There’s no place like home, except for the beach.
If you’ve never heard of the Maldives (official name: Republic of Maldives), you’re not alone. The archipelago’s tiny land area (the smallest country in Asia) and remote location (470 miles off the southwest coast of India) make it a rare travel destination for North Americans. And while there are some caveats, the country’s rich cultural history and breathtaking natural beauty make it an incredible place to visit for the right traveler.
Humans have inhabited the islands of Maldives since at least 500 BC when the atoll was discovered by ethnic Gujaratis from India and Sri Lanka. Over the following centuries, several waves of settlers, including Sinhalese, Giraavaru, and Tamils, arrived from different parts of the Indian subcontinent and contributed to what would eventually be known as Maldivian or Dhive culture.
Buddhism came to Maldives in the 3rd Century BC and became the dominant religion of the islands for roughly 1400 years. In the 12th Century, the king, Dhovemi, converted to Islam, possibly to improve relations with the Muslim Arab traders who dominated commerce throughout the Indian Ocean. Since then, Sunni Islam has been the main religion of the islands.
Between the 17th and 19th Centuries, European powers, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the English, exerted varying degrees of colonial influence over Maldives until the archipelago officially became a British protectorate in 1887. It remained so until 1953, when the islands became officially independent as the First Republic of Maldives. However, the British military maintained significant influence over the new government, and the republic was soon replaced by a restored monarchy friendly to the British. Finally, in 1967, a national referendum declared the Republic of Maldives, which remains today.
The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami wreaked havoc on the Maldives, and following the adoption of a new constitution in 2008, the nation was rocked by a decade of political instability. Since the 2018 election, however, Maldivian politics have stabilized considerably. At time of publication, the U.S. State Department gives Maldives a travel advisory level of 2, or “exercise increased caution” due to terrorism. While this may sound bad, the same advisory level currently applies to France, Germany, and Denmark. Crime in the Maldives is relatively low, so while it’s always important to be aware of your surroundings and keep track of your belongings, you’re not very likely to be robbed here.
The official language of Maldives is Dhivehi, also known as Maldivian. Dhivehi is an Indo-Aryan language, closely related to Indian languages such as Sinhala and Hindi, and more distantly to European languages such as English and French. While Dhivehi is the only official language, English and Arabic are both recognized languages, and are spoken by many Maldivians as second languages.
Despite the nation’s tiny land area, the islands of Maldives are spread over a wide area of the Indian Ocean, making it one of the few countries to straddle the equator. Unsurprisingly, the climate is quite hot, with an annual average temperature of 87°F (28°C). The humidity ranges considerably between the dry season in late winter/early spring and the wet monsoon season in October through December. Unlike the volcanic atolls that make up many other island nations, the islands of the Maldives are formed from coral, and the elevation above sea level is very low. This makes Maldives one of the countries most threatened by global climate change, as rising sea levels threaten to flood most of the country.
Given the islands’ makeup, it’s not surprising that the surrounding waters are teeming with beautiful coral reefs, and the area is home to more than 1,100 species of fish. This makes Maldives an incredible destination for diving and snorkeling. Some of the more beautiful and interesting species include the giant manta ray, the even bigger whale shark (the largest living fish in the world), and the blue-and-white striped Oriental sweetlips. The deeper waters around the Maldives are rich fishing grounds for tuna and other valuable food fish. However, like coral reefs around the world, those of the Maldives are also severely threatened by climate change. Corals, after all, are living animals, and when water temperatures rise above a certain point, the corals die off, resulting in “bleaching” of entire areas of reef. When the corals die, the habitat can no longer sustain the numerous other species that live in and around them, and the ecology of the reef collapses with terrifying speed. So if you’re planning a diving trip to the Maldives, don’t delay!
Tourism in the Maldives dates back to the 1970s and has since become the biggest industry in the country’s economy. Today, the top five home countries of tourists visiting the Maldives are China, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, and India. The islands’ popularity is easy to understand: the Maldives’ beaches, with white coral sand and turquoise tropical waters, are breathtakingly beautiful. As a country made up of over 1,100 small islands, the Maldives is also a unique setting for tourist resorts – in fact, it’s common for a single resort to encompass an entire island, giving a unique and romantic atmosphere. It’s no coincidence that the Maldives were recently voted the world’s number one honeymoon destination.
Due to the small sizes of the individual islands and the significant distances among them, travel between islands in the Maldives is generally by boat or by small seaplane. For the uninitiated, flying in a tiny prop plane can be an exhilarating thrill ride for adrenaline seekers, or a queasy nightmare for motion sickness sufferers. With an experienced pilot and a well-maintained aircraft, it’s actually quite safe, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way. These aircraft generally have strict weight restrictions (counting both passengers and luggage) in order to fly safely, so pack light, especially if your travel party is full of giants.
Island resorts in the Maldives are famous for their “water villas”, also known as “overwater bungalows”. These structures, ranging from rustic huts to luxurious dwellings with pools and patios, are built on stilts over the water, connected to the shore by long docks. The shallow, crystal clear waters surrounding the islands are perfect for building water villas, and the views they offer are truly breathtaking.
The Maldives’ resorts are special for another reason: they’re the only areas of the country exempt from some of the country’s strict regulations based on Sharia law. In the Maldives, possession and consumption of pork products and alcoholic beverages, public practice of religions other than Islam, and same-sex sexual relations are all prohibited by law. To protect the tourism industry, these laws are not enforced inside the country’s resorts, but it’s worth noting that punishments for minor crimes can be quite severe. For example, visitors caught in possession of even small quantities of illegal drugs can be charged with trafficking and given a life sentence! So at bare minimum, leave your drugs at home and keep the drinking inside your resort.
For LGBTQ+ travelers, tourism in the Maldives presents additional risks. The country does not recognize same-sex marriages, which can create problems if one partner suffers an injury or other emergency during their stay. While it’s widely reported that laws against same-sex sexual relations are not enforced at resorts, it should be noted that the penalties for these offenses are quite severe, including lashings and multi-year prison sentences. Thus, if you are a same-sex couple planning a trip to the Maldives, it is highly advisable that you do so with an LGBTQ+ travel agency – they will have a list of trusted resorts and tips for staying safe during your travels.
While not illegal, some Western customs are seen as rude or obscene in Maldivian culture. For example, it’s considered inappropriate for women’s shoulders or men’s calves to be bare in public outside the resorts (so no bikinis, no shorts).
The traditional cuisine of the Maldives is based on locally plentiful ingredients: fresh fish (especially tunas) and coconuts, along with starches such as rice, sweet potatoes, and taro. The Maldives also have their own local versions of South Asian classics such as curry and parotta. Ingredients that observant Muslims consider haram (forbidden), such as pork and shellfish, are rarely consumed except by foreign tourists at resorts. Naturally, the resorts have their own kitchens catering to a variety of international tastes. One local delicacy is “Maldive Fish”, a form of smoked, sun-dried bonito used to give broths, pastes, and curries a hearty umami flavor.
Like other tropical tourist destinations, the Maldives has many shops and artisan stands selling local handcrafts as souvenirs. While it’s great to support local craftspeople, it’s important to be aware that certain materials are illegal and/or unethical to purchase. In particular, coral and tortoiseshell (often carved from the shells of sea turtles) are illegal to export in any form. The reason for these restrictions is that harvesting these materials damages the reefs and threatens endangered species, so to be a responsible tourist, you should discourage the harvesting by refusing to buy souvenirs made from such materials.