When I discovered the Maldives had quietly opened up its non-tourist resort islands to outsiders, I bought a cheap charter flight from London to Male, capital of the Indian Ocean nation, and went to explore the ‘other side’ of paradise. I’d worked on the travel desk of The Times in London for 18 years, since the age of 25, but had never been to what many regard as the ultimate honeymoon heaven. Too boring, I’d always thought. Just sun, sand and infinity pools — what could possibly be of interest beyond choosing which cocktail to try for your sundowner?
That was before a relaxation in the rules to allow foreigners to visit its ‘inhabited islands’, where the locals live. The policy was changed in 2009 under the country’s first democratically-elected leader, Mohamed Nasheed. Elections had been brought in after 30 years of control by an authoritarian ruler, who’d reluctantly introduced voting only after an uproar over the heavy-handedness of prison officers and police, as well as pressure from the international community in the wake of the devastating 2004 tsunami. If the Maldives wanted foreign aid, it would have to get its house in order.
The opening up of the islands struck me as a remarkable moment, and one that hardly anyone had seemed to notice. The Maldives consists of some 1,200 islands of which around 100 are tourist islands and 300 are ‘inhabited’. The policy of banning foreigners from the ‘real’ country had been enforced in the 1980s for fear of hippies visiting and spoiling the Islamic way of life (the Maldives is 99% Muslim) — though Nasheed had wanted the cash from tourism to go directly to local communities and he encouraged islanders to create guesthouses and restaurants. It would be a shift away from the usual foreign international chains siphoning off money abroad.
It was as though a whole new country had come into being — and as I arrived on Male on a rickety wooden ferry to begin my journey around the edge of paradise, I was unsure what lay in store. I was to travel by ferries and cargo ships yet I could find scant information on timetables, and many of the islands I intended to visit were not even mentioned in guidebooks. I was about to travel off the usual tourist map.
It’s not often in this Google World you get a chance to do such a thing. I’d also become aware of a series of issues that seemed to suggest the ‘paradise’ depicted in the holiday brochures may not be quite as perfect as it appears. For a start, the forward-thinking leader Nasheed had been ousted in a coup. I interviewed him during my travels and he described the threats made to his family that had forced him to step down. Human trafficking surfaced: mainly Bangladeshi workers on construction sites having their passports taken and wages withheld. Islamic extremism was on the rise with Buddhist icons smashed at the national museum. Corruption involving ownership of islands by cronies of the new regime — run by a half-brother of the dictator of 30 years — was rife, while local journalists were threatened if they dug too deep; one reporter ‘disappeared’ in highly suspicious circumstances.
Meanwhile, the Maldives is the flattest nation on the planet (around 80% of its land is just 3ft above sea-level) and at desperate risk from the rising seas brought about by climate change, so mass evacuation is a real possibility. Add to this the huge disparity in wealth between those who come to stay at £2,000-a-night water villas and the average Maldivian — a stark reminder of the haves and the have-nots of the world that has brought so much global discussion of late — and there was plenty for me to get my teeth into. The Beckhams had recently been on a holiday during which it was estimated they spent £6 a minute, blowing the equivalent of the salaries of 64 Maldivians during their sunny break.
So by creaky ferry and funny old cargo ships I went, sometimes sleeping next to sacks of onions and rice on rough decks. I travelled around the periphery of paradise and saw some of the most beautiful places on Earth; spots for which people will fork out a fortune, yet I rarely spent more than £30 a day. Along the way people told me about real life in the honeymoon heaven, and a rich culture going back many centuries revealed itself as I learnt of everyday troubles on islands that hadn’t seen an outsider for decades.
Slowly, the country opened up to me and quickly I realised there was much more to the image of perfection shown so often in the holiday brochures.
Tom Chesshyre is author of Gatecrashing Paradise: Misadventures in the Real Maldives. RRP: £10.99 (Nicholas Brealey). tomchesshyre.co.uk
Published in the June 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)