Tourism comes in many forms, and each region of the world slowly specialises in those that embraces its environment, people, and culture the most. The aim is to be a destination that is unique, a location that cannot be replicated elsewhere.
In the Maldives, this has been a nominal task. White sandy beaches, crystal clear lagoons, and sunshine year around was already quite a selling point, but evolution is a key component of the tourism industry. To this end, from providing ultra-luxury resorts, to affordable guesthouses, backpacking and homestay opportunities, the industry has been growing and experimenting, with ecotourism its most recent direction.
An ecotourism approach encompasses Conservation, Community, and Sustainability. By definition, it is the responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education. It is not enough to provide employment to communities, or awareness sessions for visiting travellers - the principles of ecotourism are much more elaborate. According to the The International Ecotourism Society, those implementing, participating in and marketing ecotourism need to;
- Minimise physical, social, behavioural, and psychological impacts
- Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect
- Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts
- Provide direct financial benefits for conservation
- Generate financial benefits for both locals and private industry
- Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates
- Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities
- Recognise the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous people in a community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment
The importance of ecotourism is felt mostly in nations like the Maldives where the natural beauty is fragile and deteriorating due to human factors. Waste management, unsustainable and detrimental construction and island development, and even the high influx of travellers pre- and post-COVID has had a huge effect on the environment. Ecotourism aims not only at saving the environment, but also to use it to an advantage.
In 2018, in a survey conducted by booking.com published in their new Sustainable Travel Report, it is estimated that about 87 percent of global travellers prefer to travel sustainably. As reported by Travel Agent Central, nearly four in 10 travellers say they often or always manage to 'travel sustainable,' while 48 percent indicate that this is rarely a possibility for them. Now, as to why travellers are preferring sustainability stems from both awareness of environmental issues, climate change, and sea level rise, and also from the experiences they have on their trips. Seeing the unspoilt beauty of their destinations, such as coral reefs and rain forests, inspires these travellers to conserve these features.
Additionally, seeing the visible impact of tourism, be it negative or positive, also plays a part. This impact is not restricted to just the environment but also the people, according to the survey, and being able to experience local lifestyles while preserving their originality is becoming important for these travellers. However, the survey also unveils that there are multiple barriers to this so far. Cost is the leading factor, with lack of information from their considered destinations not allowing them to figure out sustainable travel plans. A small percentage also claim travel and even luxury and comfort levels would take a hit if they were to consider ecotourism options. However, in this regard, the Maldives can proudly take lead.
Silver Kris, the media arm of Singapore Airlines, have described seven locations in the Maldives so far that offers ecotourism through practice, while maintaining the almost surreal level of luxury and comfort. Take into account that ecotourism comes in many forms, such as awareness, infrastructure, and management. Fairmont Maldives, being located close to natural wildlife hotspots, conducts coral regrowth programs, guided tours to natural attractions, and even houses an art gallery aimed at raising awareness on preservation. The Eco Dive Club in Maafushi takes traveller involvement a bit further by inviting tourists to volunteer for cleanups and generating awareness at the same time.
Being the home to five out of the seven sea turtle species around the world, Four Seasons Maldives Kuda Huraa runs the Maldivian Sea Turtle Conservation Program. Guests are invited to take part in the protection and rehabilitation of the animals, and there are constant programs running on schedule to generate awareness. Six Senses Laamu, Reethi Beach, and Kuramathi Island Resort play their part in creating their own drinking water supply, from rain and sustainable desalination. Lux South Ari Atoll joins the ranks by saving fossil fuel being burnt for energy, by generating their own power through solar panels placed on the unseen rooftops of the villas.
These are just a few of the destinations in the Maldives that are taking the concept of ecotourism seriously, as many resorts are reported to be switching over to more sustainable operations. In addition to luxury resorts, guesthouses are involving their respective communities a lot more intensely, relying on locally sourced food as well as souvenirs, which, according to the aforementioned survey, 53 percent of travellers prefer purchasing over mass-produced items. Another important point of note aligns quite nicely with recent trends, putting Maldives once again ahead of the pack.
According to the survey, the demographic that prefers travelling sustainably, with over 32 percent of the global respondents around the world on booking.com, are Indians, with the Chinese making up another 18 percent. This, along with the numbers that show Chinese and Indian tourists are nearly overtaking European visitor numbers for the Maldives, means this is more than a prime opportunity for the Maldives to evolve for the times. Given how lack of information was the bigger obstacle for these travellers, if the Maldivian hospitality industry aligned their marketing to cater for ecotourism, the boom being experienced now could likely double in the foreseeable future.
With the natural disposition of the Maldives, ecotourism would not only be easier to implement, but the administration can make it the main criteria for running a luxury resort in the first place. Where the administration has failed in taking substantial steps to promote green-living in the Maldives, the private companies running the resorts would have it not only in their best interests but also in the bid to staying ahead in the vacation experiences to implement such a strategy.
Simple steps like generating awareness, to excursions promoting the principles of ecotourism, all the way to becoming carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative, is more than possible in this geographical pearl necklace that is the Maldivian archipelago.