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A team of experts from the United Nations Development Programme went to the Maldives in the late 1960s and wrote a report on the prospects for tourism in the country. There were none, they concluded. Don’t even bother trying: the obstacles are too big. If that seems like the least perspicacious report in tourism history, you could at least see their point. At the time, the Maldives didn’t have a bank. Or an airport. Or electricity on the islands. And the only way to get around was by sailing, very slowly, in a traditional dhoni .
The chance meeting in Colombo of an Italian adventurer, George Corbin , who hadn’t read the report, and a Maldivian, Ahmed Naseem , was the genesis of an industry that may welcome a million visitors this year to what is possibly the world’s most prestigious destination.
The Maldivians who own and run Universal Resorts and Crown & Champa Resorts are the kings of the industry, admired, respected and envied. Back in 1972, that small group of friends were the young guns with spark and ambition who welcomed Corbin and his 22 guests to Male, put them up in three houses (there were no guesthouses), cooked for them (after one disastrous restaurant meal) and sailed with them around islands suitable for development. A “special correspondent” from the Morning Sun, a new English-language newspaper, met Corbin and his party soon after their arrival and immortalised the birth of tourism on the front page.
The first paying guests
On October 28, 1972 – just over 40 years ago – the first paying guests came. The Italians were accommodated in 30 rooms hastily built on an island renamed Kurumba (a young coconut). The walls were made of coral, the beams of coconut wood and the roofs palm-thatched. Each room had a bed, wardrobe, luggage rack and dressing table. That’s all. Drinking water was rainwater or from a well. Meals were a repetition of tuna curry, rice, coconut and bananas. But they were in paradise.
Guests were not aware that their Maldivian hosts were under considerable stress. Mohamed Umar Maniku , now the chairman of Universal Enterprises, was running on enthusiasm and determination alone. “I was cook, gardener and room boy,” he recalls. “We had to do everything ourselves, and there was nothing in the Maldives then – not even a telephone. We had to use ham radio or Morse code to contact Colombo for supplies.”
The next dozen years were a free-for-all. Passports were not required at the airport and travellers could go anywhere if they had the wherewithal to sort out cargo boats and fishing vessels. Philippe Laurella , a Frenchman who left his job and flew to the Maldives on a whim, bought a boat and sailed around the country for years. He married a Maldivian, had three children and still lives in Male, designing boats and painting. Landing on an uninhabited island, he was greeted by a German couple, naked and somehow surviving. He gave them a share of his provisions, a few tools and moved on. The couple didn’t have to go to such extremes to strip off. One of the first resorts was Club Nature, a nudist colony, on the island close to Male that later became Club Med.
That era ended in 1984 when the government made it illegal to stay in anything other than a registered resort and to travel outside the few tourist atolls around Male. Resorts began paying proper money for their leases instead of peppercorn rates – that is, coconut and firewood rates. The industry would now be driven by USPs, the need to catch up and deliver the next big thing.
For years brochures would boast of “hot & cold water”. Air conditioning was a step up from the ceiling fan. Desalination plants put an end to saltwater showers and swimming pools. Rooms became villas, food became cuisine. Soneva Fushi put in the first wine cellar (quite a feat in shallow coral sand) and soon all the top resorts had sommeliers. Now they have mixologists, too (the Constance Halaveli resort was the first). The ubiquitous Gulf Craft has replaced the dhoni, seaplanes have displaced Russian helicopters.
The first over-water bungalow
The first really big idea that transformed the industry was the water bungalow. First built in the early 1990s, it was a slap-your-forehead-with-the-palm-of-your-hand invention: “Why didn’t we think of that before?” In the late 1990s came the spa. The water bungalow, now the overwater villa of course, reached its apotheosis on Gili Lankanfushi, formerly Soneva Gili. The “destination spa” (you travel specifically to and for it) has been achieved by Conrad, Taj Exotica and Cocoa Island. Recent political turmoil, with Islamist hard-liners proposing a ban on spas and alcohol, looks unlikely to have an impact on continuing innovation of this kind.
For two decades, Cocoa Island was the Robinson Crusoe plaything of the German photographer Eric Klemm. It had just four thatched rooms, salt water, no hot water, no electricity, no telephone, not even a jetty (you had to wade ashore). The present owner, Christina Ong of Como Hotels and Resorts, has kept the sense of the island being an ultimate escape, while adding a level of sophistication, design and wellbeing that is world-class.
When the rough island of Hudhuveli was transformed into Soneva Gili, I was sceptical. In the first edition of my guidebook, Resorts of Maldives, I described it as “a small, laid-back resort with the advantage of being close to the airport. In truth, it doesn’t have many other advantages”. In fact, the concept behind it – to build some of the world’s best water bungalows – was brilliant. In addition, the island was improved by dismantling walls, broadening the beach and planting trees, shrubs and a garden (not to mention the chocolate, cheese, charcuterie and wine cellar).
Maldivian developers took the established idea of building over the water to another level, but what came next really put the unique in USP. Underwater is the new overwater. Conrad built the world’s first sub-aquatic restaurant. Anantara Kihavah now has a great one, too. Huvafen Fushi launched the world’s first underwater spa. Now, Niyama has just opened the world’s first underwater nightclub.
“We’ve come a long, long way, further than any of us thought possible,” says Mohamed Umar Maniku, chairman of Niyama’s parent company, “although we were too busy to dream in those early years. At least I don’t have to sweep the beaches any more!”
All this development rests upon the few simple gifts the Maldives has to offer. Unlike Polynesia or Micronesia, the islands are not too distant or far apart; unlike Hawaii, the Seychelles or the Caribbean, they are not big enough to have significant urban life. There are no hectic roads, hawkers or distractions – in fact, there is nobody and nothing beyond each encircling beach. Essentially, what is on offer is serenity, in a setting of pared-down beauty: palms, beach, lagoon, sea, horizon and sky.
The new edition of Adrian Neville’s guidebook, Resorts of Maldives (£19.99 ), is available at shop.sevenholidays.com .