Maldivian surfers recently reached out to the global surfing community to raise awareness about plans for a high-end boutique surf resort on the undeveloped Thanburudhoo Island, which would be granted exclusive access to a world class right (Sultans) and left (Honkeys). The plan was rumored to ban locals from surfing these waves and would come on top of years of the nearby Dhonvelli (Pasta Point) and Hudhuran Fushi (Lohi’s) resorts, not only denying locals access to the waves they control, but also sending multiple boats with 15 surfers a piece out to the open access waves in the region.
In early October, I (Dr. Jess) traveled to the Maldives to meet the President of the venture capital firm Telos Investments that is developing the island, the Maldives Minister for Tourism, members of the Ministry of Defense, as well as spending several days getting to know members of the Maldives Surfing Association, and eventually going surfing with them at both Sultans and Honkeys. It turned out to be a fascinating trip, these issues are complex and are bound up in lofty notions of democracy, governance, cultural protection, and sustainable development.
Maldives is a collection of 400,000 people living on 200 of 1,192 islands lining the rims of 26 massive atolls, scattered across 35,000 square miles of northern Indian Ocean 430 miles south west of Sri Lanka, straddling the equator. Around one-third of the nation’s population lives in the capital of Male pictured below – an island you can walk around in a couple of hours, yet it is as densely populated as Manhattan and almost completely devoid of public open space. The highest point in the entire nation is just 2.4 meters above sea level; the average height above sea level is 1.5 meters. A recent study suggested the Maldives has about 4,000 days before rising sea levels will require evacuation of many areas. The Maldives attracts around 1 million tourists each year to more than 90 resorts with more than 20,000 beds.
There are a few things we need to understand about the Maldives to really understand the current state of affairs. Maldives is a Muslim nation and this fundamentally informs the country’s approach to tourism. Tourism only really began for Maldives in the 1970’s, the first resort being built in 1972. Around this time, ‘hippy trail’ tourists began making the trip across from India and Sri Lanka to hang out for a while and brought with them their partying, party favors, and penchant for public partial nudity. This offended local Muslim sensibilities and caused real concern for the future of tourism. As a result, the government put in place a remarkably progressive tourism development policy for the times. Known as the ‘Quality Tourism Strategy’ (QTS), this policy’s impact has echoed through time with mixed results for the people of the Maldives.
President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom introduced the QTS in 1978 – Gayoom remained in power in the absence of democratic elections and with reports of suppression of dissent and limitations on personal freedoms until 2008. The QTS stipulated that in order to avoid ‘cultural pollution,’ resorts are only to be built on uninhabited islands and should not be visible from inhabited islands. Alcohol can only be served in resorts or live aboard tourist boats and cannot be handled or served by Maldivian people. Male, like all inhabited islands, is totally dry. Resorts must treat their own waste and supply their own water. The QTS also made stipulations to protect the environment, insisting on environmental impact assessments for all developments, banning the removal of native vegetation and disturbance of coastal ecology.
Despite this, significant environmental impacts have resulted from damage to reefs in the building of over-water bungalows and blasting channels for navigation to islands as well as the building of harbors, marinas, and the ‘reclaiming’ of land. Reclamation of land on Male has severely impacted the island’s only surf break with backwash, strong currents, and rips. In addition, the QTS allowed for only one resort to be developed per island and made the purchasing of land leases and leasing of tourist beds so expensive as to render anything but extremely high-end tourism unfeasible. Land leases are bid for on a competitive basis when the government releases new islands for tourism development, each bed in a resort attracts an additional lease payment of $16,000 per year.
The QTS has led the Maldives to have the highest GDP per capita in South Asia and a 97% literacy rate. Tourism is the largest contributor to this with approximately 30% of GDP from tourism, 35% of the government revenue, 70% of foreign exchange, and 50% of all employment. This model of tourism has also led to a very lopsided distribution of wealth with a small number of wealthy families controlling the majority of Maldivian tourism interests as well as being politically powerful. There is a noticeable lack of abject poverty, begging, and homelessness on the streets of Male.
Perhaps the most important detail of the QTS for surf tourism development is the stipulation that each resort island is given an exclusive use zone extending 700m out from the vegetation line. This is to provide some level of privacy, a ‘house reef’ for diving and snorkeling, and private control over surf breaking within 700m of the vegetation lines of resort islands. It is on this basis that resorts like Dhonvelli and Hudhuran Fushi are able to exercise exclusivity to the surf breaking on the islands they have leased. Since a change in government in 2008, inhabited islands are allowed to host tourists in villas and surf camps though these are not allowed to serve alcohol. A number of relatively low-cost surf camps have sprung up in response to this. In addition to the existing surf resorts, villas, and establishments like the Four Seasons, which host surfers, there is a substantial liveaboard charter fleet in the Maldives. This liveaboard fleet makes use of the waves in North Male despite severe crowding during the peak surfing season, presumably because they are very close to Male and can save on fuel.
Thanburudhoo has long been owned by the Maldives’ military and earmarked for development as a training facility. According to legal opinion I heard while in the Maldives, historically the surf breaks have only been allowed to be accessed because of a lack of military resources to prevent this – think Camp Pendleton and other US military facilities which put stretches of surfable coast lines off-limits. In the past, military would stop surfing at Thanburudhoo when they were carrying out military exercises in the area. With the Maldives government strapped for cash, it decided to sell Thanburudhoo as a resort island and brokered into the deal a training center on adjacent Girifushi Island, which will benefit the military and also the Coast Guard. Developers were lining up to bid on the island that is among the last of the uninhabited islands close to Male to be developed. Ultimately the lease was granted to Telos Investments, a Singapore based venture capital company headed by American surfer, Gunnar Lee-Miller, who studied at Harvard and has an M.A. and PhD in philosophy and economics.
So, the Maldives government, under the first democratically elected President Nasheed, decided that Thanburudhoo was to be sold to tourism and the Telos plan was scrutinized and selected. Nasheed was removed by the military and the Thanburudhoo plan went through another iteration of government scrutiny and was again passed. The deal has now been struck and the resort development is going ahead.
I had been in touch with Karo and Rippe from the Maldives Surfing Association by email for a few weeks. We finally met in person over looking at the surf break that land reclamation has spoiled on Male. The conversation continued for three hours, then the following afternoon, and all day the day after that when part time surf guide Fayani joined us on Rippe’s uncle’s boat for a surf trip to Thanburudhoo. As well as sharing some great waves with the local guys, I watched with disgust as several different groups of surfers (two old longboarders staying at Dhonvelli and a dhoni boat full of surfers dropped off by Hudhuran Fushi resort) continually paddled around the local surfers to the inside position as if they were invisible. Try pulling that kind of stunt in Hawaii, or California or the Gold Coast for that matter, and the locals would knock your teeth out. The naturally mild manner of the locals in the Maldives, combined with the lack of instruction from surf guides for tourists to treat locals with respect, has led to the locals finding themselves at the bottom of the pecking order in the only waves they have left. They told me that in peak season they often wind up in arguments with tourists, I can see why.
Local surfers are sick of having to ask foreigners if they can surf their waves. They point out that when international contests are held in the Maldives, its actually the foreign surfers who have a home court advantage because they’ve probably surfed the breaks at Dhonveli and Hudhuran Fushi on corporate sponsored surf trips, while the local surfers have never been allowed access. They are sick of having to deal with crowds of over 100 on the open access waves during the peak season and the lack of respect shown to them by visiting surfers. They are horrified at the last open space around them being sold to raise money for a government they don’t trust. They worry about the impact of all this on the environment and on the quality of the surf – they’ve already seen one wave ruined. They worry about the impact of a Thanburudhoo resort on the liveaboard surf charter industry that provides jobs for some of their friends. In talking with a number of government ministers in the Maldives, their concerns are not unfounded. The like of Jeff Spicoli is still the working model of a surfer held by government officials in the Maldives, as it is in many parts of the US. In reality, the MSA is a group of intelligent, articulate, passionate young surfers deeply concerned that their country’s surfing heritage is being carved up and sold off to foreign interests to bankroll a government and local elite they do not trust. In a political environment that is not democratic at present, they feel powerless to do anything about it.
It is on this basis that the Center for Surf Research has become involved. The challenge is to come up with a management plan that will: allow daily access for local surfers; protect the integrity of the surf breaks; implement a carrying capacity and code of conduct; provide a net increase in good jobs for local surfers; support the Maldives Surfing Association; and ensure the sustainability of the resource. Upon meeting the developer, Dr Lee Miller, I found him to be intelligent, personable and already actively trying to figure out how to balance the economic viability of a boutique surf resort with local needs, local access and sustainability. These are the challenges ahead that the Center for Surf Research team will be helping to address. We look forward to an ongoing relationship with the Maldives Surfing Association and ensuring that the needs and concerns of local surfers are built into the management plan. We will be producing a full research paper on this in the near future.