It’s hard to imagine what the first Arab traders landing in the Maldives would make of The Muraka.
The underwater residence, five metres beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean, has a king-size bed, Aesop toiletries in the glass bathroom (to match the decor) and a butler available 24/7. And that’s before you count the stingray, clownfish and reef shark buzzing outside the 13-centimetre-thick, curved, acrylic panels in the bedroom: a big telly-full of celebrity marine life.
The Muraka, the world’s first underwater residence, created at a cost of US$15 million (HK$118 million), is a two-level super suite at a Maldivian resort that’s always been ahead of the tourism curve: Conrad Maldives Rangali Island. It opens in November at US$60,000 (HK$471,000) a night (or more – depending on how many extras you want).
But this year, the American resort used to making Maldivian firsts has competition: and nowhere does competition like Maldivian resorts. Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, which pioneered the overwater villa concept; brought a cheese and wine bar to the Maldives; and opened the world’s first underwater restaurant, Ithaa, 13 years ago. But now there are more tourists and more flashy resorts than ever, an airport redesign and a dizzying, ever-changing, always-upgrading array of hotel quirks.
This year alone, the almost 1,200 islands of the 26 coral atolls of the Maldives will welcome up to 10 new properties from a cluster of international brands – ranging from Fairmont and Baglioni to LUX* and Mövenpick. More are scheduled for 2019 – including the Waldorf Astoria. They’re housing an increasing number of visitors: during the first six months of this year, 726,515 landed on its sun-drenched shores, a 10.5 per cent uptick year-on-year.
More people means a higher profile, which means more pressure to innovate. What would those earliest Muslim sailors, who discovered the low-lying coral atolls in the 10th century AD, think of the skating rink at Jumeirah Vittaveli (a plastic rink overlooking the warm Indian Ocean, which opened last December)? Or the overwater villas complete with retractable roofs and playful water slides that deliver guests straight into the ocean at Soneva Jani? Or the underwater coral art installation at the new Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi, opened in May?
It all started with Kurumba, the Maldives’ first private island resort, which opened in 1972. It had space for just 60 guests a month (it’s still open today – but accommodates a significantly higher 14,000 guests a month). Then, the airstrip at Malé had no scheduled flights and international communication was by Morse code. Nobody – including the UN development team – thought a resort on a couple of small fishing islets would succeed as a tourism destination, let alone a world-class one.
But succeed it did, despite a lack of infrastructure and a remote location in the middle of the Indian Ocean. A glut of high-end resorts followed, offering ever-wackier experiences and premium cuisine in a country that imports 97 per cent of its food and drink. A glass of French Burgundy at Ithaa? No problem. Fresh Japanese yellowtail sashimi at Six Senses Laamu’s Zen restaurant? Coming right up. Steven Phillips, general manager of the soon-to-open Joali Maldives in the Raa Atoll and a Maldives hospitality veteran, tells me that resorts will ‘do anything as long as it’s legal’ – recounting the time he flew in a Steinway piano so a guest’s daughter could practise.
Resorts spawned first in the waters near Malé and then in the northern and southern atolls that stretch around 300 kilometres each way from the capital. As of the end of May, there were 137 resorts in the Maldives, on increasingly far-out private islands, accessible only by speedboats and seaplanes. (Naturally, the Maldives’ seaplane operation is the biggest in the world.)
‘The success of the Maldives is based on the private sector,’ says Ahmed Shiaan, the Maldives ambassador to Britain. He adds that while the government doesn’t own a single resort, it does regulate construction. ‘For example, only 30 per cent of any island can be developed, and no building can be higher than a coconut tree.’ Can you imagine that rule working in Hong Kong?
This private island tourism – unique to the Maldives – continued. But visitors had to be rich. Not just rich: minted. That changed in 2009, when the government allowed guesthouses to open, meaning visitors could stay on regular islands and immerse themselves more in the community and traditions rather than just the hot-tubs of luxury stilted villas. (The precondition? No alcohol and no pork: this is a conservative Muslim nation). The first opened on the island of Maafushi, near the capital, and at the end of last May there were 473 guesthouses dotted across the archipelago.
But it’s eco-tourism that’s been the real game-changer – because the Maldives, as the world’s lowest country, is most at risk from rising oceans; and also because private resorts have realised sustainability is a selling point. It’s why super-luxe resorts including Six Senses Laamu have developed comprehensive marine biology operations that straddle corporate and social responsibility and hospitality.
‘The Maldives has been reinventing itself since 1972,’ says Shiaan. ‘We’ve opened the world’s first carbon-neutral resort – Club Med’s Finolhu Villas. Most upcoming developments have put renewable energy and sustainability at the heart of the architecture.’ At the Club Med resort on Gasfinolhu Island, all power comes from 6,225 square metres of solar panels.
‘The Maldives will be known as a renewable energy destination, where sustainable tourism is at its best,’ adds Shiaan. ‘This will be the core of the Maldives. That’s what we are trying to achieve: to show that sustainability and nature go together with modernity.’
I’ve been in the Maldives four days, flown in via seaplane from Malé – as impressive a flight as you’ll ever take. There’s a reason for the high price tag: the resorts are world-class. I’ve eaten grilled lobster, surrounded by stingray and baby reef shark in a sunken restaurant, and I’ve drunk Ruinart champagne on a sunset cruise. But I’ve also dived with a pod of 25 bottlenose dolphins; swum in the clearest water, jumping directly in from my villa deck; and seen the Milky Way up close and personal. Some things haven’t changed since 1972 – or the 10th century.
Green on blue
Six Senses Laamu
The only resort in the southern Laamu Atoll is owned by Six Senses, a hospitality brand with one eye on wellness and the other on sustainability. And Six Senses Laamu – all blousy linens and New Zealand pine, with no plastic to be seen anywhere – has the Maldives’ largest collection of marine biologists. The 10-strong team is tracking sea life including green turtles and manta rays, as well as encouraging the local grouper population and teaching local kids about the dangers of overfishing. A sophisticated sustainability operation includes a desalination plant and an onsite ‘Earth Lab’, where glass is crushed and recycled into bricks, and food waste is composted for the on-site nursery growing herbs and vegetables that you’ll eat in the restaurants.
Its mission is impressive, but the accommodation even more so: wooden overwater villas with outdoor showers and terraces with direct access to the gin-clear sea. sixsenses.com/sixsenseslaamu
A different side to paradise
TANYA LEE finds that you don’t need to break the bank to experience the Maldives – just stay at a guesthouse
Lodgings on Fulidhoo may not be five-star, but they’ll definitely be beachfront. Measuring 675 metres by 200 meters, it takes just 10 minutes to walk the sandy streets of this island past the teashop, multicoloured concrete houses, school and mini-market to the other side. Fulidhoo is home to around 500 Maldivians plus a trickle of visitors from overseas who travel nearly four hours on the thrice-weekly ferry from Malé to experience life outside the resorts, staying at its half-dozen homestays and guesthouses, including the beachfront Kinan Retreat (kinanhotels.com).
Days start with the call to prayer sounding from the village mosque and a breakfast of mas huni – tuna and grated coconut served with flatbread – and end with traditional boduberu drumming and fruit juice (Fulidhoo is alcohol-free). A ‘bikini beach’ has emerged on the far side of the island where scantily-clad sun-worshippers can enjoy the turquoise waters away from conservative eyes.
But to embrace Fulidhoo life is to swim fully clothed, join the local children’s games of beachfront football, and feed the stingrays that gather at the jetty at sunset. The island is now home to a Padi Dive Centre – Fulidhoo Dive (fulidhoodive.com) – and just about anyone will be happy to arrange a snorkelling trip, fishing or a picnic on an isolated sandbar.
Cathay Pacific flies to Malé from Hong Kong four times a week