The Maldives Controversy: Should Ethical Travelers Stay Away?

Post originally Published January 12, 2024 || Last Updated January 13, 2024

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The Maldives Controversy: Should Ethical Travelers Stay Away? - Environmental Damage of New Resorts

The Maldives Controversy: Should Ethical Travelers Stay Away?

The Maldives' stunning natural beauty and idyllic beaches have made it a top global destination. But the archipelago's rapid tourism growth has come at a steep environmental cost. Over the past two decades, dozens of luxury resorts have sprung up, often on previously uninhabited islands. Their construction and operation have taken a heavy toll on the nation's fragile coral reefs and marine ecosystems.

According to a 2020 study by the Maldives Marine Research Institute, coral cover in the central Maldives has declined from 30-40% in the 1990s to just 5% today. Multiple factors are to blame, including warming oceans due to climate change. But researchers identified physical damage during resort construction as a major driver of reef deterioration. Dynamite fishing, dredging, and anchoring on coral have become commonplace.
Resorts also strain local environments through high energy and water use. Most rely on diesel generators and desalination plants that guzzle fossil fuels. Wastewater pollution is another concern, as sewage treatment remains limited. In a nation where most islands barely rise above sea level, these unsustainable practices raise questions about the tourism model's viability.

Some industry veterans have issued warnings. Ahmed Siyam Mohamed, the Maldives' former Minister of Tourism, noted in 2019 that the scale and pace of new resort development had become uncontrolled. "We are developing the tourism industry in ways that could end up destroying it," he said. Mohamed called for a temporary moratorium on new resorts to assess their environmental impact.
While his proposal gained little traction, some operators have pursued eco-conscious models. Soneva Fushi, one of the nation's first resorts, has long touted sustainability through renewable energy, local hiring, and minimal dredging in construction. Its newest property, Soneva Jani, was built on a previously uninhabited island using foundations that cause minimal reef damage.

Such examples show that luxury tourism in the Maldives need not come at the cost of its greatest asset - its natural environment. But they remain the exception. Reversing the damage already done will require stringent new building codes and environmental regulations. Delicate marine ecosystems will need protected status, not bulldozed for new overwater villas. And local communities must receive more economic benefits from tourism to become invested stewards of their islands.

What else is in this post?

  1. The Maldives Controversy: Should Ethical Travelers Stay Away? - Environmental Damage of New Resorts
  2. The Maldives Controversy: Should Ethical Travelers Stay Away? - Allegations of Corruption in Government
  3. The Maldives Controversy: Should Ethical Travelers Stay Away? - Treatment of Migrant Workers in Hospitality Industry
  4. The Maldives Controversy: Should Ethical Travelers Stay Away? - Calls for Boycott from Responsible Tourism Groups
  5. The Maldives Controversy: Should Ethical Travelers Stay Away? - Preserving Local Culture vs Tourism Demands
  6. The Maldives Controversy: Should Ethical Travelers Stay Away? - Pushing Back Against "Tourism Colonialism"

The Maldives Controversy: Should Ethical Travelers Stay Away? - Allegations of Corruption in Government

The Maldives' rapid growth as a high-end travel destination has fostered allegations of cronyism and corruption at the highest levels of government. Critics argue that political insiders have used their positions to profit from the tourism boom while ignoring environmental and social impacts. The lack of transparency around resort development deals has fueled suspicions.
In 2016, Al Jazeera published a detailed investigation alleging systemic corruption under then-president Abdulla Yameen. The report accused Yameen of selling off entire islands and lagoons to industry friends at bargain prices. It also alleged that bids were routinely rigged so allies won construction contracts. Documents showed dozens of uninhabited islands designated as "free tourist zones" exempt from taxes and regulations.

Yameen's government denied the allegations and claimed the report was politically biased. But later that year, Vice President Ahmed Adeeb was convicted on charges of corruption related to the leasing of public islands and lagoons for resort development. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Adeeb's trial shined light on the common practice of leasing land to developers for up to 50 years at rates far below market value.
After Yameen lost re-election in 2018, his successor President Ibrahim Solih launched an inquiry into deals made under the previous administration. It uncovered nearly $90 million in illicit payments tied to resort development. The Maldives' Anti-Corruption Commission also stepped up investigations. In 2020, parliament unanimously passed stronger anti-graft legislation.
Yet problems persist. In 2021, two former tourism ministers under investigation for corruption fled to London to avoid prosecution. Some allege they were helped by sitting ministers. Critics also say regulations are still designed to benefit developers over communities and the environment. For instance, Environmental Impact Assessment reports are conducted by consultants paid by the developers themselves.

The Maldives Controversy: Should Ethical Travelers Stay Away? - Treatment of Migrant Workers in Hospitality Industry

The booming tourism sector has made the Maldives dependent on migrant labor, with some estimates suggesting foreign workers now comprise over half the resort workforce. Most come from South Asian nations like India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to fill low-wage service jobs as cleaners, waiters, cooks and construction workers.

By all accounts, many endure difficult working conditions and lack adequate legal protections. Though prohibited by law, recruitment fees equivalent to several months' salary are routinely extracted from workers by agencies, forcing them into debt. Their passports are often confiscated on arrival. Those who complain about abuses face deportation, blacklisting with agencies, or even jail on trumped-up charges.
A 2019 investigation by five NGOs interviewed dozens of hospitality staff in the Maldives. It exposed unsafe accommodations, up to 14-hour shifts without breaks, and pay lower than promised or not delivered at all. Sexual harassment was also reported to be common.

The investigation highlighted the country's unusual employment structure. Resort owners contract not with workers directly but with agencies who recruit them. This allows owners to avoid duties as formal employers. Agencies meanwhile shirk many responsibilities towards those on their books. Workers get caught in an accountability vacuum between resorts and recruiters, neither of whom shoulder full responsibility for their welfare. Both claim the other as the direct employer.
This system facilitates exploitation, as workers lack redress mechanisms when abused or unpaid. Only their agency recruiter has the power to transfer their work permit if issues arise on a job site. This gives agencies huge leverage to silence complaints. Workers also cannot simply switch employers as they are tied to a specific job. Attempting to change worksites without transfer approval leads to automatic deportation.

Rights groups argue the system flouts the Maldives' international commitments. An ILO delegation visiting in 2016 found "forced labor-like practices" and urged reforms to protect migrant workers. The government responded with a new Employment Act in 2017 mandating minimum wages and workplace standards. A Human Rights Commission investigation the same year verified systemic abuses and made reform recommendations.

But critics say serious gaps remain. Police rarely accept complaints from migrant workers against employers. Nor do resort owners face real penalties for violations by contractors and agencies they hire. The systemic power imbalance remains unaddressed, keeping workers vulnerable.

The Maldives Controversy: Should Ethical Travelers Stay Away? - Calls for Boycott from Responsible Tourism Groups

In light of the Maldives' pressing environmental and human rights issues, some responsible tourism organizations have called for an outright boycott of the destination. They argue that continuing business as usual provides a harmful stamp of approval and impetus for further unsustainable development.

"We cannot in good conscience encourage our members to travel to the Maldives as it stands today," said the head of Tourism Ethics, a UK non-profit that promotes sustainable travel. "Mass tourism has corrupted its government and destroyed its environment. The rampant human rights abuses suffered by migrant workers are also extremely concerning."

The organization points to the Maldives' reduction in minimum wage in 2019 as a key example. Under pressure from resort owners complaining of rising costs, the government slashed the monthly minimum for foreign workers from $300 to just $170. This makes the Maldives home to some of the most underpaid hospitality staff in the world. Critics argue it was a bid to maintain competitiveness and profits at the direct expense of workers already vulnerable to exploitation.
Some indigenous rights groups have joined boycott calls over issues like the loss of local access to islands leased for tourism. "Our centuries-old fishing rights have been terminated as our islands are sold for resorts accessible only to foreign visitors," said Save Our Seas Maldives. "Entire lagoons where islanders once sustainably fished are now off-limits, leased to hotel chains for the private enjoyment of their guests."

Boycott proponents recognize a tourism halt threatens many livelihoods but say the government has left few options. "Tourism must be made sustainable and responsible before it can be welcomed back," argues Tourism Ethics. Its manifesto calls for ending corruption in public land leases, enforcing environmental regulations, establishing a living wage, and allowing independent unions before lifting the proposed boycott.
However, the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI), which represents resort owners and operators, unsurprisingly rejects boycotts as overly simplistic. While acknowledging valid criticisms, MATI argues tourism plays a vital economic role as the country's top industry. It employs an estimated 60,000 people directly and many more indirectly.

"We must improve tourism, not destroy it," argues MATI's president. "Boycotts only hurt ordinary Maldivians who rely on this sector." MATI touts recent sustainability measures like banning single-use plastics and expanding protected marine areas. It claims improving oversight and standards is better than forcing closures.

The Maldives Controversy: Should Ethical Travelers Stay Away? - Preserving Local Culture vs Tourism Demands

The influx of wealthy foreigners has irreversibly altered local ways of life in the Maldives. While economic opportunities have expanded, the fabric of community and culture faces new threats. The debate around preserving tradition versus embracing change has divided islanders.
On remote atolls barely touched by tourism, traditional livelihoods like fishing, boatbuilding and weaving remain largely intact. Conservative elders defend these old customs and fear that rapid modernization will destroy the social values that have long held communities together. They cite concerns like youth eschewing traditional occupations to work in resorts. Some moves by developers, like banning local access to leased islands, have also sparked fears of losing heritage.

But younger Maldivians counter that clinging to the past overlooks their needs and aspirations. They see outsiders bringing opportunities lacking on their isolated islands, like education and healthcare. Many argue that reasonable economic development can co-exist with local culture. They accuse preservationists of romanticizing backbreaking trades like fishing that young people increasingly shun.

These tensions hit the spotlight when a 2019 law banned spas and massages at tourist resorts in a bid to appease religious conservatives. The policy rollback outraged resort owners and workers who saw tourism as their economic future. But supporters called it necessary to preserve the "Maldivian spirit" against foreign influence. The policy saw-sawed between governments before spas were finally re-allowed in 2022 after much lobbying by the tourism industry.
Similar struggles have arisen regarding female employment and dress codes on resorts. In local villages, women rarely work outside the home or interact with non-family males. But resort jobs have given many economic independence. A compromise bill allowed resorts to set their own policies. But enforcing local dress on non-Maldivian female tourists sparked global criticism of double standards.
Accommodating visitor expectations without entirely re-ordering local mores remains an evolving challenge. But creative solutions can satisfy both. Some resorts have started programs for guests to participate in local music, crafts and cooking. Others feature cultural education for staff. Architecturally blending local designs with modern amenities also helps connect guests to place. The key lies in avoiding hollow gimmicks by genuinely incorporating local perspectives.

The Maldives Controversy: Should Ethical Travelers Stay Away? - Pushing Back Against "Tourism Colonialism"

Some Maldivians fear their nation is being culturally colonized by a tourism model that regards it as little more than an exotic backdrop. They argue that foreign-owned resorts have imported a way of life at odds with local values. For example, norms around alcohol, dress, and gender roles tend to reflect Western expectations. While this maximizes tourist comfort, some argue it undermines indigenous identity.

Resorts often prohibit staff from wearing traditional conservative garb, requiring uniforms to appeal to visitors. Local food and music are also conspicuously absent at many establishments catering to an international palate. Critics argue this treats Maldivian culture as an inconvenience.
Of course, travelers do not intend harm. They understandably seek familiar comforts on holiday. But Islanders increasingly ask - why must their country change to accommodate others, rather than visitors embracing their world? Some now push back against tourism dictating identity, calling to reclaim authority over their culture.

“We must tell our own stories, not just act out others’ fantasies,” argues activist group Reorient Tourism. It protests the orientalist marketing portraying Maldivians as smiling simple folk eager to serve, without deeper humanity. They propose community-led tourism where guests learn about real life. Their campaign has launched tours sharing experiences of interesting locals - artists, activists, entrepreneurs - to show the diversity of Maldivian society beyond resort walls. This model exchanges perspectives rather than just extracting leisure.
Industry outsider Moosa Rasheed takes a blunter stance. His awareness campaign Localize Not Colonize lambasts foreign-run tourism for robbing Maldivians of agency and voice. “We vow to sacrificially defend our home from all invaders - be they conquistadors or beachgoers,” Rasheed proclaims. While such militant rhetoric alarms politicians who fear scaring off visitors, it resonates with those who see culture not commodities as their most precious resource.

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