Ever since I started to travel to the far-flung nations of the world, friends and colleagues have been approaching me for sage advice about travelling to countries which are off the beaten path -- many of which have the ignominy of being labelled oppressive or environmentally unfriendly.
While its easy to finger regimes with questionable human rights records it is somewhat challenging at times tallying up the environmental record of sun destinations. This topic weighed heavily on my mind this year during four months spent in one of the most desirable destinations on the planet -- the Maldives.
One of the smallest nations on earth, the Maldives has more water territory than actual land. The archipelago is scattered across some 1,190 low-lying coral islands in 90,000 square kilometres of ocean. Most of the islands are small, and with its small land size, the country is almost totally dependent on the marine environment. With a total reef area of over 21,000 square-kilometers, the Maldives has the largest reef system of any country in the Indian Ocean -- and with extraordinary biodiversity.
After some weeks of living and working on what I called the fringes of paradise -- the terribly congested capital, Male -- I came to appreciate the enormous carbon footprint associated with each visitor that touches down at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport -- itself built on an island reclaimed from the sea. Aside from the medium- to long-haul flights that carry tourists here, the environmental impact associated with their stay is enormous.
Aside from coconuts and fish, the nation produces little of anything else. Spend a short time at the airport and you will come to realize that most products consumed in Maldives are imported. I spotted seafood from the UAE and Sri Lanka, fruits and vegetables from India and Turkey, beef from Australia -- and of course beer, wine and spirits from around the world.
Once they are cleared by customs officials, many shipments still need to travel hundreds of kilometers, in some cases, to reach resorts on remote atolls.Once there, generators, water desalination plants and other fuel-hungry machines kick-in to provide five-star conditions to guests. Sand erosion is dealt with by pumping sand back onto beach-fronts, creating additional hazards for marine life.
Closer to Male, look carefully and you will see an unsightly, dark plume of smoke rising above Thilafushi - an island that is the destination for refuse for Male and about 100 resorts and has been called a "toxic bomb in the ocean." It reportedly receives as much as 400 tons of trash-a-day. One marine biologist told me that one of the many hazards is toxic sediment floating into the pristine waters and endangering marine life. Disgusting globs of melting plastic cascades into the waters. The porous sand absorbs oil leaking from discarded, ruptured drums. Journalists Simon Reeve of the BBC recently described the scenes on Thilafushi as "god-smacking."
To be sure, there are resorts which are making strident efforts to protect the environment. I visited one of the two Four Seasons resorts in Maldives - Kuda Huraa - and heard how they are working to protect endangered turtles, reduce the use of plastics (they have their own bottling plant) and, through a marine discovery center, evangelize about sustainable tourism to visitors and nearby residents alike. It even supports a coral reef propagation program.
Some resorts have invested in waste-to-energy plants and solar power. And at Vakarufalhi Resort in the remote South Ari atoll, Executive Chef Riccardo Rizoli has built a hydroponic garden that supplies the main restaurant every two to three weeks with baby rocket, green lettuce, iceberg salad, thyme, lemongrass, basil, mint, and cherry tomatoes. Bravo, I say!
With annual arrivals now topping 1-million -- and with "emerging markets" such as China and Russia flocking to Maldives during the so-called low season, the pressure on the fragile ecosystem of this remote Indian Ocean nation will only increase. In fact, China bookings are so robust that there is essentially no low season any longer.
Of course it is impossible to stop people from visiting high carbon economies such as Maldives. And of course cutting off an industry that accounts for 28 per cent of GDP and almost three-quarters of foreign exchange receipts would be ruinous to the country and displace thousands of migrant workers.
My advice to those booking trips there? Choose carefully: perform due diligence and ask tough questions of resort owners before you book. Find out whether they have a waste management plan, how much of the seafood comes from local waters and if the water comes in glass bottles. Further, take non-recyclable waste back home with you for proper disposable -- as the progressive Kurumba Resort suggests to its guests.
Because most of the islands in Maldives are small, none of them more than two kilometers long, it is relatively easy for resort operators to make a huge impact on the surrounding environment.
Collectively, even doing a little due diligence before we travel - and behaving environmentally responsible during our stays -- can add up to a huge dividend for our fragile planet.