man who turned out to be a disaffected food & beverage assistant—included the time-honoured marital themes of ‘tasting the assholes of chickens,’ being ‘unable to marry because you are infidel,’ falling into the sin of ‘fornication,’ creating ‘bastard children,’ being identifiable ‘as swine according to the constitution,’ and finally ‘letting germs of anger and hatred breed and drip from the tips of your penis.’ [7]

Their zeal can reach amusing heights, as when islanders ‘out-Islamed’ Pakistan by taking its diplomatic gift—a bust of Jinnah—and smashing it to smithereens for being embossed with artefacts of the nation’s pre-Indus civilisation. Or at election time, when Maldivians often insist that people stop practising fanditha (witchcraft) to influence the turn of events. [8] Or when countless islanders admit they cannot swim.

Less amusing are extramarital flogging—which peculiarly affects more women than men, in a ratio of 3:1—, fishing excursions as a pretext for sodomy that, because of the need for concealment, often end in rape; bestiality; the very un-Islamic refusal to tend to ill or injured Bangladeshis; a tendency to scapegoat Jews, Christians and Freemasons; low rates of contraception, high rates of abortion and astronomical rates—the highest in the world—of divorce, with a penchant for driving apostates to suicide in a nation that declares itself to be “one hundred per cent Islamic.”

But nothing is irredeemable and even small tweaks can repair long-term damage. Under the sea, for instance, the introduction of temperature-resistant corals could reduce erosion and lure back lost fauna. Furthermore, throwing the government’s weight behind the first international high seas conservation treaty, to be finalised in 2020, [9] would ensure the curtailment of French and Spanish overfishing via the controversial purse seine method in the waters just outside the Maldives. [10]

On dry land, having the (relatively) benign India as a financial counterweight to China, Singapore and Saudi Arabia might be a good idea. Establishing legal frameworks to trace and freeze proceeds of corruption is just as important. At the moment, the Prevention of Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing Act (2014) provides certain avenues for this, but it still lacks teeth when it comes to asset recovery, including confiscation without a conviction and recovery through civil actions.

Revamping the curriculum to include the country’s Buddhist past [11] should sit near the top of any Maldivian government’s agenda. This would lessen the trickle of Maldivians that become radicalised, result in serious conservation efforts instead of farcical cover-ups and help secure tourism money for ancient temples. It would also lead to a more nuanced form of self-understanding that would lance the

“Sharp struggle [in every Maldivian mind] between inherited customs and Muslim ideology. Since this conflict remains unresolved, there is a widespread feeling of guilt and frustration at being unable to adjust the ancestral heritage to the Islamic ideological pattern.” [12]

Finally, while the nationalisation—or at least a regulatory overhaul—of international resorts might seem an extreme measure, it could stanch the parallel state, hypocrisy, opportunities for corruption and exploitative dynamics that have developed between Male and its periphery.

[1] A political overview would reveal a place that runs like an apocalyptic version of SimCity, suffering riots, police mutinies, political coups and army sieges on its small, congested patch of land.

[2] Changed recently, in a fit of good sense, to the less nauseating “Sinamale.”

[3] https://www.ft.com/content/fcab0410-2461-11e9-8ce6-5db4543da632

[4] https://www.tourism.gov.mv/downloads/publicaltions/SolidWaste.pdf

[5] Corruption is by no means a thing of the past. To give a recent example, the tourist minister between 2012-15, Ahmed Adeeb (and associates), ignored a law that demanded island leases be handed out by public tender, to negotiate deals directly with investors at highly discounted rates. This money went to a state company, MMPRC, that was owned by a friend of Adeeb’s, and most of it—to the tune of $92 million—found itself squirrelled away to the minister and his allies, including MPs, judges and President Yameen.

[6] https://www.tourism.gov.mv/downloads/reports/survey_final_report.pdf

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/oct/28/maldives-apology-marriage-vow-couple

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/06/coconut-detained-maldives-vote-rigging

[9] https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/04/first-ever-high-seas-conservation-treaty-would-protect-life-international-waters

[10] https://minivannewsarchive.com/politics/so-long-and-thanks-for-all-the-fish-the-decline-of-the-maldivian-fishing-industry-26592

[11] Children are taught that Abul Barakat the Berber visited and noticed his hosts wept. They explained a sea monster, known as the Rannamari, kept eating their virginal daughters, so Barakat, dressed as a young girl, chanted some Quranic verses at the beast until it shrunk, at which point he stuffed it in a bottle and threw it out to sea. Thanks to this marvellous feat, the king agreed to convert to the saviour’s faith.

[12] Xavier Romero-Frias, The Maldive Islanders (2003).

A regular contributor to Lapsus Lima, Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian, travel-guide hack(er) and book reviewer. Follow him on Twitter @byzantinepower or at Excvbitor (www.excvbitor.com) for jottings. 

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