Maldives residents struggle to rebuild paradise

MALDIVES REPUBLIC — Where are all the Europeans? The Japanese? The people who, since the first resort opened in 1972, have been making this tiny nation of 1,200 islands one of the world's great tourist pamperers?

The travelers are not coming, at least not in force, not since the tsunami in December. Tourism, the Maldives' number-one moneymaker, usually accounts for more than a fifth of the national income, and it's down by 49 percent so far this year. The government had expected tourism tax revenues to come to $43 million by December's end; new projections put the figure at $31 million.

In the Maldive Islands - sunny, serene, with high-end accommodations, some of the world's best diving and snorkeling, and the general ambience of paradise - some who depended on vacationing visitors for livelihoods now depend on government aid or help from private foundations and, in the small, close-knit communities that make up most of the 200 inhabited islands, the generosity of family members and friends.

Some have joined fishing fleets, the nation's second-largest industry, according to islanders. And others have moved to new, less-damaged islands where work may be easier to find.

The tsunami took 82 lives in the Maldives, claimed 26 others whose bodies have never been found, damaged about 4,000 buildings, displaced more than 8,000 people, and caused general havoc to individual island infrastructures. The World Bank estimates that the Maldives will need $304 million, in U.S. equivalency, to rebuild.

Even so, of its 87 resorts - one to an island - 67 are fully up and running. The coral reefs and bright blue lagoons that surround the islands are awash in many colors of sea life. The ocean water is a steady 84 degrees. Beachfront villas and in-room whirlpools are polished, king beds are made, diving equipment is double-checked and chefs stand by imposing beachside charcoal grills, filets of tuna and mignon piled at the side.

Last year, the nation welcomed more than 600,000 tourists; that's more than twice the Maldivian population of about 280,000. Since Dec. 26 when the tsunami set a record of another sort, becoming among the worst natural disasters in modern history - about 179,000 people dead, mostly in Indonesia, another 50,000 still missing - the Maldives have been off the radar of many tourists, particularly from Asia and Europe, who might otherwise have come.

In the first six months of last year, 316,836 tourists visited the Maldives. Statistics from the Maldivian government show that from January through June this year, the number was down to 161,493.

"We are expecting to maintain the same level as last year," says Hassam Zameel, who works in the tourism ministry's financial section. "We are trying to achieve that target." A big question mark is this coming autumn, after the departure of what Maldivians call the wet season - and Americans would call generally beautiful weather with some rain and clouds here and there. If business picks up then, and through the Christmas holidays, and if some signature resorts such as the Four Seasons are back in operation, Zameel's prediction could be more than hopeful speculation.

The Maldives (mostly pronounced MALL-deevz, but also with the last syllable rhyming with "hives") were not hit by mountainous waves. But most of the nation's 1,200 islands are no more than four or five feet above sea level, so the three waves that crashed onto beaches moved through the islands to inundate communities, whose streets are made of sand almost everywhere but on the island of the nation's capital, Male' (MAH-lay). One of the densest capitals in the world, with 80,000 people on an island of less than 1.3 square miles, the city's sea wall failed to protect it.

"The water began to rise and people panicked," remembers Ismail Nasheed, 23, a Maldivian who works at the Four Seasons resort, structurally damaged beyond saving by the waves, and now being rebuilt. Nasheed was describing the scene on an island neighboring the resort, where he stood with local residents when one of the waves came in. "People were crying and praying - we never saw anything like this before. `Tsunami?' I think I never even heard the word before."

Nasheed is still working; the Four Seasons kept its entire staff on payroll, shifting several to its three-story catamaran, the 11-stateroom Explorer, the only real cruise around the nation's islands. For a time, the Explorer was a relief ship, carrying supplies to different inhabited islands; of the 1,200, people live on 200, each its own little town. In June, the Explorer's crew went to one of the far southern islands to deliver computers and books to a library, gifts from the $300,000 that Four Seasons employees contributed from around the world.

Other Maldivians are not as lucky as Nasheed. They made their livings from tourism in peripheral ways - souvenir stands, clothing stores, restaurants. One on island, Dhangethi, a shopkeeper named Aminath Ibrahim pointed to a watermark, just high enough to damage goods in the isle's single shopping street. The street had little business on a pretty Thursday a few weeks ago.

On another, the badly battered Guraidhoo, where water left huge pits in the sand streets and knocked down single-story homes on several sides of town, rebuilding is slow. "We depended on tourists and they are not coming," says Ahmed Shiyaz, 23, standing at the dock of the island, where striking coconut palms salute people who disembark, and scattered debris farther up the beach hints at the destruction in town.

"My house is broken. My daughters' houses were broken," says Ahmed Moosa, 54, who worked in a souvenir shop, now closed. Some of his family, like others on the island of 1,700 residents, live in tents stamped with the words "U.S. AID," on a beachfront. Moosa talked about the disaster as he stood on a street with no name, near the downtown streets with a host of shuttered stores, some of their contents taken to sea when the waves crashed through store windows.

There are, of course, ironies. On another island, Rasdhoo, with about 850 residents, a builder of dhonies, the stately boats that are the basic transportation of the Maldives, got a gift from the tsunami. He was able to use wood from full trees that came to rest on Rasdhoo's beach, roots and all, probably from Indonesia.

All resident Maldivians, the people without foreigners' working papers, are Sunni Muslims, and the Islamic nation has friendly relations with the United States, which has no embassy staff living in the country.

Most young Maldivians speak both their national language, Dhivehi, and English, and although the nation has its own currency, cash registers are full of U.S. ones, five, tens and twenties, a virtual shadow currency. The average salary is about $2,200 a year, according to United Nations figures.

Women play major roles in society and some cover their heads by choice. Men may have up to four wives, but Maldivians say the practice is rare, because no one can afford it.

If you were able to push all 1,200 islands together, you'd get 115 square miles, which is 21 fewer than the city of Philadelphia. Many of the islands look like those in cartoonists' survival gags and take about five minutes to walk around, provided you dawdle.

Traditionally, Maldivians can claim coconuts that fall to the street by circling the sand around them, then come back and pick them up later - and then go home to watch Maldivian and American channels on their satellite TVs. Most get around either on bicycle or on foot. The fact that secondary public education is not available on each island does not stop people from learning crafts or professions; the nation's literacy rate is 98 percent.

One result of the tsunami has been a liberalization of politics. The government of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, president for almost 27 years, has allowed opposition parties for about two months, after pressure from other governments, and many Maldivians see the country as an emerging democracy. Some also see the government as slow to filter relief funding.

"The effects of the tsunami galvanized more people to understand that rebuilding cannot happen with a single party apparatus," says Mohamed Nasheed, chairperson of the largest opposition party.

When he talks about tourism, Nasheed says that rather than importing labor, the industry needs to put more Maldivians to work. The biggest local resource that resorts use, he says, "is the beach and the sun." That beach and sun, and the mass of underwater life that also populates the country, are what Maldivians count on to make the nation prosper once again.


Getting to the Maldives? It's no simple trip from North America. From the East Coast, many airlines fly pieces of the trip, from JFK International through Singapore, London, Dubai, or Sri Lanka. The carriers include United, Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Air India and Lufthansa.

From Newark, the world's longest nonstop flight, Singapore Airlines' SQ21, flies to Singapore - about 18 hours across 9,529 air miles, on a A340-500 Airbus that is roomy, even in economy. In Singapore, travelers catch a plane to the Maldives; no matter what you fly from North America, you'll switch from a jumbo jet to a smaller plane at some point, in order to reach Hulhule International Airport at the Maldive's capital city, Male'.

Current round-trip prices from the East Coast to the Maldives begin at $2,050. From Los Angeles, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines are among the carriers; current round-trip prices begin at about $1,450.