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Paper 6: Tourism and the Environment: Current Issues for Management - By Ismail Firaag, Ministry of Tourism Boduthakurufaanu Magu Malé, Republic of Maldives


The tourism industry grew to be the most dominant sector in the economy during a period of only 10 years, marking a new epoch in the economic history of the Maldives. The industry increased its capacity from about 200 beds in 1972 to over 11,300 beds in 1982, distributed among over 74 resorts, 50 guest houses and 40 yachts. The Maldivian tourist product is primarily based on sea, sand and sun. Thus, over 90% or 10,300 beds are on island resorts. Tourism now contributes over 17% to GDP, generating 70% of all foreign currency earnings and 40% of the government revenue.

Government, aware of the potentiality of the industry, institutionalized the industry in the 1980s. Since then Maldives has been cautious in tourism expansion. The prime reasons for controlled developments are to avoid flooding of the markets with Maldives tourist products and to avoid deterioration of the quality of services. This will ensure that the rate of acculturation does not exceed the society's absorption capacity and to avoid non-sustainable exploitation of natural resources.

Tourism development in Maldives has been based on sustainable exploitation of resources. Natural capital is to be managed so that a stock of natural resources, no less than that which was inherited from previous generations, is left for the use of future generations. The same principle applies to the intangible resources that are sold as part of the tourist product: the peace and harmony of the society, local culture, arts and crafts, traditions and livelihood. Hence, strict measures are taken to minimize the negative impacts to society and the environment but the economic goals of employment and income generation are not compromised.

However, such measures, especially those aimed at protection and proper management of the environment, require adoption of greener technologies. These measures often have short term costs. Therefore, in formulating regulations that require investments, government follows a policy of gradual enforcement. Regulations are developed over time and are implemented progressively, to the extent that the industry can adjust to these measures.

With only one exception, each island in the Maldives hosts a single resort. Hence, each resort is an autonomous unit that provides its own power, sewage and garbage disposal arrangements and water supply. Ecologically, Maldivian islands are at the stage of island formation where the crust or the original volcanic core has been completely submerged, leaving only the collection of unconsolidated coral sand over the reef above the surface of the ocean. Consequently, these islands are extremely dynamic systems. Even without anthropogenic interference they are often unstable.

Continued growth of reefs and healthy existence of the surrounding marine life is essential for the existence of the islands. Reefs provide the supply of coral debris and sand to the shores, sustaining the littoral processes (long shore drift and beach drift) which result in accretion and erosion around the island. In this process, a part of the sediment is retained by the vegetation and results in growth of the islands. A loss to the sediment budget due to retention of sand is compensated by the supply from the reef. This is an extremely complex process involving a number of contributing factors including coastal currents; waves; climate; location of the island on the atoll; health of the reef and its habitats; configuration of the coastline; type and size of the reef flat; depth, size and biological environment of the inner lagoon; and type of coastal vegetation.

In an imbalanced accretion and erosion process, deposition and accretion may occur within the inner lagoon; on the reef flat or even may cause sediments to fall over the reef edge while the island experiences sever erosion. This in turn may change the existing coastal process because of a change in one or many of the factors that keep the island and reef ecology at an equilibrium.


The ecology of the islands and the reefs is extremely delicate. Therefore, the general ability of the environment to withstand stress, or what will be referred to in this paper as the environmental threshold, is relatively low in these islands. With the development of a resort, or even by habitation, major environmental problems arise. Both the severity and time lag for the problem to arise depend on the carrying capacity of the island. This is once again dependent on a number of factors such as the natural coastline, size and location of the inner lagoon, location of the island on the reef and the atoll, wave climate, current flow patterns of the coast, size and type of island, health of the island vegetation and their interrelationships. In sum, although the island and reef ecosystems are in general delicate, carrying capacity will vary between areas. This has implications for management, and these implications have been taken into consideration by the Maldives in developing the management measures described in the next section.

In general, the most common environmentally detrimental effects of tourism or habitation of islands are as follows.

1) Effects of construction of coastal structures. For development of a resort, it is vital to have easy access to the island and safe berthing facilities for boats. Hence, at a minimum, a jetty has to be built in the inner lagoon and a passage deepened through the reef. The following represents known effects that have occurred in the Maldives from construction of coastal structures.

a) movement of sand around the island is obstructed from the construction of coastal structures such as rockfilled jetties. This causes accretion on the updrift and erosion on the down drift side of the structure, severely effecting the island.

b) alteration of the current movements largely by creation of ripple currents, is often caused by dredging of the inner lagoon for harbor development.

c) greater sedimentation on the coral colonies occurs during the process of dredging of the inner lagoon for harbor development, causes. Corals are literally suffocated by sedimentation.

d) destruction of the habitat of many marine creatures from reef blasting. In addition to the physical damages, reef blasting affects the existing current movements and wave climate. Changes to these factors may affect the erosion, accretion patterns of the island, and water quality. This also negatively affects the visual quality of reefs which is one of the most important features of the Maldives tourist product.

2) Developers are often compelled to construct additional structures to minimize damage caused by coastal structures as described in 1, above.

As described above in 1, severe effects to reefs and islands occur from construction of coastal structures, including jetties, seawalls, detached and submerged breakwaters and groins. Most of these structures, although protecting a certain locality, severely affect other parts of the island when they disrupt the existing coastal process. Consequently, additional structures are required which in turn worsen the situation. Because of the many factors involved and the irreversibility of the effects to the coastal and marine processes, it is very difficult to solve the problems without hard engineering solutions. These engineering works reduce the aesthetic integrity of coral islands, which is also an important feature of Maldivian tourist products.

3) Destruction of reefs from coral and sand mining in the development of the first generation resorts.

Destruction of the reefs adversely affects the island, and undermines their biological role as a fishery area and repositories of biodiversity. Mining also reduces the capacity for the reefs to act as a natural sea defense. This is because the natural combination of plants on the coastline is the most effective in stabilisation of the island.

4) Coastal vegetation is removed or the natural ecological succession of the vegetation is altered during construction of tourist facilities.

This change of the coastal vegetation adversely affects erosion and accretion patterns. As when the protection of the roots to sediments are removed, it accelerates the sediment movement process.

5) With habitation, the island ecosystem is loaded with solid and liquid waste.

Sewage and liquid waste disposed on the island seep through the aquifer and into the lagoon. Sewage can contaminate the aquifer by its nutrients and fecal choliform bacteria. As the assimilation capacity of islands is limited, the known effects include:

chemicals and nutrients in pesticides and fertilizers contaminate the aquifer and may reach the lagoon and the reef flats causing eutrophication. Eutrophication occurs with increased nutrient loading from sewage and waste. Eutrophication causes changes in the original biological environment, including reducing species diversity and increasing marine floral bloom and habitation of undesirable species. Undesirable species in the Maldives include sea grasses. Seagrass and algae start to grow near the effluent discharge sites, depending on the current flow patterns and depth of water. Though seagrass beds may be important as a natural habitat for many marine creatures in other marine ecosystems of the world, seagrasses are not typically found in the Maldivian ecosystem. In fact, sea grass beds are an indication of an area with an altered nutrient flow. In addition, these areas are not aesthetically pleasing because they make the sea beds' dirty'. The growth of sea grass beds, with their capacity to retain sediments, reduces the sediment budget of the shore and contributes to island erosion.

6) Conflicts that arise between fisheries and tourism in resource exploitation are another major environmental issue of this sector, and one of the major issues identified for addressing under the Integrated Reef Resources Management Workshop and Programme. Although this was not so pronounced in the past, with the development and expansion of reef fisheries such as grouper and ornamental tropical fish, this problem has been exacerbated.


The ecological formation of Maldives makes resource management extremely difficult. Further, as inhabited coral islands are relatively few globally, literature on the subject is also limited. Undertaking in-depth technical studies to determine the carrying capacity and impact of construction and development is extremely costly and difficult due to absence of site-specific historical data. Acknowledging these difficulties, the government is optimistically cautious. The Government of Maldives has taken a precautionary approach to island development. For example, tourism development is currently confined to certain atolls and its expansion is limited to selected islands. In 1996, only 74, or 10% of the country's 1190 islands were developed as resorts. Although there has not been a "cap" on island resort development, islands developed for resorts during the past 10 years have not exceeded 10% of the country's total islands. This stable trend may not last. It is expected that within 20 years, resort islands will grow to about 20% of the total islands. However, for each island developed into a resort, one island must be left as a reserve.

The Ministry of Tourism, together with other Government Ministries, has undertaken initiatives to address the environmental issues affecting and related to tourism described earlier. These can be largely grouped into initiatives and legislation that address: Resort Development; Environmental Controls; and Multi-use Conflicts.


The Tourism Ministry imposes strict regulations and guidelines for resort construction and operation. It is particularly concerned with the carrying capacity of the islands. Measures to limit the number of people in a resort island below the environmental threshold include;

a) limiting the maximum built-up area to 20% of the total land area;

b) the maximum height of the building has been limited two stories provided that there is vegetation in the island to conceal these buildings.

c) in construction of tourist accommodation, all rooms should face the beach and 5 linear meters of beach line has to be allocated to each tourist in front of their rooms. Only 68% of the beach length can be allocated to guest rooms as 20% has to be allocated to public use and 12% left as open space; and

d) constructions on reef flats and lagoons are discouraged. However, as over-water bungalows are very popular among tourists they are permitted construction provided equal open space is left on the land for each building developed on the lagoon.

1) Environmental Controls

In management of the environment, an important aspect that the Government envisions is preservation of the original ecological processes. To meet this end, removal of indigenous vegetation, disruption of marine ecology, redirection of original current patterns, and distortion of the wave patterns within the lagoon by construction of structures is discouraged. Some of the environmental standards and controls in this area include:

a) control and mandatory replacement for each tree that is cut down (certain rare and large trees have to be avoided when constructing a building). All buildings have to be located well away from the peripheral vegetation - at least 5 meters away from the shore line to ensure that the peripheral vegetation most important for coastal protection is preserved;

b) allocating space for vegetation between each building. This is to ensure that substantial areas of indigenous vegetation are left untouched;

c) all coastal works and larger projects have to be commenced after a through environmental impact assessment. Hard engineering solutions for dynamic coastlines are discouraged;

d) construction of rockfilled jetties and groynes are controlled. Design of boat piers and jetties should be in such a way that they do not obstruct the original flow of currents or disrupt the wave climate within the lagoon;

e) construction of seawalls, detached and submerged breakwaters are restricted. Instead, promotion of greater coral colonization on the peripheral reefs and other natural methods to protect shorelines are encouraged;

f) coral and sand mining from resorts and inhabited islands and from their house reefs are strictly prohibited. More recently certain specific locations have been allocated for sand and coral mining. Construction of structures with coral is now being controlled;

g) spear, poison and dynamite fishing are strictly prohibited. Net and trap fishing are controlled and confined to certain areas. Removal of shells, fishing of turtles and tortoise, juvenile and gravid lobsters are strictly prohibited;

h) all resorts are required to have incinerators, bottle crushes and compactors. Solid waste has to be burnt, metal cans compacted and bottles crush before disposal. Some of the resorts are now using organic waste as fertilizers;

i) sewage disposal through soak pits into the aquifer is discouraged (permission to do so is determined by the size of the island and amount of use of the aquifer). Sewage disposed should be below government approved standard of biological oxygen demand less than 20 mg/l; Ammonia nitrogen 2-4 mg/1 and suspended solids 20 mg/l; and

j) other environmental regulations include architectural controls. To preserve the aesthetic integrity of resort islands, height of buildings is restricted to the height of the foliage of the vegetation. They have to be well integrated into the island, hence use of local materials is encouraged.


In the Maldives, the multi-use conflicts in the reef areas are primarily between the two major uses - tourism and fisheries.

To solve problems that arise due to conflict of interest between the tourism and fisheries sectors in exploitation and use of the marine resources, 15 important divesites have been declared as protected areas where anchoring, and fishing except for traditional baitfishing, is strictly prohibited.

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