As a destination, the Maldives has long attempted to sell itself as a real ‘Robinson Crusoe’ destination, trying to evoke Daniel Defoe’s 18th century novel of exotic isolation and cultural relativism – albeit with air-conditioned luxury and underwater wine cellars.
Yet while the country’s exclusive island resort properties have garnered international attention over the last four decades for high-end luxury, an increasing number of hospitality groups are seeking to offer their own take on what a desert-island Maldives experience should be.
These attempts at trying to create a picture postcard-quality romantic idyll include offering luxurious camping for a couple on a private beach location, isolated champagne picnics on a sandbank or the opportunity to hire an entire island exclusively for a small group of friends or loved ones.
At the the W Retreat in North Ari Atoll for instance, guests are being offered the opportunity to stay overnight on the nearby private island of Gaathafushi.
According to the resort, the island is entirely deserted apart from a special hut housing a large bed swing – or in the case of overnight stays – one of W’s “signature” beds . However, depending on a customer’s imagination, the island can also come equipped with Seabob underwater propulsion devices or even a personal DJ.
W has said the island is traditionally set aside for couples or small groups of friends, although it can be booked for special private events such as wedding celebrations.
An overnight Gaathafushi experience, including breakfast and transfers costs US$3,500. Other packages can be found on the group’s website.
Meanwhile, the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island resort in Alifu Dhaalu Atoll is offering guests the chance to experience luxury abandonment on a desert island. Guests are provided with a hamper, a bottle of chilled champagne and a mobile phone as their only connection to the outside world.
The package, costing US$800, includes speedboat transportation to and from the resort. Guests are able to call for collection once they are ready to return to the resort.
The Dusit Thani resort has attempted to combine an idyllic deserted beach experience with a focus on culinary experimentation, offering picnic experiences on nearby uninhabited islands or sandbanks.
“Our guests really enjoy this sense of isolation on their own deserted island,” said Dusit Thani Maldives General Manager Desmond Hatton.
“We also offer borderless dining on our own beaches. A concept which allows for our chefs to create a culinary experience tailored to our guests’ desires. Whether it is a champagne breakfast as the sun rises or a candle lit BBQ in the sand at sunset, there is no limit.”
Available all year round, prices for the borderless dining package start at US$165 per person and US$175 for the uninhabited island picnic.
However, it is not just resort operators seeking to play up the potential of island exclusion in the Maldives.
Island for hire
Straddling the line between more independent travel and the country’s exclusive island resort model is the island of Olhahali.
An expanse of beach and vegetation just 285 metres in length and 60 metres wide, Olahali’s management claim the island is one of the few destinations in the country that can be booked for a guest’s exclusive use.
Silke Weber, PR Manager for the island’s management company, Grand Meridian Pvt.Ltd, said that Olhahali catered for a wide variety of customers from private mega yacht and safari vessel owners, to resort guests and locals.
“As well special offers for Maldivians and expatriates working in Maldives. We also offer guided snorkel trips and guided dives as well fishing trips by boat,” added Weber.
“The extensive beach of fine white sand surrounding the island is stunning and the heart of the island is abound in lush green vegetation left as nature intended, providing cool and shaded spots.”
While offering a unique level of privacy to customers, Weber claimed that having operated Olhahali on a single-guest basis was not without its challenges when compared to a multi-villa island resort property. However, she maintained that Olhahali was a unique experience in the Maldives, even amidst attempts by local guest-houses to try and offer desert island getaways.
“The [big] challenge is the marketing and to handle the bookings as we rent out the island only to one client at the time and specially in the high season that can be a challenge,” she said.
Available for a maximum of 40 people for US$2000 a day, Olhahali offers a number of other packages for guests that are available on the island’s official website.
In December last year, the author of the latest Lonely Planet travel book to focus on the Maldives told Dhonisaurus that there huge potential to expand independent travel across the Maldives’ ‘inhabited islands’ through use of sandbanks and desert islands
However, the author added great compromise would be needed by authorities to ensure independent operators could be viable going forward.
Under the country’s laws, traditional holiday staples such as the sale and consumption of alcohol and pork products, and women publicly sunbathing in bikinis, are outlawed outside designated ‘uninhabited’ islands set aside exclusively for resort development.
Tom Masters, a journalist and travel writer who contributes to the Lonely Planet series of travel guides, said he ultimately believed local islands could still provide independent travellers with “sufficient attractions”, even within the strictly conservative laws practices outside of the country’s resort islands.
“However, I think only a tiny proportion of potential visitors would be happy to accept such a number of restrictions on their annual holiday, and so if some degree of compromise could be reached on issues such as alcohol or sunbathing, then the number of travellers opting for island tourism over that in an expensive resort would rise enormously,” he said at the time.
Despite the claims, the Maldives Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture has said that even with the emergence of a number of boutique guest houses around and the planned expansion of domestic flights routes in the Maldives, the market for independent travel will remain “quite insignificant”.