Opportunity for sustainable tourism to accelerate Maldives’ sustainable development

9 mins read

As a new comer to the Maldives, just like other foreigners, I was instantly attracted by the country’s natural beauty. I am also fully aware of Maldives’ outstanding economic achievement. Maldives has doubled GDP per capita from USD 4,460 to USD 9,760 between 2007 and 2017 and has transformed from a low to middle income status in a matter of decades. Needless to say, tourism has been the central driver of this amazing economic achievement.

However, we have also witnessed the volatility of the sector, which negatively affected Maldivians in recent years; the global financial crisis of 2007, and the mass coral bleaching event of 2016 to name a few. Each of these instances created ripple effects in the lives and livelihoods of Maldivians involved not just in the tourism sector, but also the many subsidiary industries that support it.  

It’s time for us to think earnestly about the development of a tourism industry that is more sustainable and resilient, but also acts as a catalyst to unlock local socio-economic development in an integrated and transformative manner.   

So what exactly is Sustainable Tourism?  

At the UN we refer to it as the kind of tourism that takes full account of its current and future impacts on the economy, society and the environment. It is a tourism that does not just address the needs of its visitors, but also considers rights and needs of its host communities.  

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognizes the potential of sustainable tourism industry in achieving SDGs 1 (Poverty), 8 (Decent work) and 12 (Responsible consumption). In Maldives’ case, I would like to add 13 (Climate Action) and 14 (Life below water) as relevant goals.

Accordingly, the tourism sector that is developed towards achieving SDGs should promote 3 main dimensions; environmental integrity, social justice and inclusive economic development. 

As we are aware, the Maldives’ tourism, which heavily depends on the country’s natural beauty, is under serious danger from global and local events.  

Changing climate and warming seas have bleached the spectacular coral gardens. Strong currents and unpredictable weather patterns are eroding our beaches. These events threaten not just the tourism sector, but the survival of ordinary Maldivians across the country.  

In addition to consequences of global-warming, localized human-made activities have caused an adverse effect on the environment. The damage created by ocean plastic wastes is just one example.  

In the Partnership Forum held two weeks ago, I was pleased to learn of the current government’s commitments to advance principles of Blue Economy, ensuring the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and overall ocean ecosystem health. I hope that this high-level political commitment will transform the local tourism development to practise sustainable tourism principles across the Maldives.

The second dimension of Sustainable Tourism is social and cultural development. A few weeks ago, the country was visited by the UN Special Rapporteur in the field Cultural Rights.

She observed that “parts of the tourist industry in Maldives had been operating in a somewhat separate, parallel universe, where tourists were not given adequate opportunities to see or hear Maldivian performing arts and culture, share Maldivian cuisine or learn about Maldivian ways of life and crafts.” 

She stressed that “cultural knowledge and practices be revived, professionalized or used to find new developments in the interaction with visitors.” Efforts in this regard can be employed by the Tourism Sector to drive local economies, as well as to enrich local cultures. 

The third dimension of Sustainable Tourism is that of enhancing equality and economic justice for all.  

40 years since the advent of tourism, major gaps still remain in development gains, between the capital city Male’ and other islands. According to the 2014 Maldives Human Development Report commissioned by UNDP, for instance, a person living in Male’ is likely to receive twice more income, and complete 3 more years of schooling, than a person living in an outer island. More recently, the Household Income and Expenditure Survey of 2016 states that “91.1 percent of the country’s poor population live in the Atolls (other than Male’).”

Tourism sector can contribute immensely to drive local economies in their surrounding communities. Instead of working as independent entities that either import, or create subsidiary industries within our own premises, the Tourism Sector could invest in neighboring communities to drive local businesses for example: agriculture and fisheries, ultimately diversifying and strengthening local economies.

As of 2014, one-fifth of all employed Maldivians work in the tourism industry. And of this sizeable workforce, 14% work in resorts. However, less than 4% of this resort workforce are women. Greater attention needs to be given to drive more women and youth into employment in the tourism sector, by reducing obstacles to work in resort islands and enhancing their professional skill sets. This involves enabling decent work and living conditions for staff, and providing opportunities for job advancement within the hierarchy of tourism establishments.  

Sustainable practices in tourism development also require business operators to assess the future of tourism in the Maldives. Globally, we are seeing rapid changes in how tourism is practiced. These changes are coming about to complement changes in the mindset of travellers, who are increasingly aware of how decisions they make have lasting impacts on local communities. There is also a greater interest from travelers to interact and experience local communities and their ways of life. To be sustainable, the tourism sector needs to assess and adapt to these global changes.  

Locally UNDP has partnered with the Maldivian government on key initiatives such as the Baa Biosphere reserve, and the Tourism Adaptation Project. The Baa Biosphere Reserve in particular, is an example of how carefully planned sustainable tourism practices can generate local development, while also protecting the environment.  

In this vein, it is my hope that greater resources and partnerships are ensued in the area of sustainable tourism, in order to ensure local development is truly inclusive and sustainable.

Akiko Fujii is UNDP Maldives Resident Representative. She has worked for UNDP in Jamaica, Fiji (covering FMS, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu), Sudan, Pakistan, Vietnam, and has a special passion for Small Islands Development States (SIDs) issues, including climate change.”

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