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The tourism paradox: Is the Maldives facing an existential crisis?

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All 200 inhabited islands of the Maldives could be submerged by the year 2100, say climate change experts
All 200 inhabited islands of the Maldives could be submerged by the year 2100, say climate change experts   -   Copyright  Getty Images
By Ben Anthony Horton  with AP

The Maldives is a tropical paradise of immaculate white beaches and spectacular coral reefs - but it might be gone by the end of the century.

That’s the verdict of the country’s Minister of Environment, Aminath Shauna, who says that unless urgent action is taken to curb the climate crisis, the Indian Ocean archipelago of more than 1,000 islands could be underwater by the year 2100.

“Climate change is real and we are the most vulnerable country in the world,” says Shauna. “There’s no higher ground for us. It’s just us, our islands and the sea.”

The nation stands at an average height of just one metre above sea level, making both increased groundswell and unpredictable weather patterns an imminent threat to life on the coral atolls.

While the very survival of the Maldives remains dependent upon limiting the impacts of climate change, the majority of the country’s 540,000 citizens rely on tourism as their main source of income.

The travel industry produces around 8 per cent of annual CO2 emissions globally - a figure which is expected to rise by 4 per cent every single year.

A battle to survive the climate crisis while simultaneously relying on an industry that is contributing to it.

This fact underlies the paradox facing modern day islanders: a battle to survive the climate crisis while simultaneously relying on an industry that is contributing to it.

“Where else are you going to get national income from if it's not tourism?” says James Ellsmoor, CEO at Island Innovation, a global network helping drive sustainable change across island communities.

“As much as everyone agrees that it's a problem to depend on tourism, there are not enough viable alternatives. I think these places are looking inwardly and seeing what they can do to reduce the impact of tourism, which they rely on so heavily.”

An existential crisis

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Hoteliers are embracing greener ways to host their guestsGetty Images

As the future of the Maldives hangs in the balance, it's little wonder that some hoteliers are embracing greener ways to host their guests.

"36 years ago, Villa Hotels Resorts were founded with an idea of sustainability in mind,” says Khadheeja Sana, spokesperson at the Maldives resort.

“Today we are very proud to lead the way in maintaining and promoting sustainability, conservation and preservation."

One of the eco solutions on offer to visitors at the resort is the ‘Zero’ restaurant - a farm-to-fork initiative promising negligible food miles with every meal.

"Guests are able to choose organic produce from our local farms, have it prepared by a professional chef and enjoy it immediately," explains island host, Ibrahim Aleef.

"We also hand pick certain ingredients in these farms such as lettuce, passion fruit and many more."

Just around the corner from the garden, a bottling plant recycles glass containers for use around the holiday complex.

"We prepare over 2,000 bottles to be distributed to our rooms and facilities,” adds Aleef. “By doing so, we drastically reduce the need for plastic bottles on the island."

These bottles are then filled with purified rainwater, a process which produces drinkable water for guests and locals alike.

The coral is dying

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More than 60 per cent of coral on the Maldives has already been bleachedGetty Images

Measures such as these offer practical solutions to offset the island’s emissions. But for many islanders, the question remains: is it really enough?

As well as rising sea levels, ocean temperature increases are also impacting life on the island nation.

The Maldives has around 2,500 coral reefs, making them the dominant ecosystem found across the archipelago.

As ocean temperatures rise, symbiotic algae in the coral turn white - a process called bleaching. This can have dire consequences for the vitality of the entire reef.

Already, more than 60 per cent of coral on the Maldives has already been bleached, according to a report in The Guardian.

"As a local living here I am worried about the health of our reefs and marine life,” says Ismail Hisham, a resident from Baa Atoll.

“I am very proud of the beauty of our coral but at the same time we should be protecting it for the future generations to come.”

This sentiment is echoed by experts on the island nation, who are working hard to conserve the world’s eighth largest coral reef system.

“What we hope to achieve is to try and preserve as much biodiversity as we can,” says Aya M Rahil, a marine biologist at the Coral Institute in the Maldives.

“We want to try and restore areas that we can't protect and hopefully be able to maintain biodiversity in the future as well."

The Maldives currently spends 50 per cent of its national budget on efforts to adapt to climate change.

The Maldives currently spends 50 per cent of its national budget on efforts to adapt to climate change, such as building sea walls to protect coral reefs.

In 2019 alone, 1.7 million people visited the archipelago, contributing to over 56 per cent of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP).

But the coronavirus pandemic brought with it serious economic consequences, decimating the tourism industry and shrinking the economy by over a third.

“The big issue over the last two years was that so much of the national income depended on tourism,” says James Ellsmoor.

“With such a huge amount of national income coming from tourism, there was no money left to respond to the climate crisis.”

Could the Maldives lose everything?

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The Indian Ocean archipelago of more than 1,000 islands could be underwater by the year 2100Getty Images

Now the nation is attempting to rejuvenate its primary industry, while continuing to encourage a more sustainable approach to travel and tourism.

"Ten years from now, it is our vision to see a world where people and nature live in perfect balance and harmony,” says Khadheeja Sana.

“A world where people learn to respect mother nature. A world where our children will see a better Maldives. I want my children to play on the same beaches, enjoy the same tropical gardens where I grew up. That is my dream."

But while there is optimism, the reality of the ongoing climate crisis speaks for itself.

The 2015 Paris climate accord intended to limit global temperatures rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above levels recorded in the late 19th century.

But a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change claims that the world is on track to exceed this target by the year 2030 - far earlier than originally anticipated.

"This is an existential thing for us and what we need is for the temperature to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius,” says Rahill.

“Even at two degrees Celsius, the predictions are that 99 per cent of corals will die globally. For the Maldives, this means that we lose our livelihoods, we lose our physical security, we lose our land, we lose everything.”

Like many citizens, Rahil believes that the future of her country rests not with sustainable tourism - but with the world leaders who have the power to enact change.

"My hope is that leaders will make drastic changes right now and take this as an emergency situation, because it is not only going to affect us - it is going to affect the whole world. This is a matter of life and death."

Watch the video above to find out more about the Maldives’ battle against the climate crisis.

Video editor • Ben Anthony Horton