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.
Even though there were no glass bottom villas and seaplanes yet, it was clear that the Maldives were already doing their magic. Today there are more than 100 stations spread over more than 1,200 islands.
Meet the island pioneer 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.
Still, it’s nice to think of how things were in the early days of the tourism industry here. Some people call MU “the man who built Heaven”, and it’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 transported by boat and could take up to three months to arrive.
Newspapers arrived months late and telephone service was inconsistent. 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,” recalls MU. “Some of them, you know, getting so much sun they were like lobsters.”
A traditional fishing excursion arrives in the heart of the country, even if you don’t catch any fish.
While Kurumba these days is more of upscale villas and fine dining restaurants, MU’s early description feels more like a hippie escape.
“We used to have this open-air barbecue. And then we had … someone, you know, playing guitar.”
In the guest rooms, the taps were pouring out brackish water. Toilets at the time could politely be described as “odd”.
It could have been a risky proposition – getting 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, sparkling 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 gorgeous now 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 peaceful Baa Atoll and have a baby girl 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 here an island that someone might not. like.
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 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, at one point, prompting the drastic suggestion that the whole country move.
The delicate environmental balance is here visible beneath the waves on a snorkeling safari among the many coral beds, which face 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. While the country’s nascent tourism industry was taking off, it began to engage. more and more students. Now he reports that more than 1,600 people have followed in his pinball steps.
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 warm, cheerful smile attached to his face, it’s clear Sendi knows what he’s talking about.
But teaching people to dive is only a fraction of Rasheed’s true calling, caring for Maldivian waters.
He has worked to ban the recreational killing of sharks and sell 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 is home to 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?