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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Maldives


The Maldives (Dhivehi: Dhivehi Raajje) [1] are an archipelago of 1,190 coral islands grouped into 26 coral atolls (200 inhabited islands, plus 80 islands with tourist resorts) in the Indi


History

Formerly a Sultanate under Dutch and English protection, the Maldives are now a republic. Allegations of corruption continue to plague the regime of President Gayoom, as do reports of political dissidents being exiled. None of this appears to bother tourists, however, who are attracted to the warm Indian Ocean waters.

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 29,000 people were left homeless. The economic damage alone was over 62% of the GDP or US$470 million.

Some islands, including Thaa atoll Vilufushi, felt the brunt of the wave, and residents on the island are now living in temporary shelters on the island of Buruni in the same atoll. More than a year later, there are in excess of 11,000 people in temporary shelters across the country. It was a brutal shock to the small island state which is so vulnerable to environmental disasters and global warming.

Economy

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. Almost 400,000 tourists visited the islands in 1998. Fishing is a second leading sector. The Maldivian Government began an economic reform program in 1989 initially by lifting import quotas and opening some exports to the private sector. Subsequently, it has liberalized regulations to allow more foreign investment. 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. 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.

Culture

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.

Climate

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.


Get in

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. This can be extended up to 90 days at Male, but you'll need to indicate where you're staying for that long. See the Department of Immigration and Emigration website [2] for details.

Importing alcohol, pork or pornography (very broadly defined) into the Maldives is forbidden and all luggage is X-rayed on arrival. On the way out, note that exporting sand or seashells is also forbidden.

By plane

Practically all visitors arrive at Malé International Airport (IATA: MLE, ICAO: VRMM), located on Hulhulé Island right next to the capital Male. The airport is served by a wide array of flights to 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.

Gan Airport (IATA: GAN, ICAO: VRMG), on the southern atoll of Addu, is scheduled to start receiving international flights in November 2007.

Departure taxes are included in your ticket.

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.

Get around

Getting around in the Maldives takes two forms: boats', sea planes (air taxis) and private yachts which are arranged by resorts. The boats being the Maldivian equivalent of a car and the planes and private yatchs mainly reserved for tourists.

Air taxis and boats prefer not to operate at night, so if you arrive at the airport after dark and are going to a distant resort, you may have to spend the night in Male or at the airport hotel in Hulhule. Private transfers though expensive can be opted for resort transfers instead of spending the whole night at Male. Private transfers could cost anywhere between 500-800 USD. On the way back, there may also be a significant gap between the time your transfer arrives and your flight departure. Check with your resort or travel agent.

Independent travel to inhabited islands other than Male requires an Inter Atoll Travel Permit from the Ministry of Atolls [3], and receiving one requires Rf.10, a copy of your passport and — the hard part — an invitation from a resident of the island you wish to visit. Permits are not necessary for the organized island-hopping tours arranged by resorts and liveaboards.

By plane

No point in the Maldives is more than 45 minutes away by plane from Male, and visitors to the more far-flung resorts use air taxi services. There are two main operators: Maldivian Air Taxi, with red and white planes, and Trans Maldivian Airways, with yellow and blue planes. The services are largely identical, with both flying DHC-6 Twin Otter seaplanes that take around 10 passengers.

Scheduled inter-island services are provided by Island Aviation [4], which flies from Male to Gan, Hanimaadhoo, Kaadeddhoo and Kaddhoo. Travel permits are required.

By boat

The taxi boats generally take tourists to and from the islands in the North and South Male atolls. They come in all different shapes and sizes depending on the quality of the resort you stay in — the Four Seasons has a large enclosed motor cruiser with drinks and food, while the lesser resorts have open sided dhoni fishing boats.

To DO

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. Manta rays, sharks, even a few wrecks, you name it, you can find it 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 powerful streams to be found on the sides facing the open sea. Water in the Maldives is warm throughout the year and a 3mm shorty or Lycra diveskin is plenty. Decompression chambers can be found on Bandos in Kaafu (15 min from Male) and at Kuramathi on Alifu.

The one downside to diving in the Maldives is that it's quite expensive by Asian standards. Prices vary considerably from resort to resort, with specialist dive resorts offering better prices, 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. Beware of surcharges: you may be charged extra for boat use, guided dives, larger tanks, etc. On the upside, safety standards are usually very high, with well-maintained gear and strict adherence to protocol (check dives, maximum depth, computer use, etc) being the rule rather than the exception.

Eat

All the resorts are self contained so they have at least one restaurant, which generally serve the type of cuisine expected by their guests. ( i.e. modern European or generic Asian). Breakfast is almost always included, and most resorts offer the option of half-board, which means you get a dinner buffet, and full board, which means you get a lunch and dinner buffet. These can limit the damage compared to ordering a la carte, but your options are typically very limited and drinks are often not covered, not necessarily even water. If you're planning on drinking a lot, it may be worthwhile to go all inclusive, but even this typically restricts you to house drinks.

The only other place to find food is Male. This comes in two forms. Either small restaurants aimed at the tourists (of which there are a couple of nice Thai restaurants), which are often expensive, or small cafes called hotaa, selling local Maldivian food at prices as low as Rf.20 for a complete meal.

Maldivian cuisine

Maldivian food revolves largely around fish (mas), in particular tuna (kandu mas), and draws heavily from the Sri Lankan and south Indian tradition, especially Kerala. Dishes are often hot, spicy and flavored with coconut, but use very few vegetables. A traditional meal consists of rice, a clear fish broth called garudhiya and side dishes of lime, chili and onions. Curries known as riha are also popular and the rice is often supplemented with roshi, unleavened bread akin to Indian roti, and papadhu, the Maldivian version of crispy Indian poppadums. Some other common dishes include:

  • mas huni — shredded smoked fish with grated coconuts and onions, the most common Maldivian breakfast
  • fihunu mas — barbequed fish basted with chili
  • bambukeylu hiti — breadfruit curry

Snacks called hedhikaa, almost invariably fish-based and deep-fried, can be found in any Maldivian restaurant.

  • bajiya — pastry stuffed with fish, coconut and onions
  • gulha — pastry balls stuffed with smoked fish
  • keemia — deep-fried fish rolls
  • kulhi borkibaa — spicy fish cake
  • masroshimas huni wrapped in roshi bread and baked
  • theluli mas — fried fish with chili and garlic

Drink

As the Maldives are fairly strongly Muslim, alcohol is banned for the local population. However, nearly all resorts and liveaboard boats are licensed to serve it, usually with a steep markup. Expatriate residents have an allowance that they can buy in Male.

Maldivians generally do not drink alcohol although this is less true of the younger generation. They are, however, unhappy about being filmed or photographed while drinking.

Tap water in resorts may or may not be drinkable -- check with management. Bottled water is extortionately priced, with US$5/bottle being typical.

Sleep

This guide uses the following price ranges for a standard double room:
Budget Under US$100
Mid-range US$100-300
Splurge Over $300

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.

The range and themes or the resorts is impressive, and most people will find one they like. Broadly speaking, however, they can be grouped into three brackets:

  • Dive resorts, designed primarily for divers. Geared expressly for people who want to spend most of their time underwater, facilities on land are limited, but the house reef is usually excellent. Often found in the more far-flung parts of the archipelago.
  • Holiday resorts, designed primarily for families. These are large and have a full complement of facilities (multiple restaurants, day-care centers, etc), but don't have over-the-top luxury and have less privacy. Most of these are located on Kaafu, with easy access from Male.
  • Luxury resorts, designed primarily for honeymooners and the jet set. The place to be if you want designer furniture, gourmet food and a plasma TV in an overwater villa reachable only by rowboat, and are willing to pay top dollar for the privilege.

A Maldivian classic is the overwater bungalow, built on stilts directly above a lagoon. While these look fabulous and sound appealing, they have their downsides:

  • They're usually packed tightly together (often sharing a wall), meaning little privacy.
  • Especially at low tide, the water level may be too low to allow swimming or snorkeling.
  • Resort facilities may be a fair distance from the bungalows.
  • The lapping of waves is romantic enough on a calm day, but can make it next to impossible to sleep if a storm blows through.

These factors vary from resort to resort, so research carefully. A good one is definitely worth trying at least once, but many Maldives repeaters prefer a bungalow with a private beach.

When considering where to go, factor in transport time and costs from the airport: the more far-flung resorts generally require an expensive seaplane transfer and you may have to stay overnight at the airport on the way. On the upside, the further away you are from Male, the more peaceful the islands and the better the diving.

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.


Stay safe

There is very little crime in the Maldives as the tourists generally stay in the resorts since there is not much to do outside. This means that you can feel safe on your own at all times. Generally Maldivians are honest, helpful and welcoming people although you are unlikely to come into much contact with them in resorts.

There is a growing drug problem among the local population and hence petty crime to support this has arisen.

Street rioting and battles by anti-Government protesters in Male in August 2005 (armoured cars were deployed on the streets and a curfew enforced) have ended but political tension is still high and violence can erupt at any time. Visitors staying in Male' need to be careful after dark.

Take the usual precautions such as not leaving money and valuables lying around. Remember that $50 that you were going to use in the bar that night represents 10 days' wages for the cleaners etc.

There are no drugs anywhere in the resorts and most Maldivians rarely come into contact with anything more than an occasional beer that has been smuggled out of a resort. All this is a great help in creating the Paradise feel to the country.


Helpful Links:

http://www.visitmaldives.com/
http://www.mymaldives.com/travel/resorts.php
http://www.maldivesinfo.gov.mv/home/index.php
http://www.worldtravelguide.net/country/160/country_guide/Indian-Subcontinent/Maldives.html

3 comments:

Lynam's Hotel said...

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Holiday-Velvet-Paris said...

Wow it is really great to see such beautiful beaches of green in Maldives,now i can say Maldives is going to be a complete holiday destination.

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Luxury Traveler said...

It would be great to spend a holiday at Diva Maldives.

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