With sea levels rising, conservationists are working to prevent this trendy tropical getaway from becoming paradise lost.
Less than four decades ago, the Maldives, or Dhivehi Raajje (Dhivehi for "Island Kingdom"), was a sleepy, all-but-untouched chain of 26 pristine coral atolls--natural breakwaters that protect some 1,200 shape-shifting sandy islands from the Indian Ocean--hundreds of miles from anywhere. A conservative Sunni Muslim country, it boasted a fishing fleet of traditional dhonis, graceful, sail-driven wooden boats, without a single motor among them. The only way of contacting the mainland was by ham radio or morse code. Until 1972, when an Italian tour operator was persuaded to take a charter flight 400 miles southwest from Sri Lanka to see the islands' legendary beauty for himself, the area "was the same as it had been since the 17th century," notes Adrian Neville, a photojournalist and the author of Dhivehi Raajje: A Portrait of Maldives.
Today, it's a rather different story.
The tiny country, whose populace once sustained itself fishing for tuna in the rich local waters, now welcomes some 600,000 tourists a year. In 2006, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes spent their honeymoon yachting among the Maldives' hundreds of uninhabited islands, completely inaccessible to the paparazzi. At Huvafen Fushi, guests are apt to spot Indian steel billionaire Lakshmi Mittal's imposing mega-yacht moored in the distance. Supermodel Kate Moss, tennis star Roger Federer, and actors Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher have all been guests, lured by the promise of the ultimate jet-set escape.But while the rarefied resorts of the Maldives are regularly lavished with praise in international travel magazines, last fall the remote country made headlines for a different reason.
Shortly after Mohamed Nasheed, a charismatic 41-year-old, became the Maldives' first democratically elected president, he declared that the country, which rises barely three feet above sea level in most places, would soon disappear beneath the waves. His plan, Nasheed said, was to divert profits from the billion-dollar-a-year tourism industry into a "sovereign wealth fund" with which to purchase a new homeland--possibly in Sri Lanka, India or farther afield, in Australia--for his 380,000 fellow citizens. "We can do nothing to stop climate change on our own and so we have to buy land elsewhere," he told The Guardian, dubbing his scheme "an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome." Indeed, though the islands are responsible for an infinitesimal fraction of the world's carbon emissions, experts consider them among the most vulnerable spots on earth to the effects of global warming. If a September 2008 study published in the journal Science is to be believed, sea levels could rise by anywhere from two point six to six and a half feet by the year 2100-- essentially erasing the Maldives from the map altogether."