Holidays to North Male Atoll
The Maldives is a chain of 26 coral atolls, 375 miles south west of Sri Lanka, extending across the equator in a north-south strip 468 miles long and 73miles wide. The 1190 low-lying coral islands are so small that dry land makes up less than 5% of the country's total territory. Indeed the number of islands varies from guide book to guide book, it all depends upon one's definition of an island. Most locals consider a piece of dry land qualifies if it has vegetation established on it, a sandbank is therefore excluded!
Ninety nine per cent of the country's territory is made up by sea and only 200 of the islands are inhabited, of which 90 are tourist islands. The islands are rarely more than a metre above sea level and whilst rising sea levels caused by global warming is considered a major threat by many, there are others who argue that coral regenerates and likes to grow just below the surface of the sea, and islands may grow as sea levels rise. However, of greater concern is the risk of storms caused by changing weather patterns, which threaten the islands fragile beaches and coral reefs. The islands are not normally affected by storms being in a region that does not normally experience hurricanes. (See When to go, below)
The islands may be idyllic, but the real action is in the sea: there are reefs and lagoons aplenty populated by the most stunning array of brilliantly-coloured fish, with each atoll surrounded by a coral reef, and a reef and a crystal clear lagoon surrounding each island.
Strict local regulation of fishing and commercial exploitation has kept the marine environment in a near-pristine state, but in 1998 the reefs began feeling the effects of El Ninõ. A rise in sea temperature, lasting two weeks, stripped the reefs of a symbiotic algae that caused 'bleaching' of the coral polyps. While bleaching can be devastating, most of the Maldive coral reefs emerged unscathed, and it appears the process has not harmed any other marine life. Marine biologists and reef-watchers believe the process to be cyclical and are watching the growth of the new coral with avid interest. In short, the reefs are still a scuba diving and snorkelling wonder world, although they have temporarily lost some of their technicolour splendour.
Though many of the bigger islands look like the picture-perfect, palm-fringed tropical fantasy, most have poor, sandy soil which supports only a limited range of plants - bamboo, pandanus, banana, mangroves, breadfruit trees, banyans, tropical vines and numerous coconut palms. The larger, wetter islands have small areas of rainforest. The main crops are limited to sweet potatoes, yams, taro, millet and watermelon, though a few more fertile islands have citrus fruits and pineapples.
Natural fauna is sparse - giant fruit bats, colourful lizards and the occasional rat. Domestic animals include cats, a few chickens, goats and some rabbits. The most exciting wildlife is under the water. Anyone with a mask and snorkel will see butterfly fish, angel fish, parrot fish, rock cod, unicorn fish, trumpet fish, bluestripe snapper, Moorish idols, oriental sweetlips and more. Larger life forms, eagerly sought by scuba divers, include sharks, stingrays, manta rays, turtles and dolphins.
Tourism has been established in the Maldives since 1972, when George Corbin, an Italian entrepreneur, brought 12 guests, mostly travel writers, to what he was convinced was the perfect holiday destination. They found a nation unchanged for decades, 93,000 residents without a single policeman or phone and one car. Within a year a handful of self-contained resorts had opened. By the end of the decade, President Gayoom had passed tourism laws which have safeguarded the islands and ensured the Maldives a cut on any tourism income ever since.
To this date, Italians have dominated the tourism market, preferring Club style resorts where they have exclusivity. The British market has grown rapidly over the last five years and is now the seond largest source of tourists. Being accessible from Europe and Asia, tourist resorts can be very cosmopolitan, with visitors from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Holland, Spain, Germany, France and Russia and many others besides!
With visitor figure reaching 360,000 in 1998 (the local population stands at around 290,000), the 1979 law showed amazing foresight, restricting building to the height of the surrounding trees, stating that trees cannot be cut down without prior permission from the Ministry and that resorts must not take water from 'inhabited' islands. In 1982, the new department for tourism (later to become the Ministry) decreed that all the resorts occupy their own self-contained worlds, made of natural materials and free from traffic and crime, catering to modern-day Crusoes with abundant creature comforts.