After years of toying with a rather outlandish idea, the incumbent government in 2015, launched arguably the biggest project ever seen in the Maldives, which on August 30 is set to transform the entire landscape of the archipelago, especially in the greater Male region.
The USD150 million mega project, partly funded by China and initially dubbed the ‘China-Maldives Friendship Bridge’ later renamed to Sinamale Bridge would link the eastern edge of the country's capital to the western corner of the airport island and by extension to Hulhumale – via a highway.
An undeniable engineering marvel, the significance of the monumental project boasting the potential to unlock the country’s economy and become the emphatic answer to mounting social issues sparked by centralization on a massive scale.
To better understand the gravity of the over-water bridge, one needs to discern the lateral development that has been initiated in the airport island and the reclaimed suburb coupled with the plight of the overcrowded capital.
Most densely populated capital
“Imagine a country with just 1 percent land and 99 percent water.” This eloquent narrative of the Maldives – a low lying island nation nestled in the middle of the Indian Ocean has been tossed around in tourism catchphrases so much so that it has been reduced to nothing more than a cliché for locals.
It’s understandably difficult for the approximate 350,000 populace to unremittingly bask in one of nature’s glorious eccentricities when nearly two thirds are crammed into a 3km stretch of land.
Scanty planning and lack of foresight from successive governments have led to mass internal migration to the capital Male earning it the rather unwelcome title of the most densely populated capital in the world. Centralized development and years of neglect in the more remote Atolls have forced the majority of the population to flock to the capital in the quest for better employment, education and health care.
The city of hope
Expectedly, the ballooning population led to a major housing shortage and as demand exceeded supply, rent in the capital skyrocketed while the government struggled to combat snowballing social issues. In a desperate bid to ease the congestion, the then government in 1997, kick-started a bold project to reclaim 188 hectares of land – a shade under the size of the capital - 8km off its north east coast and 6.5km from the main airport island Hulhule.
The reclamation of Phase I of the two pronged project took half a decade to complete and the man-made suburb welcomed its first settlement with a resident population of just over 1,000 in 2004 and at long last offered hope of a better future for the capital that for years had been crumbling under its own weight. The original development concept, intelligently planned and designed to incorporate a refreshing mix of urban and island life to accommodate a target population of 180,000.
In 2013, the incumbent government took office on the back of an ambitious youth heavy manifesto with Phase II of Hulhumalè earmarked as the ‘Youth City’ boasting much needed social housing, recreation and employment opportunities complimented by a multitude of tourism, health care, industrial and communications infrastructure.
As the government completed the reclamation of Phase II in 2015, at breakneck pace of just 63 days, the resident population of the suburb had swelled well past 40,000. The hugely politically advertised substantial changes to the original Hulhumalè development plan, the government has since initiated plans to boost the target population to 240,000.
Expanding the gateway to paradise
The Hulhule Airport – the big bang of Maldives' tourism revolution – has remained in the shadow of overwater villas, wine cellars, underwater spas and restaurants. Despite being rebranded twice, scanty planning and meager budgets over the years had solely contributed to skimpy cosmetic changes to the airport – the main gateway into the Maldives – for the ever growing tourist arrivals.
Privatization of the airport in 2010, which saw it being handed over to Indian infrastructure giant GMR Group for 25 years, was designed to reignite hopes of expanding and modernizing the airport, as tourist arrivals continued to balloon to a million. However, the project, faced with numerous delays, never really made it off the ground before GMR was prematurely ousted and the airport expropriated after a sudden change in government.
In 2013, incumbent president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom took office with ambitious and quixotic plans to revolutionize the archipelago’s economy. Shortly after, a staggering USD800 million project to revamp the airport was announced before it was again re-branded to the present Velana International Airport (VIA) as part of the strategic plan to align the country’s main gateway with the economic vision of the new administration.
For a country that has long struggled with inter-island transport that has stunted the country's socio-economic growth, the imminent linking of the two largest cities via the airport island provides a plethora of both economic and social opportunities with the welcome prospect of a brighter future.
Most local businessmen eagerly await the opening of the bridge which has been scheduled for next month after a week long celebration of its grand inauguration. They see the bridge that can ease the transportation of goods from the main port, warehouses and retail outlets.
The landmark which is tipped to become a major tourist attraction would also offer a boost for tourism with a wide of array of guesthouses in both the capital Male and especially in Hulhumale connected to the airport which welcomes nearly 1.5 million tourists each year.
Meanwhile the greatest obstacle to luring people to Hulhumale has undoubtedly been the rather cumbersome transportation – a 20 minute ferry ride from the capital Male. Attracting foreign investors to Hulhumale especially the second phase had also been stunted by its isolation to the capital. But now the Sinamale bridge would make the reclaimed suburb a drivable extension of the capital which would essentially boost investor lure.
The opportunities the bridge would unlock remain immeasurable. The myriad of issues plaguing the capital it could solve cannot be overstated.
The long concrete structure rising tall from the deep blue resonates hope with a promise of potential and the prospect of a better future.