Where paradise islands become vacation resorts

The government of the Maldives is renting out more and more uninhabited islands to hotel operators who are building huge luxury resorts there. This is shown by the latest satellite images. So far, there is no end in sight – and dependence on tourism is increasing.

“Economy from above” is a collaboration between WirtschaftsWoche and LiveEO. This is a translation of the original article (written in German by Thomas Stölzel). Access the original article here.

No other country in the world today is as dependent on tourism as the Maldives. Before the pandemic, the industry contributed nearly 40 percent of gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. In an unprecedented move over the past decade, the Indian Ocean island chain has converted several dozen tropical islets into airports and resorts, further increasing its dependence on long-haul travelers from around the world. This is shown by recent satellite images from LiveEO. The government has also recently massively expanded the main airport in Malé.

To this end, the country’s Ministry of Finance is renting out more and more of the small uninhabited islands in the coral atolls to international hotel companies. Meanwhile, chains such as Waldorf Astoria, Mövenpick and JW Marriott have built luxury accommodations here. Just in December, the ministry announced it would open four more islands to tourism. It had already offered 29 islands for hotel construction in 2019. In total, the archipelago consists of 1192 islands.

The islands opened for vacationers are usually awarded to hotel developers in a bidding process for up to 100 years. The satellite images clearly show that the providers here today prefer bungalows built on stilts in the water, for example on the small island of Faarufushi.

Faarufushi, Maldives
05.06.2016 (left picture): This uninhabited coral island is one of those that the government of the Maldives has opened for tourists.
17.05.2021 (right picture): Since then, a luxury resort has grown on it as well, with some of its bungalows standing on stilts in the water .

There are now 42 such buildings here, each with its own pool. Or the five-star Hotel Sun Siyam Iru Veli in the south of the archipelago. In the last five years, a small green island has been transformed into a huge complex with more than 120 bungalows, about half of them in the water, as the photos show.

Sun Siyam Ira Veli, Maldives
08.05.2016 (left picture): Only a small strip of this circular reef sticks out of the water.
21.04.2021 (right picture): Some land filled up and bungalows on stilts make it a big resort.

The buildings are thus relatively safe from a rise in sea level. After all, the Maldives is also considered the lowest country on earth and particularly exposed to the effects of climate change. On average, they rise just 1.8 meters out of the water.

This vulnerable position has not slowed down tourism in recent years. On the contrary: in 2019, before the pandemic, more than 1.5 million tourists visited the Maldives, almost twice as many as in 2010. In order to distribute the visitors among the various atolls, the government has had numerous domestic airports built in recent years, as the satellite images show. For example, in the south on the island of Kudahuvadhoo (see above) or on the northern island of Ifuru (see below).

Ifuru, Maldives
16.03.2011 (left picture): The largely uninhabited island of Ifuru in Baa Atoll is 110 kilometers from the capital Malé.
30.05.2021 (right picture): Currently it is offered for sale together with a new resort and airport – for 65 million US dollars.

Currently, however, the Maldives is struggling to keep its most important source of income going. In recent weeks, the country has at times been the hardest hit in the world by the new Corona Delta variant – with around 3,000 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants on May 23.

Baglioni Resort, Maldives
16.10.2010 (left picture): This coral island is also an uninhabited paradise in the Indian Ocean at this time.
21.04.2021 (right picture): In the meantime an Italian hotelier family has built up their Baglioni luxury resort here.

Yet tourism had previously recovered well, with the Maldives reopening to holidaymakers as early as July 2020. Many travelers had switched to the remote islands, as many other vacation destinations around the globe were closed.

Amilla Fushi, Maldives
29.07.2012 (left picture): At this time Amilla Fushi is still an uninhabited island in the center of the Maldives.
28.04.2021 (right picture): Today it is a 5-star vacation resort to which travelers fly in by seaplane.

But now, for example, the Foreign Office warns against unnecessary, tourist trips to the Maldives. For the island paradise a bitter blow. After all, the second-highest number of tourists before the pandemic came from Germany. The largest number of vacationers in recent years came from China.