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Maldives gets tourists to clean-up before leaving

The midday tourist rush is just beginning at the island airport of the Maldivian capital, Male.

Germans are queuing up at security check for their flight back to Dusseldorf after a week's vacation in this archipelago of atolls in the Indian Ocean and trundle trolleys piled high with scuba gear and duffel bags.

On top of the heap of luggage, each tourist carries an identical white plastic satchel. In it are used batteries, empty bottles of sunblock cream, disposable razors, and other garbage that they are taking home to Germany.

Nothing is quite so symbolic of the importance that the Maldives attaches to its environment than tourists lugging all their trash back home with them. Indeed, 1997 is 'Visit Maldives Year' and the slogan is: 'Sustainable Development Through Tourism'.

With a population of just above 250,000, the Maldives received about 350,000 tourists last year and they are the backbone of the country's economy -- forming 40 per cent of the annual revenue for the exchequer.

The country has 1,190 islands and 26 atoll formations enclosing azure lagoons, a stupendous variety of marine life and pristine beaches. Atolls are the tops of submerged mountains and the word is derived from the Maldivian language, Dhivehi. Uncontrolled tourism could have devastated the fragile lagoons and coral reefs.

By deliberately pricing itself at the upper end of the market, the Maldives has made sure that it gets the maximum monetary benefit without the negative environmental impact. It has also minimised the social and cultural side-effects of mass tourism by confining tourists to resort islands where there is very little interaction with the local population.

''There is tremendous awareness of environmental issues at the highest levels of government,'' says Narinder Kakar, resident representative in Male of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), co-sponsor with the World Tourism Organisation of an Asia-Pacific ministerial meeting that began in Male last on Sunday.

Kakar hopes the conference will underline to top planners from the region that ''tourism must be ecologically bearable, economically viable and socially equitable.'' The UNDP has been helping the Maldivian government with hotel training and resort management. The Maldives has also been the training ground of tourism instructors for South Asia's leading hotels.

This week, the Maldives has shown off what it has achieved to the visiting delegates so that other Asia-Pacific can learn from the country's tourism development model.

''We want to ensure that tourism brings long-term benefit to the country so that the natural resources for tourism do not deteriorate. We want to promote tourism in such a manner that a sustainable future for tourism is ensured,'' says Maldivian Tourism Minister Ibrahim Hussain Zaki.

Tourism ministers from most of the 22 Asia-Pacific members of the WTO attended the Maldives meeting, which was titled: 'Tourism 2000 -- Building a Sustainable Future for Asia-Pacific'. On Wednesday, delegates announced their "main declaration on tourism and environment," the development strategy for the region.

''Tourism will need to increasingly adopt a more ecologically-based approach, particularly on islands and fragile destinations, if it is to ensure its own long-term sustainability,'' said Francesco Frangialli, secretary-general of the WTO. "Otherwise," Frangialli said, ''we may continue to be surprised by events and developments beyond our control.''

Tourism experts have hailed the Maldives as a model of just this kind of sustainable tourism development, and they say that is why they chose it as the venue for this meeting.

Resort development is allowed on only 75 uninhabited islands, although 14 more licenses are about to be granted. Only one-fifth of the area of any island is allowed to be built on, and no construction is allowed to exceed the the height of the coconut trees.

Garbage and waste disposal is a big problem. And aside from plastic trash bags for tourists to take home, every resort has an incinerator that burns excess rubbish, bio-degradable waste is turned into compost, sewage is treated before it is piped out into the deep sea outside the lagoon area.


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