Maldives' struggle to be more than 'the Sunny Side of Life'

When one thinks about Maldives, white sandy beaches, and crystal blue waters will be associated with the name. It is a thriving tourist destination, well known for its romantic, tropic and exotic allure – ‘The Sunny Side of Life’. We are good for escapism, for honeymooners, and water sports enthusiasts.

But where do we stand in the grand scheme of things?

Every year, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) compiles a list of the most visited countries in accordance to the number of international tourist arrivals. One would expect us to rank within at least the top 10, however we don’t even come close.

Within the region of South Asia, we do quite well, ranking 2nd last year, right below India – by a margin of 0.7-7.0% of international tourist arrivals.

In contrast, other regions flourish with higher statistics ranging from the highest 7.0% in South Asia to an 11.7% in France – the highest ranked tourist destination on a global scale.

The biggest contrast between countries like France, China, and Maldives is – history. People like stories. Cultural shocks, and festivities. Bizarre foods, and music, and ways of life. As humans, we seek to experience the unfamiliar.
France has the Louvre, the Eiffel tower, the D-Day beach, ancient cathedrals and monasteries. China has exotic foods and cultural festivities. They have the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army, and various other historical sites.

This offers a layer of cultural depth. But when you strip Maldives down, who are we really? What makes us so special? Our beaches? Our tropical climate?

Where did we come from? Who were our ancestors? How did we get here?

We don’t know. We only know what we’ve been told – folklore. Since we were children we were fed stories about the “Rannamari” – a sea monster that devoured little girls, and about a hero who saved us by introducing us - a previously Buddhist community - to Islam. We hear stories of the heroic acts of soldiers defending our land from savage pirates that raped our women and abused our men.

We hear stories about our history, and our heritage, but what do we really know? Where is the physical evidence of this history? Where did our temples go? Our traditions? In what lies our identity?

Perhaps this sparked when our ancestors were introduced to Western and Bollywood influences: new concepts, and ways of life. We adapted to a mix of this and that. Perhaps that’s where we slowly began to lose ourselves - through cultural appropriation.

It did not help when over time we gave into said appropriation, and started marketing ourselves as “luxury resorts” offering tropical exotica, when in reality we had little to offer beneath that. We destroyed reefs, cut down trees, and dried up seas in order to build this prestigious image.

While it is arguable that this may pave way to economic flourishment in the short run – but what of the long haul? By destroying the one and only appeal of tourism in Maldives – what do we hope to gain? How does this create a distinction between us and them?

Then came the reign of President Yameen Abdul Gayyoom. It is a fact that he was an exemplary leader who accomplished a lot of economic and infrastructural development during his five years in Office. While cannot ignore this fact, it is also a fact that the people did not elect him for a second term in the 2018 presidential election.

It is more than likely that he failed at his re-election bid due to his attempt to sell the same ‘concrete’ development once again. While he may have believed that infrastructural development would benefit the economy, he had failed to consider the social impacts that could arise from said development. This further escalated our loss of culture, and identity, as we became more ‘modern’ and ‘forward’.

This isn’t necessarily a negative prospect. Lots of countries that thrive in tourism are modern and forward but they also have a connection to their culture and heritage.

One fine example is Japan:

They found a rare balance between development and their unique identity. They prize their customs and traditions, they celebrate their culture and festivities, and at the same time, they are one of the world’s most highly developed economies, thriving in the modern world.

Perhaps this is where we went wrong. By focusing solely on development, we lost sight of ourselves, our culture, and our identity. With the rise of global warming, and our continuation into the modern world, we are left with one pressing question:

What more do we have to offer?