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Mon, Aug 27, 2007 - Page 10 News List

Maldives celebrates 35 years of idyllic island escapes

BALANCING ACT President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom last year opened up 51 islands to development, but has pledged not to cheapen his country's reputation

AFP , KURUMATHI ISLAND, MALDIVES

Sabrina Chang decided this year to treat herself to a fancy vacation, opting to stay in a thatched bungalow over a lagoon in the Maldives where a swim with exotic fish is as common as taking a stroll.

The Maldives is celebrating the 35th anniversary since its first two resorts opened and visitors like Chang are among a growing breed of tourists who splash out for a slice of paradise on the remote islands.

Chang, 38, a Hong Kong-based programmer, said she wanted to be pampered for a week and learn about marine life at a biology center on Kurumathi Island, 56km west of the Maldivian capital island Male.

"It's a luxury holiday combined with an educational experience," said Chang, who spent US$320 a night for her luxury room at Kurumathi Blue Lagoon.

Holidaymakers like Chang have made Maldives the richest nation in South Asia with a per capita income of US$2,674.

The 600,000 visitors who jet here each year rarely see the congested capital Male. Once they clear the airport island, they are whisked off by speedboat or seaplane to resorts.

"They need not leave the resort unless to dive, snorkle or view dolphins," Tourism Minister Mahamoud Shougee said.

Guests do not even need to change their hard currency into the local rufiyaa as US dollar purchases are permitted and the few Maldivians they meet will often be resort staff.

Home to 300,000 Sunni Muslims, the Islamic Republic of the Maldives has relaxed rules in the resorts where alcohol is served, unlike in the capital island where it is prohibited.

Presently, 89 islands have luxury resorts, with occupancy rates averaging 95 percent. The government last year opened 51 new islands for a combination of resort and airport development.

"The hotel developments, some of which will come alongside 10 new airports, is part of our plan to attract a million tourists by 2010 and increase our bed capacity from present 20,500 to 36,700 by 2012," Shougee said.

Investors are expected to inject US$120 million within the next 10 years, some into exclusive villas that charge in excess of US$30,000 a night, pampering to the rich and famous.

But most holidaymakers are package tourists from Italy, Germany and Britain -- with countries like China, India and the Gulf fast emerging as the next big growth market, Shougee said.

"Some of the new resort developments are being tweaked in terms of menus and products on offer to cater to Chinese, Indian and Gulf tourists, who are not low-budget but want a slightly different experience," he said.

However, Maldives Association of Tourism Industry head Mohamed Sim Ibrahim said the resort industry has "reached a crossroads."

"The government is under pressure to release more islands for resort development," he said.

Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who has ruled since 1978, promises to "protect investors" and not "cheapen" the Maldives' reputation as a premium eco-destination.

Tourism accounts for a large chunk of the Maldives' economy of just under a US$1 billion with money coming from resort lease rentals, annual taxes on resort beds and airport departure taxes.

A 3 percent goods and service tax on resort sales will also kick in later this year to boost government revenue.

But trouble may be on the horizon for the low-lying islands which are vulnerable to climate change. Gayoom has warned a rise of about 1m of water would swamp much of his nation, leaving mere sandbars.

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