This story was originally published on Minivan News’ spin-off travel review site, Dhonisaurus.
Diving has been a long-standing part of the Maldives’ attempts to appeal to tourists as a tropical island holiday paradise over the last 30 years. With almost every Maldives-based resort island now providing a certified dive centre to guests, the local tourism industry has begun looking at means to bring further innovation to underwater exploration.
Beyond the establishment of high-profile sub-aquatic spas and restaurants in the country, some resorts are opting to play up the emergence of nearby protected marine parks and reserves. Other properties have even moved to hold underwater festivals in attempts bolster interest in exploring life beneath the Maldivian waters.
With an estimated 95 percent of the Maldives landmass underwater, Dolores Semeraro, PR Manager at the LUX* Maldives resort in South Ari Atoll, believes snorkelling and diving are a must-try experience for guests visiting the country.
In order to try and better play up the appeal of diving to guests of all experience levels, the LUX* Maldives resort this month hosted what is claimed to be the country’s first ever underwater festival. The event had a central focus on underwater photography, as well as the chance to spy some of the Maldives’ most exotic – not to mention attention grabbing – wildlife in the form of whale sharks and manta rays.
Experts including photographer Junji Takasago and free diver Jean-Jacques Mayol joined the resort’s Resident Marine Biologist Chiara Fumagalli during the week to oversee the festivities and provide special programmes and presentations on diving and photography.
To Semeraro at least, while Maldives tourism is often associated with resorts offering high-end, beach-side indulgence and relaxation, the country’s reefs and dive spots are a hugely important contributor to the destination’s overall mystique.
“Events like the underwater festival highlight positively the destination from this point of view and it is incredible to see how interested our guests are in subjects such as whale sharks, snorkelling, coral reefs and so on,” she said.
The festival, which ran during a seven day period this month, concluded on May 20 with a prize giving ceremony for underwater images captured by guests during the week that were judged to be the best.
The resort said the festival was designed to cater for a wide variety of guests; ranging from accomplished underwater explorers, to holidaymakers looking for a more sedate spot of high-brow after-dinner entertainment.
LUX* Maldives therefore promised guests in attendance during the festival a number of special programmes such as free diving courses, the chance to learn special free diving breathing techniques, and illuminated outings for night time reef exploration. Presentations and screenings by marine experts in attendance during the festival were also conducted.
According to Semeraro, after six months of planning, the festival passed with favourable reactions from both media and attendees. She claimed that on average, two full boats of divers were heading out daily with underwater photographers, or to take part in the free-diving and apnea (special breathing) programmes.
When addressing some of South Ari Atoll’s more unique dive sites available to the festival’s attendees, Semeraro claimed that the Kudarah Thila and Digurah Thila sites were among the area’s most notable and popular destinations for underwater exploration.
“It’s hard to choose the key dive sites, they are all amazing,” she claimed. “South Ari Atoll showcases a few dive sites of world-wide renown.”
Semeraro stressed that the resort had committed itself to try and make the festival inclusive even to guests unaccustomed to underwater photography or diving.
“Divers are always keen photographers while underwater. However, it can be disappointing to check your pictures and find out that they were out of focus or not properly set once back on the surface,” she said. “That is when our underwater photographers stepped in to coach divers of all levels on how to have a more confident approach to photography while diving. For the non-divers, we opened several snorkelling sessions guided by our resident marine biologist for guests who are keen on trying snorkelling/underwater photography.“
Semeraro said that all guests who stayed at the resort were invited to participate in the festivities with a complimentary discovery scuba diving session being made available for newcomers to acquaint themselves with the Maldives’ underwater environment.
Semeraro claimed that diving and reef-based events were being monitored “at all times” by its diving instructors and marine biologists.
Amidst the outspoken attempts of former President Mohamed Nasheed to try and put the Maldives on the global map during his tenure with an ambitious carbon neutral plan, Maldives tourism authorities had previously sought to promote the destination under the banner of “Always Natural”. After receiving a mixed reception, the branding was dropped earlier this year by the new government of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan.
Alongside claims by resort operators of their commitments to bring their operations in line with international sustainability standards, the country has begun to see the formation of marine parks and other underwater reserves that may have implications for their properties in the future.
Over in Baa Atoll for example, which has recently been awarded the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Biosphere Reserve status, properties like the Reethi Beach Resort are uncertain as to the direct impact protected marine areas may have on their operations.
Resort General Manager Peter Gremes told Dhonisaurus that while obtaining the UNESCO reserve status last year was a “prestigious” accolade for properties in the atoll, it was unlikely to impact visitor numbers on a significant basis.
With the UNESCO reserve area situated on the other side of Baa Atoll, Gremes claimed that he expected a negligible impact on the number of divers already coming to his resort to explore local underwater sites.
“We have a very high occupancy rate here at the resort, so we don’t really need to use the reserve in terms of a marketing tool,” he said. “At present, discussions are still taking place on how the atoll will aim to make use of its status as well as the costs involved. A lot of unanswered questions remain on this.”
The resort manager said he did welcome increased regulation and protection measures to the waters of the atolls that would – in theory – mean much tighter restrictions on the amount of divers coming to the area at any given time.
Gremes pointed to developments in the country’s renowned Hanifaru Bay area that previously led some tour operators and local people to raise concerns about the huge traffic of visitors coming to an area deemed to be of significant natural interest.
In 2010, amidst a 260 percent increase in tourist arrivals to the area, local island authorities raised concerns about the number of safari and dive boats that were attempting to cram themselves into the bay – a small enclosed reef the size of a football field.
Increased government regulation in terms of diving and other activities conducted in the area were likely to be beneficial in the long-run for local resorts, at least according to Reethi Beach General Manager Peter Gremes.
“After some of the issues we have had with the number of safari boats coming to dive sites, this will be beneficial for us at the resort,” he claimed.
Local NGOs have welcomed the previous government’s commitments to establish and extend several protected ecological preserves in areas like Baa Atoll, despite calling for amendments to the efficiency of collaboration between different ministerial branches in ensuring eco-protection.
Environmental NGO Bluepeace said last June that government action to protect marine areas was an “encouraging development”, despite wider concerns about the efficiency of collaboration between different ministerial branches over eco-protection.
Ali Rilwan of Local environmental NGO Bluepeace said at the time that he supported government in regard to environmental protection across the southerly atoll, yet insisted the measures were more of a “first step” towards a comprehensive national preservation system rather than a finalised commitment to conservation.
Yet Baa Atoll is not the only stretch of the country’s waters to be afforded greater enforcement in protecting its reefs.
Within the seclusion of the country’s northerly Noonu Atoll, the Hilton Iru Fushi resort has began working with the country’s first Marine National Park (MNP) at Edu Faru in a bid to play up the surrounding natural appeal of the area for guests.
According to the MNP’s management, after signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the previous government in August 2011, guests staying at certain nearby properties like the Iru Fushi resort are cautiously being welcomed to explore the protected underwater habitats.
“The project is still in its early development stages and we are working towards having an official opening ceremony at the end of 2013,” said a representative for the MNP. “The level of protection is yet to be determined in collaboration with the government and experts in the field.”
As a marine reserve, the MNP’s management team have said they continue to work on outlining exact policies for resort guests coming to the area. A representative for the MNP told Dhonisaurus that balancing tourist interest in the area with the need to preserve coral and other inhabitants would always create “ecological challenges” for its operations, but it was working to overcome them nonetheless.
“The MNP will rely on marine-based tourism such as scuba diving and snorkelling,” the MNP spokesperson said. “We strive to achieve a balance between recreational use and preservation of ecological values that form the MNP and the biological carrying capacity and prevent overuse of the site.”
In bringing guests to the site, the Hilton Iru Fushi resort has presently been set strict guidelines by the MNP on how guests can visit the site.
At present, guests are able to enter the house reef of the reserve for snorkelling and diving expeditions on the basis of private, non scheduled tours consisting of a small number of people.
Additionally, boats used to transport guests are also not permitted to anchor with the MNP area over concerns about the potential damage to the coral.
“At this stage, we prevent guests going ashore the islands within the MNP until we adequate knowledge about the specific biological values and vulnerable species and habitats and how they can best be protected,” said the MNP spokesperson. “Therefore, we will have to seek more advice to develop appropriate management strategies for the marine-based tourism industry.”
In terms of costing, the MNP’s management said that as a non-profit organisation, the scheme would be run on grants and donations. A sum of US$10 will be donated to the MNP project by guests who visit the site, the project’s management added.
Marine parks and bioreserves are currently said to be among the “wide number” of options being considered by Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Ahmed Adheeb to try and diversify the appeal of the country’s tourist properties.
Adheeb claimed that the exact nature of there diversification plans was as yet undecided. Authorities are now trying to devise a fourth Tourism Master Plan outlining developments in the country’s travel industry. The third master plan was concluded last year.
“My predecessor, [Dr Mariyam Zulfa] explored a number a number avenues in terms of diversifying tourism here,” the tourism minister said. “We have been provided with a large number of options.”
Adheeb claimed that with a fourth Tourism Master Plan expected to be completed later this year, discussions were currently taking place with industry stakeholders and bodies like the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) on what direction future developments in the country should take.
“Before making decisions we need to know what is the current situation with the tourism industry here. We need to see what the industry feedback is as well,” he said. “What I can say right now is that we are already seeing bio-reserves and marine parks being set up here in the country. Some of these have already by endorsed by the UNESCO. A lot of value can be added to the market from these programmes.”
Adheeb stressed that it was also important to account for shifts like the growing interest in the Maldives from Asian markets like China when devising future plans to develop the industry.