The Republic of Maldives is an island nation due southwest of India and Sri Lanka, out in the vast Indian Ocean. It is an archipelago composed of 26 atolls – that is, a coral reef surrounding either an island or a lagoon. All in all, Maldives has around 1,190 coral islands; only a portion of which are permanently inhabited by the Maldivians while over a hundred of them are operating as resort islands with white sand beaches, clear coastal waters and tropical vegetation inland. The larger atolls have urban settlements such as Malé, the nation’s capital. Its economy is primarily driven by two industries: fishing and tourism. The latter, despite its late start in the 1970s, is a proven hit to world travelers who often include Maldives in their dream vacation or bucket lists. And while initially all tourists to the country were confined only to privately-owned resorts and uninhabited islands, recent developments and regulation changes have allowed travelers to finally mingle with and stay among the local population, provided their obedience to the laws of the land. It also has a reputation of being a prohibitive expensive destination, although money-wise tourists have discovered ways and means to make a trip to this country within reach to many. The best time of the year to drop by is from November to April, as the monsoon hits during June and July.
Getting There, For a Start
About the only mode of travel reliably connecting Maldives with tourists from the rest of the world is by air. The island nation is serviced by the Ibrahim Nassir International Airport on North Malé atoll, considered the gateway to the Maldives. It is well connected with major airports all over the world, mostly in Asia and the Middle East. In addition, there are two Maldives-based airlines in operation: the privately-owned MEGA Maldives Airlines and the government-operated Maldivian. A very solid budget travel plan would be to fly by Tiger Airways from Manila to Malé (4 flights a week, 14 hours w/ 5-hour Singapore layover). Within the archipelago, the three choices of island transportation are by domestic flights, seaplanes and boat. Domestic airports (such as in Maamagili) are served by the local operator flyMe. The sole seaplane service company is TMA, (Trans Maldivian Airways) and is able to land their flights directly onto resort island ports. Sea travel is mostly by dhoni, the traditional Maldivian boat, although resort islands also employ speedboats. Dhoni ferry rides are very cheap but if you’re in a hurry, it’s better to join up with other travelers to divide the fare for a faster but more expensive speedboat. The closer your destination island is from Malé, the lesser your costs too.
Maldives is a Muslim country and that is one thing you must always remember while you are there. What it means is that pork and alcohol are nowhere to be had, and women must dress conservatively. The only places where these won’t apply would be in resorts located on uninhabited islands – that is, where there are no permanent native Maldivian residents. To attract more tourism, guesthouses and budget inns have also opened for travelers on inhabited islands like Maafushi, not far from Malé – affordable occupancy with modern accommodations (cable & WiFi). But do not forget that if you go for these guesthouses, you are expected to abide by Sunni Islamic law: no pork nor booze, and you can only sport your swimsuit on deliberately covered beaches.
What to See and What to do in Maldives
While it can’t be denied that Maldives is a very tiny country, they probably also know about the saying about big things from small packages. There are still a number of tourist sites and places of interest throughout the islands to explore. Most of these are proud examples of the nation’s Muslim culture. For instance, the Old Friday Mosque and the Grand Friday Mosque & Islamic Center are striking contrasts of classic tradition and modern sensibilities. Another scenic location would be the Muleeaage, once a palace built for the Sultan of the Maldives but never occupied before the transition into a republic, and now serving as the Presidential residence. Included in the Muleeaage grounds is the Medhuu Ziyaarath, the tomb of the Islamic missionary Abu Barakat Yusuf Al-Barbary, who converted Malé and the rest of Maldives to Islam in the year 1153. Other places of note include separate large vegetable produce and fish markets, and the relatively new National Museum which includes an exhibit of artifacts from Maldives’ pre-Islamic period when the islands were Buddhist. Nearly a million international tourists visit Maldives today, the top countries of 2015 being travelers from China, Germany and the UK.
Diving and Other Activities
For tourists who are staying on guesthouses like in Maafushi or in private resort islands, a trip back to civilization on Malé is either too long or too steep on the pockets. Instead they would spend the majority of their stay visiting other islands or going on sea excursions. The cheapest dive option is a snorkeling trip, but travelers with more finances can elect to go scuba diving. Both choices are good for exploring the archipelago’s “sunken garden”, its extensive coral reefs – now thankfully recovered from the damage of the 2004 tsunami – and magnificent sea creatures like whale sharks, manta rays, hammerhead sharks and moray eels. Most Maldives resorts facilities for one or the other or even both. In fact, day trips to private resorts are a favorite activity for budget tourists, who may not be able to afford even an overnight stay, but can go for other services like diving and fishing trips or buffet lunches that are easily within price range. Normally day visitors to these resorts can only hang out until sundown, but if you decided to chance Maldives during the lean season, you might be allowed to stay and try their resort dinner. Like anyplace else, travelers looking to save can simply compare service rates offered by guesthouse, inn or resort hotel.
Coasting on its reputation for stunning beaches and marine coral paradises, Maldives has weathered disasters natural and man-made to become the holiday trip of a lifetime. Whether that holiday means “5-star” or “roughing it”, whether money is no object or going on a limited budget, this island nation, a flash of green in an ocean of blue, will continue to draw on visitors from all over for the foreseeable future. With smart money management, you could be one of them.