MALDIVES – Facts
The Maldives are an archipelago of 1,192 coral islands grouped into 26 coral atolls (200 inhabited islands, plus 80 islands with tourist resorts) in the Indian Ocean. They lie south-southwest of India and are considered part of Southern Asia. The population was 359,008 (July 2006 est) and is expected to be 600,000 by 2010. The largest city and capital is Male. It has a very high population density with an average of 10 people per household.
Formerly a Sultanate under Dutch and British protection, the Maldives are now a republic. Long ruled over with an iron fist by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who did not hesitate to jail dissidents and was re-elected five times in more or less rigged elections, resistance to his rule culminated in violent rioting in 2003 and 2004. Under international pressure, free and fair elections were finally held in 2008, and Gayoom gracefully conceded defeat to opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed, “Anni”. Following protests that started on May 1, 2011, Mohamed Nasheed was forced to resign from office on February 7, 2012, despite being a non corrupt government.
The Tsunami of 26 December 2004 caused extensive damage to the Maldives – of a population of only 290,000, over a third was directly affected by the tsunami and more than 15,000 people were left homeless. The economic damage alone was over 62% of the GDP or US$470 million.
Tourism, Maldives largest industry, accounts for 20% of GDP and more than 60% of the Maldives’ foreign exchange receipts. Over 90% of government tax revenue comes from import duties and tourism-related taxes. Over 600,000 tourists visited the islands in 2006. Fishing is a second leading sector. Canning fish especially tuna is the main industry. Agriculture and manufacturing continue to play a minor role in the economy, constrained by the limited availability of cultivable land and the shortage of domestic labor. Some islands are recognized as agricultural and usually specialize in certain crops: watermelons and chilis, bananas and mango, tomatoes, beans, grains such as millet and sorghum, yams and taro, pumpkins and luffa, and coconuts. Most staple foods must be imported. Industry, which consists mainly of garment production, boat building, and handicrafts, accounts for about 18% of GDP. Maldivian authorities worry about the impact of erosion and possible global warming on their low-lying country; 80% of the area is one meter or less above sea level. Fresh water is decreasing and the country will depend on desalination in the future.
Maldivians are almost entirely Sunni Muslim, and the local culture is a mixture of South Indian, Sinhalese and Arab influences. While alcohol, pork, dogs and public observance of non-Muslim religions are banned on the inhabited islands, the resort islands are allowed to exist in a bubble where anything goes. Note that the weekend in the Maldives runs from Friday to Saturday, during which banks, government offices and many shops are closed. You won’t notice this at the resorts though, except that lunch hours may be shifted for Friday prayers.
The Maldives are tropical, with plenty of sunshine and temperatures around 30°C throughout the year. However, rainfall increases considerably during the April-October southwest monsoon, particularly from June to August.
The Maldives are formed of 26 atolls, or atholhu in Dhivehi — the source of the English word and the only Maldivian word that has entered the English language. These are not single islands, but giant ringlike coral formations enclosing a lagoon and surrounded by open sea. The coral formations have fragmented into countless islands. The largest atoll, Huvadhoo, is 65km wide and 82km long, while Thoddoo, the smallest, is about 1.8km in diameter. The country is 820 km long and 130 km wide. They are spread in a north south direction between latitude 7″6’30degreesN and 0degrees42’30″S. The total area is about 900,000 sq km but less than .5% is dry land. Of the 20 administrative atoll groups, only (parts of) 10 are open to tourism. Depths within the atolls usually vary between 30-50m. At a height of 3m, Hulhumale is considered the highest island in the Maldives. The tidal range is about .7m.
The Maldives have a remarkably easy visa policy. Everybody gets a free 30-day visa on arrival, provided that they have a valid travel document, a ticket out and proof of sufficient funds, defined as either a confirmed reservation in any resort or US$100 + $50/day in cash. Importing alcohol, pork or pornography (very broadly defined) into the Maldives is forbidden and all luggage is X-rayed on arrival. By plane practically all visitors arrive at Malé International Airport located on Hulhulé Island right next to the capital Male. The airport is served by a wide array of flights to China, India, Sri Lanka, Dubai and major airports in South-East Asia, as well as an increasing number of charters from Europe. Many flights stop in Colombo (Sri Lanka) on the way. By boat, there are no regular passenger boats to the Maldives. Even yachts usually steer clear, as navigating around the reefs is hazardous and permits are expensive. Getting around in the Maldives takes three forms: boats, sea planes (air taxis) and private yachts. The boats are the Maldivian equivalent of a car, while planes and private yachts are mainly reserved for tourists. By plane, no point in the Maldives is more than 90 minutes away from Male, and visitors to the more far-flung resorts use air taxi services. By boat The taxi boats generally take tourists to and from the islands in the North and South Male atolls.
Maldivian Dhivehi, a close relative of Sinhala (spoken in Sri Lanka) but with borrowings from Urdu, Hindi, Arabic and many other languages, is the official language. It is written in a remarkable hybrid script called Thaana, which uses Arabic and Indic numbers as the base of the alphabet, written from right to left with Arabic vowel signs. The script is thought to have originated as a secret code for writing magical formulas so that outsiders couldn’t read them, which would also explain why the ordering of the alphabet is, as far as linguists can tell, completely random!
English is widely spoken, particularly by government officials and those working in the tourism industry. English is the language of instruction in schools, which means that you will be able to communicate with the locals with varying degrees of difficulty. Since Maldives happen to be a popular destination for German and Italian holiday goers, a sizeable number of local resort workers are able to speak fluent German and Italian.
Diving and Snorkeling
Aside from making the water bungalow rock on your honeymoon, the primary activity on the Maldives is scuba diving. The atolls are all coral reefs hundreds of kilometers away from any major landmass, meaning that water clarity is excellent and underwater life is abundant. There are about 1000 species of fish. Manta rays, sharks, even a few wrecks, you name it, can be found in the Maldives. While diving is very good by world standards even in the immediate vicinity of Male, visibility and the chance of encountering large pelagics increases as you head to the outer atolls. Many divers opt for liveaboards, which can actually work out much cheaper than paying high resort fees. Currents vary considerably, with generally little inside the atolls but some strong currents are found on the sides facing the open sea, half of the time the currents will take you straight out into the Indian Ocean. Water in the Maldives is warm throughout the year. The best time for scuba diving is from January to April, when the sea is calm, the sun is shining and the visibility can reach 30 m. The one downside to diving in the Maldives is that it’s quite expensive by Asian standards. but in general, you’ll be looking at around US$50 for a single boat dive with your own gear and closer to US$75 without.
Surfing The Maldives is becoming an increasingly popular surfing destination. Turquoise water and perfect waves makes it an ideal and uncrowded destination for surfers looking for smooth surfing conditions.
The local currency is the Maldivian rufiyaa (MVR, Rf), divided into 100 laari. However, by law resorts price services in US dollars and require payment in hard currency (or credit card), so there’s absolutely no need to change money if you’re going to spend all your time at the resorts. If you are heading to Male or the other inhabited atolls, exchanging some rufiyaa will come in handy. The coins, in particular, are quite attractive and make an interesting souvenir in themselves.
Costs and Accommodation
There’s no way around it: the Maldives is expensive, and there is limited budget accommodation or transport. As of 2004, there were 88 resorts (with 37 under construction) and 117 live aboard vessels, 24 guest houses and 9 hotels. Resorts have a monopoly on services for their guests and charge accordingly: for mid-range resorts, $1000 per week per couple is a conservative budget for meals, drinks and excursions, above and beyond the cost of flights and accommodation. Practically anything — including hotel rooms if booked locally — gets slapped with an arbitrary 10% “service charge”, but tips are expected on top. There are a few Inns and B&B on the more populated atolls for the budget minded travelers. Tap water in resorts may or may not be drinkable – check with management. Bottled water is extortionately priced, with US$5/bottle being typical.
Aside from the capital Male, there are no hotels in the Maldives, only resorts. Most resorts take up their own island (1500x1500m to 250x250m), meaning that the ratio of beach to guests must be one of the best in the world and it is hard to imagine that you would ever have to struggle to find your own private piece of beach to relax on. Many have a “no shoes” policy and with such soft sands it is easy to love this idea. Many resorts, especially the smaller dive-oriented ones, cater largely to a single nationality, leading to “Italian” resorts, “Dutch” resorts, “German” resorts, etc. While almost all welcome any nationality and have some English-speaking staff on hand, you may be cut off from any evening entertainment and have problems eg. diving if you don’t speak the local lingo.
The Maldives are malaria-free, but some islands do have mosquitoes and catching dengue fever from them is possible, albeit highly unlikely. Most of the problems come from diving or sun related injuries. Heat stroke always cause problems in the tropics
MALDIVES – THE TRIP April 2 – 13, 2013.
The Korean Air plane was virtually empty. With 227 seats, there were only 33 passengers, 22 of them Korean honey mooners, most with huge bags of duty free. After a 1 1/2 hour flight, the views down to the huge atolls of the Maldives were spectacular. Dotted with a few tiny treed islands and huge areas of shallow water, the lovely blue green water looked inviting. Male appeared as a small island with wall to wall pastel buildings. The airport is on an equally small island just a km north of Male. The lobby was packed with 70 swank small kiosks representing the many resorts vying for business. One resort had a picture of a glass underwater dining room with sharks and other fish swimming around them. The cost? – $1300 per nite for the room only. A short boat ferry for 60 cents brought to Male, and it was a short 5 minute walk to my hotel. The cheapest one I could find in Male at $60, it was a tiny room with unclean walls, but welcome air conditioning in the oppressive heat.
After buying an electrical plug adapter for the European style plugs, I decided to walk around the outside of the island city in the middle of the day heat. This is one of the few places I have ever been where my shadow was directly under me and I was unable to tell the direction of north from my shadow (I guess that means I am on the equator). The Hulhumele Ferry Terminal where the airport ferry docks is on the NE corner and half the north side is jetties for the small ferry boats that also do fishing trips and service close resorts. A big market has stalls with all sorts of vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes, leeks, onions, carrots, cauliflower, garlic, many kinds of squash, eggplant. peppers, ginger and a few I don’t recognize that apparently come from Sri Lanka). I was surprised as I thought vegetables were not to be expected as part of any meal plan. A large container port is on the other half. The west side is a long sidewalk bordered by a 2′ thick retaining wall with the top 6′ above the roadway. Outside that is a wide jumble of massive cement dumbells with four round points shaped like jacks to form a breakwater. Empty plastic bottles fill every nook and cranny. Another ferry terminal is on the SW corner part of a large working marina where small cranes unload pallets of food and water bottles onto small freight boats. The south side has an 80′ wide ‘canal’ with a large breakwater of the same cement dumbbells forming the breakwater. It is crammed with rows of more freight boats being loaded for the resorts and many large speedboats for ferrying passengers. A large cricket pitch, garbage dumps (signs admonish you about recycling plastic, cans, paper, and dealing with chemicals, paint, varnish, used oil etc in an island with limited space for garbage), and the electicity generating plant are on the landward side. A natural “swimming pool is at the east end inside the breakwater. The SE corner actually has no breakwater but a nice surf break where about 5 locals were riding the waves. Tiny patches of sand and rock are the only natural part of the whole shore. The rest of the east shore is messy dumps of rock. The circumambulation took me about 2 1/2 hours at a modest pace.
Not one of the hundreds of people I passed smiled, said hello, or asked me once which country I was from – quite the change from all the attention I was used to in India and Sri Lanka. This must be an Islamic thing. Full burkas are rare but all the women wear head scarves. They are not pretty and it is hard to imagine a less attractive bunch of folks. Maybe they should wear full burkas. Maybe it is that they wear all black or have a permanent scowl on their faces. The men are far from handsome too and many sport unusual hair dos like massive afros. Groups of guys sit around trying to deal with the heat. Otherwise they are all the same color I’ve been seeing for the last 6 months. Male is reasonably attractive and affluent looking with little garbage and a maze of narrow brick streets between the average 5 story buildings.
My habit of talking to many people often pays off. In the Colombo Airport, I talked to a young English fellow who had just spent 5 months working in Male for a British news agency covering the Maldives. He disliked the city but found every day produced an amazing array of news. The government ousted in 2012 was basically honest and doing a good job. The previous bunch of thugs is now in power again and corruption is rife. There is a strong undercurrent of human slave trafficing, child prostitution, drugs and alcohol beneath the supposedly conservative, highly moral Islamic masquerade. His investigative journalism was tolerated because he is a white foreigner. In Male, I talked to an American from Texas in the Maldives for 3 years setting up an aquaculture business raising sea cucumber, highly prized in the Chinese market. The only person I met also walking was a Polish fellow who had arrived the day before. He has been hired at one of the resorts as a cook.
I took the 4 hour ferry SW to Mahibadhoo on South Ari Atoll. Expecting to be traveling through pretty atolls, the trip was almost entirely on open water with no land visible. The ferry had no guard rails and the safety was questionable. The narrow stairs to the roof was right beside the rear of the boat and also had no hand rail. I could have easily fallen off in the swaying boat and nobody would have known. Along with 4 other guests, we were met at a dock, boarded a speed boat and went 10 minutes to Omadhoo, another small island just to the north, to the 8 bed Kuri guest house, the only accommodation on the island with about a thousand inhabitants. It is very nice with easily the best room I’ve had in 6 months. A covered dining room and lounge area complete the facilities. The other guests are a young woman from New York and a Polish couple with their 3 year old daughter. Wifi is beamed everywhere. The price is also way above what I have become accustomed to – $100 US per day including meals. Diving and snorkeling is extra. At sunset we walked out to the small spit at the corner and cruised the clean sand streets. There is no traffic and it’s incredibly peaceful, except that Muslim prayers are broadcast all over the island five times a day.
On day 2, we took the speedboat about 45 minutes south to “Desert Island”, a generic term for many small islands. This is a great snorkeling location as it has good shade and takes about 1 1/2 hours to snorkel around the outside of the reef and the island . The water was spectacularly clear with visibility to about 30m, the corals nice but not spectacular, and a lot of fish, all different from what I have seen previously in Belize.
The single most significant factor in the world today is that abnormally high sea surface temperatures have resulted in mass mortality of worldwide corals. Most coral can stand a 1-3 degree increase before they start to stress with 25-29 degrees the optimum for most tropical species. Fish likewise stress when exposed to water 5 degrees rise or fall. In 1983, 90% of the corals bleached and died on many of the reefs of the Galapagos Islands. In 1990, the Caribbean warmed up and huge areas bleached and died, an ecological disaster. By 1991, nearly every coral reef system in the world was affected, and with each year, as sea temperatures continue to rise, the devastation is increasing. By 1998, the Maldives was affected with 80-90% of the shallow water corals being affected in some way. Many of the coral dependent species of fish, shrimps, crabs and worms can no longer survive. In time, coral reefs will spread to more temperate climates to cooler water. Corals in deeper water are not nearly as affected.
On my second day, I went diving. It was over a “pinnacle” in the middle of an atoll. The coral was in very bad shape, we went down to 25m, and the fish were OK but not nearly as good as when snorkeling. I have a significant problem of using up my air quickly and then getting short dives. The Maldivian guide was unusual as he trailed behind by at least 15m and I was basically alone. It was disappointing for the $65 cost. In the afternoon, all of us (there are now 8 guests, plus the couple looking after the guest house – he is from Iran, she’s from Latvia and they live in Sweden – and one of the owners’ girlfriends also from Latvia) went to another small island. While some of us snorkeled, the three Indian guests who are professional photographers, shot “fashion” shots with all the young women. A big liveaboard mostly Russians, was offshore, and they had a barbecue on the beach. The coral was spectacular, the fish about the same as the first snorkel – very nice. The sand is white and of a sugary consistency. I returned with the regular boat and they stayed till well ofter sunset as they were able to buy alcohol from one of the live aboards that was parked in the bay – a 26 of rum at $120 and they bought 2 plus 2 litres of boxed wine for 120. And then had a risky return in the dark because of all the random coral. The water glowed with green phosphoresence.
On our third day, we went to “three palm island” to snorkel. A smaller island, it had a much larger reef and swimming around the island took too long so I swam around a ways and back. The coral was much bigger and more spectacular than “desert island”, and the fish about the same. Day 4 was a speedboat trip one hour each way down to the south end of South Ari Atoll to see whale sharks. These baleen sharks are the biggest fish in the ocean and magnificent animals covered with yellow dots. Along with about 12 other boats all there for the same thing, we didn’t see any (. The photographers got some nice shots of a manta ray. We snorkeled on our way back in deeper water with extensive coral most of it with huge flat fronds and only a few fish. On day 5, we went back to “desert island and I had nice 1 1/2 hour snorkel around the island again seeing a white tipped reef shark. Only the small islands are not occupied, all the rest seem to have resorts. They all look very nice with rows of thatched huts on stilts over the water. Twin otters buzz overhead delivering customers.
Omadhoo is a very tranquil, quiet place. The town occupies 3/4s the north end of the oval shaped island. The other end is all treed. One story houses line the clean, swept sand streets that are on a grid system. The cement harbor with its breakwater is on the east. There are a few rudimentary stores including a small pharmacy and a tailor (where I had some minor mending done). Women wear black head scarves and are a surprisingly pleasant smiley lot. The major industry is fishing but there is also a boat repair business where they remove barnacles and paint the boats. A big shed also contained a huge fishing boat under construction and we went in and looked around and talked to the crew. I walked around and wandered into the preschool. The little kids were nicely dressed in blue uniforms and all the little girls had their hair done identically with pigtails tied in the same blue ribbon. I caused a little fuss when I poked my head in and shook all the boys hands which caused the girls to giggle endlessly. Older kids wear white uniforms with the girls in leggings, shapeless dresses and head scarves.
The staff and other guests have all been great. The food is good but gets a little monotonous. Abdul, the Bangladesh cook is the only one in the kitchen and makes eggs, toast, fried wieners (probably beef), and a Maldivian breakfast dish of finely chopped up coconut, tuna, onion and pepper. Lunch and dinner are the same with fish or chicken, rice, noodles, and a salad of vegetables. Soup is also served at dinner. We have all the tea, water, coffee and juice we want to drink. Alcohol (which is not available) and soft drinks are charged for. Room and board is $100US per night. The boat excursions are $40, snorkeling equipment $10/day, and the whale shark trip was $400 per boat load ($50 each). Diving was $45+20 for equipment. It has been a very relaxing week and I have done a tremendous amount of work on my web site including most of the Ideas section. The house cat likes me (always amazing how the person who least likes cats gets all the attention), and sits on my lap for hours when I work on the computer.
While the one other remaining guest and the couple working at the guest house went to three palm island again to snorkel and sun tan, I read, wrote and had a nap. One of the few days I have had off for a while. The humid heat is oppressive and I thank the air conditioning for the relief. My web site is giving me a great deal of satisfaction, especially the ideas section. I have written a great deal about America which holds a certain fascination for me. It is so different from Canada despite being so close. The next day, the woman from New York and I caught the ferry again for the long 5 hour ride back to Male. Standing at the back of the boat with no railing is frightening. It is like standing on the 20th floor of a building with nothing to protect you. Somebody could come and push you off… Nobody would know. All you can see for miles is water.
When back in Male, I answered my emails. Expedia had canceled the second leg of my flight from Colombo to Chennai, India tomorrow and given me a flight from Chennai to Kolkata that left 45 minutes after I arrived in Colombo!!!!! Chennai must be a good 800kms from Colombo. At least 2 hours must be left between any connection. How was this going to work? So I had to get a new Maldivian SIM and minutes for my phone to call Expedia for the 9th time. I actually got somebody fairly efficient, they made the changes and I actually got a refund for the cancelled flight from Chennai to Kolkata that had been on my original ticket but that had been cancelled. I am not looking forward to transiting through bureaucracy heavy India with no Indian Tourist or Transit Visa tomorrow. I hope this last screw up does not portend things to come. Keep your fingers crossed. The joys of travel.
This may be the worst day of my life. First I took the wrong ferry – instead of going to the airport, I went to an island way past it and got to the airport too late to board. It was a very sweaty time running between two more ferries with a full pack in the heat. Not that it would have made any difference – they would not have ticketed me without an Indian Visa. I did try to get an “emergency visa” at the Indian Consulate hoping that I could get one in 30 minutes to make a flight an hour and 50 minutes after my original flight. Indian bureaucracy came back to haunt me – it would take 5 days! I got another hotel room in a different hotel that had more TV channels (what else would I do for 5 days in the sweatbox of Male), wifi in my room, and better air conditioning just in order to survive, at $60/night. More phone minutes were necessary to try to cancel my 3 flights and get some money back, and my flight to Bhutan along with the visa (which of course I had not paid for yet but that the travel agency in Bhutan was on the hook for). This whole thing would have been preventable by getting the transit visa when I was in Bhutan 8 days ago. I trusted the travel forums that all said a visa was not necessary. One consolation is that I may get to watch the Masters on TV. Live and learn. I still hope to get to Bhutan but will have at most one day in Bangkok which actually suits me fine.
At the Indian consulate the next day, I went early to hand in my Visa Application. I was told that I also had to get a photocopy of my passport page with my Maldive Visa, fill out a form used to verify my Maldive Visa, and book my flights through India. I returned with all the additional stuff and then was told that the visa would take 7 days as a weekend was coming up! Not ready till April 18, that means that I would not be able to make my flight home from Bangkok on April 24 and I had to stay in Male for all that time. It is not a great place to be. No wonder India doesn’t work – the bureaucracy just to get a visa to sit in an airport is crippling. I had been trying to rebook the Bhutan trip all morning but then had to eventually tell them that it was canceled too. So I am going to Singapore on the 12th, and then travel through Malaysia to get to Thailand. Visas are easily available in all three countries at the borders and airports. Everything in the airport is ridiculously expensive – at least 3X normal so I didn’t even spend my last Maldivian money. The amazing price was a bottle of 50 year old single malt scotch that cost US$46,000! Onwards to SE Asia.