What the Maldives looked like before mass tourism
(CNN) – The Maldives: turquoise waters, bright white sands, gorgeous technicolor sunsets and, of course, luxury.
But believe it or not, there was a time when the Maldives wasn’t one of the most glamorous getaways in the world.
When Mohamed Umar “MU” Maniku and three friends opened Kurumba, the country’s first tourist resort, in 1972, there was not even a wharf. Visitors had to wade through waist-deep water to get from the boat to the beach.
The first visitors were mostly Italian journalists and photographers.
While there were no glass-bottom villas and seaplanes yet, it was clear that the Maldives were already wielding their magic. Today, there are more than 100 resorts spread over more than 1,200 islands.
Meet the pioneer island behind the country’s first tourist paradise in the Indian Ocean.
Kurumba, which means “coconut” in the local Dhihevi language of the Maldives, was originally an uninhabited coconut farm. Now it has all the bells and whistles you expect from a luxury resort in the Maldives.
Nonetheless, it’s nice to think of how things were when the tourism industry started out here. Some people call MU “the man who built Heaven”, and that’s a nickname he well deserves.
The first guest rooms were made of coral and limestone. Anything that did not grow locally had to be shipped by boat and could take up to three months to arrive.
Newspapers arrived months late and telephone service was spotty. Forget to pack toothpaste and you were on your own as there were no shops on the island.
Before tourism, there were only about two residents on the island where Kurumba is now located.
And you can forget about joining a stand-up paddleboarding class or being taken by speedboat to a secluded island for a romantic dinner under the stars.
There wasn’t much for travelers other than fishing and sunbathing, which they enjoyed – maybe a little too much.
“They were very happy,” MU recalls. “Some of them, you know, got so much sun that they were like lobsters.”
A traditional fishing excursion takes you into the heart of the country, even if you don’t catch any fish.
While Kurumba these days focuses more on high-end villas and fine dining, MU’s description of the early days feels more like a hippie getaway.
“We used to have this open-air barbecue. And then we had … someone, you know, playing guitar.”
In the rooms, the taps were pouring out brackish water. The toilets at the time could politely be described as “weird”.
It could have been a risky proposition – bringing people to a remote and remote island in the Indian Ocean. But for MU, it was the most logical decision in the world. “I never doubted it,” he says.
Fortunately, some things have not changed. They still harvest coconuts the old-fashioned way, swinging off the side of a tree, which is harder than it looks.
The breathtaking views that first brought people to Heaven are also just as stunning today as they were when MU was a boy. And as an older man beyond normal retirement age, he still can’t bear to tear himself apart.
“If I can’t come here (every day) and then walk around here… it’s like I’m missing something in my life,” he says.
MU is far from the only person so captivated by the beauty of the Maldivian islands that she doesn’t want to live anywhere else.
Denise Schmidt comes from her native Germany in the Maldives to work as an intern in a hotel. Now she lives there full time with her husband Ali Amir. They work as managers of the Reethi Beach Resort on the peaceful Baa Atoll and have a young daughter growing up in paradise.
Schmidt’s initial six-month stay has now turned into years, and it’s not hard to see how someone could be mesmerized by the scenery here and want to stay forever.
“I think there is an island that everyone likes and dislikes,” Schmidt says diplomatically – although it’s hard to visualize an island here that someone might hate.
Isolation could be one of the downsides of living on a remote island, but in the era of the pandemic, it’s something the Maldives have used to their advantage.
Coral gardening in the Maldives
Even before the Covid-19 raised its head, there were problems in the paradise of the Maldives. The threat of climate change and rising seas is an existential threat to these low lying islands, which at one point sparked the drastic suggestion that the whole country is relocating.
The delicate environmental balance here is visible beneath the waves on a snorkeling safari through the many coral beds, which suffer damage from pollution, erosion, and climate change.
Hussain “Sendi” Rasheed is widely regarded as the father of the Maldives diving industry, having become the country’s first PADI Certified Instructor Trainer, obtaining his certification in 1986. As the country’s nascent tourism industry took hold. its take off, it began to take more and more students. Now, he reports that more than 1,600 people have followed in his footsteps.
A view through a snorkel mask reveals more than colorful fish – it’s a window into the DNA of this tropical paradise.
“You arrive happy, a different person,” he says of the underwater experience. And given the permanent, warm smile attached to his face, it’s clear Rasheed knows what he’s talking about.
But teaching people how to dive is only a fraction of Rasheed’s true calling, caring for the waters of the Maldives.
He worked to prohibit the recreational killing of sharks and the sale of their teeth as souvenirs. This hard work paid off in 2010, when the Maldives became one of the few countries in the world to ban shark fishing altogether. His 2019 induction into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame solidified his legacy as Guardian of the Ocean.
“Every species that lives here is important to us,” he said, glancing over the aquamarine water. Sure, sharks might look scary, but they’re a key part of the underwater ecosystem. The coral provides a home for the fish. Fish are sharks’ food. The cycle of life a few inches below the surface.
Enjoying a luxurious beach getaway while helping to preserve the sea for future generations – what could be more calming than that?