The Republic of the Maldives is a sprinkle of coral atolls and tiny islands in the Indian Ocean, just south-west of Sri Lanka. Tourists from around the world come to holiday in the postcard-perfect tropical islands, for the amazing underwater environment and the excitement of diving, surfing and sailing in crystal clear, warm blue water.
The Maldives is a chain of 26 coral atolls that extends over 750 km of the Indian Ocean, to just south of the equator. Of the 1192 islands only about 290 are inhabited, including about 90 with tourist resorts.
The atolls are roughly circular coral formations with a central lagoon, fringing reef, and just a few small islands around the edges and in the middle. Natural channels serve as entry points to the atoll, and deeper channels separate the atolls from each other.
The larger islands grow coconut palms and other tropical vegetation, while the crystal clear lagoon waters have an abundance of marine life, from microscopic coral polyps to giant whale sharks.
The capital is Male’ (pronounced mar-lay), a densely populated island of only 2 sq km. Just east of Male’ is Hulhule island, with the Maldives international airport. Linked to it by a causeway is Hulhumale, a new island that has been created by dredging sand and building up the coral reef on the edge of the lagoon.
The Maldives is an Islamic nation of some 330,000 people. Its fascinating history is linked to the ancient trade routes of the Indian Ocean, and goes back as far as 2000 BC. For most of that time it has maintained its independence, except for a 15 year occupation by the Portuguese which came to a bloody end in the mid 16th century. It had a protection treaty with Britain from 1887 to 1965, but maintained its own internal government.
After independence came three years of monarchy, then the autocratic and corrupt President Ibrahim Nasir (1968-78), followed by the long presidency of Maumoon Gayoom (1978-2008), which saw the growth of tourism and some modernisation of the country. Gayoom won six uncontested ‘elections’ and his regime survived several coup attempts, but ultimately introduced a more democratic constitution. In 2008, Mohamed Nasheed, a former political prisoner, became president in the Maldives’ first direct, multi-party presidential election. Nasheed’s government initiated several reforms, including the country’s administrative structure. In January 2012, Nasheed was pressured to resign, and vice-president Mohamed Nasheed became the Maldives fifth president.
Maldivians are an independent people with a very strong sense of their own identity and culture. They speak Divehi, a language that is related to Sinhala, an ancient Sri Lankan dialect, and also contains influences from Arabic, Hindi and English. The written form of the language uses the Thaana script which is unique to the Maldives.
The economy was traditionally based on fishing and trading, but over the past 30 years the country has developed a highly successful, resort-based tourism industry. Tourism is carefully planned and regulated to protect both the environment and the culture. Independent travel is discouraged. Nearly all visitors are on holiday packages, staying at one of the resorts or cruising in a licensed safari boat. Diving is a main attraction for tourists as the Maldives is recognised as one of the world’s premier diving locations.
A 30-day tourist holiday visa is granted on arrival.
Import Restrictions: No alcohol, pornography (which may cover a wide range of publications), pork, drugs, dogs, firearms, spear guns or “idols of worship” may be brought into the country. All baggage is X-rayed.
Dress & Etiquette: In Male’ and on other inhabited islands men should always wear a shirt and women should wear skirts or shorts that cover the thighs, and avoid wearing low-cut tops.
Maldives is generally a healthy destination with no malaria and little risk of tropical diseases. Tetanus, Typhoid and Hepatitis A and B vaccinations are advised, especially if time is spent away from a resort island.
Over-exposure to the sun and infection from coral cuts are the two main hazards for surfers – booties and helmets are recommended. In an emergency an injured surfer may require a speedboat or seaplane to get to Male, the only place with modern medical facilities. For very serious injuries, evacuation to Colombo or Singapore may be necessary. It is essential to have adequate travel insurance to cover these possibilities.