Telling colleagues that you are taking a holiday in the Maldives will prompt groans of jealousy around the office. Co-workers will lose themselves in daydreams in which coffee at the desk becomes kurumba on a deck chair, and the computer’s glare is replaced by the Indian Ocean sun.
But, snapping out of this reverie, they will then ask themselves if you’ve had a pay rise they weren’t aware of.
Renowned the world over as the home of luxury island tourism, the Maldives has strived to develop a reputation for decadence over the past 40 years. This brand now brings over one million visitors to the country each year, with 80 percent still heading directly to one of over 100 single island resorts spread across the atolls.
But the industry is changing, with budget guesthouses springing up across the country at a phenomenal pace. From 23 registered properties in 2010, there are now more than 300 guesthouses situated on around half the country’s inhabited islands.
While the advent of commercial tourism in the 1970s brought the delights of the Maldives’ rich reefs and pristine lagoons to the outside world, the society of those who call paradise home remained largely off limits.
Stories of intrepid backpackers making it as far as the isolated islands were rare before fears of ‘hippy-types’ prompted the government in 1984 to shut down the few unofficial home-stays outside the capital, Malé. Small fishing communities were this cut-off from the outside world for a further quarter-century.
After legislative changes in 2009, however, the massive potential of the guesthouse sector has been unleashed, with floods of resort workers investing their money and their considerable hospitality experience in local islands.
Akhmeem Razzaq, managing director of local publisher Maldives Getaways, believes that the industry’s development will create financially empowered communities as well as raising social and environmental awareness across the islands.
“Maldives is not just about beaches, sun and sea. It’s also about people and a very unique culture history and traditional language,” Akhmeem told Maldives.com.
Indeed, the sea-change in the industry has opened up a unique prospect of affordable holidays that can offer unparalleled beaches alongside the opportunity to experience a culture largely untouched by the outside world.
Initial fears that the island’s Islamic culture would be incompatible with budget travel have proven unfounded, with the industry growing by more than a third in the past 5 years. The absence of pork and alcohol is more than offset by the opportunity to experience Maldivian lifestyle – fishing, diving, snorkelling – for a fraction of the usual price.
But those who wish to swap the lilting call to prayer echoing through the sandy island streets with the music of the cocktail bar are welcome to do so. Most guesthouses are happy to arrange day trips – and even short-stays – on the resorts, so visitors can experience the other side of paradise.
While transport between 1,192 islands spread across 42,000 square km will always be challenging, more and more guesthouse visitors are utilising local public transport to island hop, embracing the unique experience of a ferry ride around atolls.
Back in the office, envious teammates can now hear stories of sun, sea, and sand accompanied by tales of life in the Indian Ocean and the Maldivian community. But the best news of all is that that the cost of a holiday in the famous atolls is now within their reach.