Balancing traditional values with the pressures of developing a contemporary society can be difficult. The Maldives, a scattered island nation that has strong cultural roots in Islam – but has been inundated with luxury island resort developments – is using visitor education to maintain its social and cultural structures. By Benita Yue.
Male, 2 February, 2019. Islam was first brought to the Maldives in the 12th century, when a Moroccan merchant called Abu Barakat Al Barbari sailed into its harbours. Since then, the Maldives has developed a unique cultural mix of Indian, Arab and African ethnic roots, and until relatively recently was almost untouched by outside influences.
But today, the Maldives is commonly associated with exclusive resorts aimed at Western tourists. Marketed primarily for its stunning white beaches, turquoise waters and abundant marine life, the environment is the most important feature for operators. Many resorts feature all-inclusive facilities, most on their own private island.
This approach has been seen as a way to contain and exclude the less desirable aspects of tourism (think alcohol, consumption of pork products, revealing attire, and irresponsible behavior) to those islanders that would consider all those things contrary to their Islamic religious beliefs. As the population is almost 100% Muslim by faith, this is a serious consideration.
The resorts often charge high rates, exacerbated by the limited transport facilities for supplies and services to the “resort islands”. As a result, the impact on the local culture has been minimised, but the undesirable consequence of creating such a division between local life and tourism has been the leaking of potential tourism income to other overseas destinations.
Recently, however, a new initiative has been launched as part of the current President Yameen’s ‘Visit the Maldives’ campaign. As part of the Maldives’ 50th anniversary of independence, the Guesthouse Island Project (GIP) was launched to spread the wealth and tourism development from the exclusive resorts to outer atolls (islands). To enable this, the Maldivian government offered lower interest rates for development and, in part, the leasing of land to local tourism development became a way for the government to make up for budget deficits.
GIP guesthouses commonly offer small lodgings separate from the resident household, owned and normally operated by a local resident. And at around US$50 a night in low season, visiting the Maldives became less of a fairytale for less well-heeled tourists. Accounting for 16% of the total bed capacity, and with 78 new guesthouses were registered in 2016 alone, there were a total of 393 guesthouses in 77 islands scattered across 19 atolls at the start of 2017. The GIP initiative also offered visitors an opportunity to experience the country’s rich culture – not just its beaches and aquatic life.
An example is the ‘Secret Paradise Maldives’ tourism agency which organises Maldives guesthouse experiences with a focus on cultural and food aspects, as well as environmental sustainability. Such destinations include Thoddools which emphasises the Maldives’ unique agricultural cultivation, Gulhi Island for its island hopping, and Gan in the south, for its bikeable roads and historically significant sites.
Secret Paradise also offers visits to schools, eating at a local family’s home, and visiting mosques. The company seems to acknowledge vacationers’ other needs including ‘bar boats’ which are anchored off some islands in high season. But the emphasis on local holidays by local guides, and environmental volunteering and awareness tie in well with its sustainability theme.
Generally, guesthouses utilise internet advertising to further help the cause, attracting a younger, more adventurous base. Proper conduct (the fear of young people imitating immodest dress codes) may demand monitoring things like tourists not entering mosques for non-religious purposes, and alcohol/pork restrictions on meals.
But the balance is being successfully maintained. Huraa island has long allowed backpackers to stay in local houses and as of 2017, seven guesthouses have been established. They provide excursions, sell crafts and showcase community life experiences. Being near to Male and its transport links has enabled a more natural growth. In the far south of the Maldives, Fuvahmulah atoll has developed at a slower pace, partly for the cultural fears of what tourism may bring, particularly the consumption and availability of alcohol and pork, as well as social and family disruption.
So called ‘bikini beaches’ are available on islands such as Hulmahle, which have designated an area for bathing in swimwear some tourists may be more accustomed to. Nonetheless, women visitors are expected to cover legs and cleavage and tourists should eat with their right hand on local island visits. In many islands it is also expected that women and men must also not engage in physical contact when meeting local people.
However, it seems the availability of smartphones and the internet today may lead to the younger Maldivian generation adopting behaviors from other cultures and approaches. In fact, dating apps are now being used to find matches, rather than traditional methods. And tourism can also encourage English communication skills on otherwise isolated local islands. This is seen as a bonus; foreign workers from Sri Lanka and India with better language skills have previously disadvantaged Maldivian workers in the context of employment, particularly in the bigger resorts.
This language-based expansion of opportunity brings obvious economic and employment benefits, along with the ability for families to stay close to each other, and share social and cultural exchanges as they learn new work skills. Add to that the growth of tourism – and environmental awareness – on local islands should bring about a better care for the environment, and the advantages are obvious.
However, the role of women in the Maldives’ society could, unless carefully managed, affect future tourism development. Some strict Islamic doctrines forbid women to work. And many women are not employed in tourism due to security concerns and exposure to a male working environment. Many women are commonly paid less then equivalent men. And some families could fear that such cross-cultural activities will affect the reputation and wellbeing of their daughters.
There is, however, a movement towards women’s liberalisation, with the former president Nasheed supporting equality and more open laws for women. However, more extreme forms of Islam being exported by Saudi Arabia are promoting newer diktats on women’s behaviour and dress such as having to wear a headscarf, previously unworn.
Nonetheless, the adoption of a more open approach to tourism, coupled with a built-in respect for local culture, religion and tradition seems to be working in the Maldives. It is now common to see private accommodation available at large resorts for Muslim women, western tourists visiting remote atolls and paying respect to cultural and religious sites across the country.
That’s a good balancing act.