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Trouble in Paradise: The dark underbelly of the Maldives

The Maldives of people's imagination remains a perfect paradise, but there is a dark underbelly.

February 29, 2020 - 7:00am

This week’s long read pick comes from off-beat design and architecture journal Lapsus Lima, where Henry Hopwood-Phillips considers the complex realities underlying the paradisiacal image presented by tourist-brochure Maldives.

The Maldives of people’s imagination remains a perfect paradise, whether as screensaver or dream honeymoon destination. For the select few who actually make it there, arrival is via ‘a tin-shed airport carved into little corporate fiefdoms known as ‘lounges’ that operate a bit like embassies’, followed by a speedboat ride to one of the thousands of islands across jewel-like blue seas to one of its often phenomenally expensive resorts.

To achieve its vision of perfection, Hopwood-Phillips argues, the tourist dream expels or conceals anything that might dent the fantasy. This includes elements such as politics, race, the seasonal movement of sand from one island to another, or the disposal of rubbish, which for many years was simply dumped on Thilafushi, the ‘Rubbish Island’. This dumping was banned in 2011 but the author suggests a considerable amount of fly-tipping now takes place directly into the ocean.

Meanwhile, in the islands’ local political economy, the top-heavy state hoards many of tourism’s economic benefits in a microcosm of crony capitalism:

While most tourists feel they’re giving more than their fair due when each bill comes with roughly a quarter added in 12% service charge, 12% GST and 12% green tax ($12 per night per couple), the sad fact remains that the welfare state is non-existent in many atolls, only ever showing its face as bribery at elections.

It’s the bloated state — with its 40% of total employment — that benefits. The big money remains in the hands of a tiny group of bankers of Qasim Ibrahim’s acquaintance. The ex-finance minister used his controlling stake in the Bank of Maldives to loan himself (and mates) almost all of its assets in order to set up—what else—resorts.

- Henry Hopwood-Phillips, Lapsus Lima

Nor does the expulsion of race and politics from holiday fantasyland result in their disappearance from the islands. Hopwood-Phillips suggests the resorts operate as ‘parallel states’ with staff rigidly stratified by race and sex. The workmen are scowling Bangladeshis who have reason to glower, given they’re the most human trafficked minority on the islands.

Next on the rung are some of the very few women — hijabed locals sweeping the walk-ways, their eyes fixed demurely on the floor — who number only 3% of all tourism employees. Before long, it becomes perceptible that all the boatmen are Maldivian with traditional names like “Didi”; the bar staff, Filipino; security, Nepalese; middle management, Indonesian; spa staff, Thai — and upper management, European, in a bizarre Alice in Wonderland apartheid.

This is not straightforwardly an article designed to make Westerners feel guilty, though anyone who has ever envied a friend’s holiday in the Maldives may be tempted to send them the link. While the Maldives’ baroque political economy is inseparable from the tourist pursuit of an inhumanly flawless image of luxury, Hopwood-Phillips resists the imputation that its racism, corruption and ecological downsides are shaped solely by Western prejudice. Local ethnic and religious pressures and tensions also play a part.

The article concludes by suggesting some measures that might help moderate the more darkly exploitative features of the Maldivian ecological and political economy. These include the political influence of India, educational emphasis on Buddhism to balance Islamist radicalisation, and some cautious hopes in 2020 for new ecological treaties.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.


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