Resorts in the Maldives woo tourists with promises of 'the last paradise on earth', and if your idea of paradise is a pristine tropical island with swaying pal
m trees, pure white beaches and brilliant turquoise lagoons, then the Maldives will not disappoint.
It's also a major destination for scuba divers, who come for the fabulous coral reefs and the wealth of marine life. But it's not a place for low budget backpackers or amateur anthropologists who want to travel independently and live as the locals do.
Tourism in the Maldives is carefully managed. The lack of local resources makes it necessary to import virtually everything a visitor needs, so it can't really compete on price. The strategy has been to develop a limited number of quality resorts, each on its own uninhabited island, free from traffic, crime and crass commercialism.
The tourism strategy also aims to minimise the adverse effects of tourism on traditional Muslim communities. Tourists can make short guided visits to local fishing villages, but must then return to their resort. To stay longer or to travel to atolls outside the tourist zone requires a good reason, a special permit, and a local person to sponsor the visitor.
• When to Visit Maldives
If you're looking for a few extra hours of sunshine then you should visit the Maldives between December and April, which is the dry season. This is the high season, however, and resorts can be fully booked and prices are higher than the rest of the year. The Christmas-New Year period is the busiest and most expensive part of the high season. Between May and November it's still warm, but the skies can be cloudy, humidity is higher and rain is more likely. This is the low season, and there are fewer tourists and prices are lower. The transition months of November and April are said to be associated with increased water clarity and better visibility for divers.
• Attraction in Maldives
About 2km (1.2mi) long and 1km (0.62mi) wide, Malé is small, quaint, and densely settled. Though not spectacular, it is quite unique as a capital city. It's clean and tidy, with mosques, markets, a maze of small streets and a certain, sometimes sleepy, charm all its own.
Malé is packed to the edges with buildings, roads and a few well-used open spaces. Officially, the population is around 65,000, but with foreign workers and short-term visitors from other islands, there may be as many as 100,000 people in town - it certainly feels like it.
The vast majority of visitors come to the Maldives on package tours, staying at one of the 70-plus resort islands. Most resorts are in the three atolls closest to the capital - North Malé Atoll, South Malé Atoll and Ari Atoll. Despite their apparent similarity, however, they differ considerably.
Judging by the brochures, all the resorts are beautiful and are blessed with white sand, blue sea and swaying palm trees, and they all promise great diving. But they can vary distinctly in their comfort, cuisine, clientele, character and their suitability for various excursions and activities.
» Seenu (Addu Atoll)
This is the 'second city' of the Maldives, and the resort here is the best base from which to visit traditional Maldivian island communities. The Addu people are fiercely independent, speak differently from folk in the capital and at one time even tried to secede from the republic.
Tourist development in Addu has been slow to start, but a resort has been established in the old RAF buildings on Gan. Gan is linked by causeways to the adjacent islands, and it's easy to get around them by bicycle, giving unmatched opportunities to visit the local villages and see village life.
• Off the Beaten Track
» Baa Atoll
Baa Atoll is famous for its handcrafts, which include lacquer work and finely woven cotton felis (traditional sarongs). The small, isolated atoll of Goidhoo has long been a place for castaways and exiles. The French explorer François Pyrard, found himself here in 1602 after his ship, the Corbin, was wrecked.
This solitary island in the middle of the Equatorial Channel is something of an anomaly in the Maldives. It is exceptionally fertile, producing fruits and vegetables not grown elsewhere in the country, like mangoes, oranges and pineapples. The people are said to be bigger and healthier and to live longer than other islanders.
In South Nilandhoo Atoll, the island of Kudahuvadhoo has one of the mysterious mounds known as hawittas. They are probably the ruins of Buddhist temples, but have not been thoroughly investigated by archaeologists. Thor Heyerdahl explored the island and commented that its old mosque had some of the finest masonry he had ever seen, surpassing even the famous Inca wall in Cuzco, Peru. He was amazed to find such a masterpiece of stone-shaping art on such an isolated island, though it had a reputation in the Islamic world for finely carved tombstones.
• Reaching Maldives
There are regular flights to Colombo (Sri Lanka), Thrivandrum (southwest India), Dubai (United Arab Emirates), and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), as well as many charter flights from European centres. Malé International Airport is the only international gateway; departure tax is 10.00. There are regular cargo ships, but they don't usually take passengers. The Maldives is not popular with private yachts because the reefs are so hazardous and cruising permits are restrictive and expensive..