The Maldives Knows Y.O.L.O.
The Island Nation Is Positioning Itself As The Place To Go To Rediscover The Beauty Of Travel. But It Needs To Convince Would-be Visitors That It’s More Than “just A Beach.”
“You can take that off,” Mandy Koh said, as I stepped off the speedboat and onto the pier of Lux North Male Atoll. “Guests don’t have to wear them on the island.”
I was too stunned by the sight before me to realize that Ms. Koh, an island host, was talking about my face mask. Instead, I lifted up my sunglasses, and nearly got blinded by the glint of the sun off the water. You cannot prepare your senses for the Maldives — or Maldives, as many locals and visitors call it, eliminating the superfluous article. The blue smacks you right in the face: so many shades, from aqua just this side of translucent to the deepest indigo in the depths of the sea and the night sky as the last wisps of light take their leave.
It doesn’t seem possible that a nation like this — 1,200 islands spread across 115 square miles of the Indian Ocean, 430 miles southwest of mainland Asia — can exist, let alone proffer such modern amenities as Wi-Fi, soaking tubs, overwater bungalows and artisanal gin and tonics.
And yet, as much of the West emerges haltingly from the pandemic, the Maldives is positioning itself as the place to go to rediscover the beauty of travel, to change your background I.R.L., not merely on Zoom. The island nation is waging this campaign even after a recent uptick in Covid-19 cases laid bare the limitations of its health care system — strapped, overworked and underresourced.
But this is the paradox of the Maldives. Tourism accounts for a quarter of the South Asian nation’s gross domestic product according to the World Bank, and fuels the Maldives’ other economic drivers, such as construction (there is always a resort being built) and fisheries (the catch of the day, forever on the menu). To generate the kind of revenue that would help bolster its infrastructure, the Maldives needs foreign investment. “We are determined to stay a leading destination,” Abdulla Mausoom, the Maldives’ minister of tourism, said in an interview recently. “We are determined to diversify tourism so that we have something for everyone in the Maldives, not only for the super rich.”
Mr. Mausoom has come up with a variety of methods to lure tourists back, including offering free Covid-19 vaccines to travelers who have not yet received them. But he said that the plan, announced in April, will not go into effect until all Maldivian residents are fully vaccinated: maybe “late third quarter, or early fourth.” For anyone who can get vaccinated closer to home, the offer is little more than a publicity stunt, though on a May trip to the Maldives, I met fellow travelers who had crossed borders to get inoculated.
Many others, like me and my husband, were fully vaccinated, eager to get out into the world and bent on seeing a bucket list place that, given rising sea levels, may not be around for much longer. (More than 80 percent of the islands that make up the Maldives are less than one meter above sea level; it has the lowest terrain of any country in the world.)
We came expecting white sand beaches and crystal clear water. We got that — as well as three days of torrential rain and 25-mile-per-hour winds (which, when you’re on a strip of land maybe 12 feet wide, feel powerful enough to blow you away). But beyond the natural beauty, what stood out was the culture: the local culture, the Y.O.L.O. culture, the staff who let you in on their inside jokes and the vacation friends who give you their numbers and make you promise to look them up when you touch down in their part of the world. Maybe you can find this kind of exuberance wherever masks are coming off and people are gathering again. But to paraphrase the kids: In the Maldives, it hits different.
What Instagram dreams are made of
Our trip to the Maldives was supposed to follow a visit to New Delhi to celebrate the hundredth birthday of my husband’s grandfather. Male, the capital city of the Maldives and the site of its largest airport, is a four-hour flight from New Delhi; our week in the island nation would coincide with our wedding anniversary.
This spring, as we watched the number of Covid-19 cases in India rise, it became clear that the country would not lift its ban on tourist travel anytime soon (it remains in place).
We debated canceling. My husband had put in for the time off from work. The hotels were booked. Rerouting our flight would cost us not moneywise — we booked using miles — but in the time spent researching and talking to the airlines. My question: Would it be worth it? Why not save a trip to the Maldives for when we were in that part of the world again? His: Would a week in paradise be “worth it?” And who knew when we might be in the vicinity again?
Y.O.L.O. reasoning won out. The flights were changed, the P.C.R. tests scheduled (a negative test result procured within 96 hours is required to enter the Maldives). After a 17-hour flight from Los Angeles to Singapore; two, bleary-eyed hours in a holding pen for transiting travelers at Changi International — a pandemic-era safety precaution — and another four-hour flight; we arrived at Male International, and to a wistful sign: “Maldives, World’s Leading Destination 2020,” a designation granted by the World Travel Awards organization, for a year in which world travel was all but impossible.
“It was our first win in that category, so we are very proud,” said Mr. Mausoom. “Winning the lead is tough, but I think staying the lead is tougher.”
Working to the Maldives’ advantage: The dock outside the airport looks like a five star resort thanks to the turquoise water lapping at its pilings. (After a day on a plane, it was all I could do to not jump in.) An hourlong speedboat ride led us to Lux North Male, which occupies the island of Olhahali, uninhabited before the resort’s 2019 opening. Once my eyes adjusted to the light and I picked up my jaw, it became clear that the pandemic hasn’t been all that bad for business. More than half of Lux North Male’s 67 villas — all done in an aesthetic that’s like South Beach meets Mykonos — were occupied.
“From December through April, we were almost full,” said Tatiana Kozlova, the resort’s director of sales and marketing. “One family came for Christmas and stayed until February. They kept extending and extending. They didn’t want to go back to the U.K.”
May marked the start of rainy season, and a slight downturn in bookings. The three days we spent at Lux came with sunny skies and plenty of room to sprawl and socially distance — except, after many months of pod life, some people were eager to do the opposite. In the pool by Beach Rouge, Lux’s all day dining restaurant, we met Mauricio Pessoa, a labor lawyer from Brazil. He and two friends had flown to Dubai to get vaccinated and decided to hop down to the Maldives (a four-hour flight south of Dubai) before heading home. “It’s so nice to be abroad after so long,” Mr. Pessoa said, white wine in hand. “All of our friends back home are jealous.”
Conservation and camaraderie
Indeed, posting pictures of crystalline water and sky-on-fire sunsets on Instagram is a surefire way to engender comments like “must be nice.” But there’s more to the Maldives than stunning photo ops: take the lesser-known ways Maldivian resorts are preserving paradise in the face of climate change. Lux spent the last year installing 46 star-shaped planters in the floor of the ocean around the island to attract fish and promote the growth of coral. Single-use plastic is virtually banned. Even in the gym, water comes out of a glass dispenser, into a reusable tumbler, which makes for an extremely ungraceful mid-run swig, but it’s a small price to pay.
Conservation is also paramount at Joali, a three-year-old resort north of Lux, on the island of Muravandhoo. Upon arrival, each guest receives a rose-gold-colored reusable water bottle. To cut down on the ingredients it must import, Joali has an on-site farm to grow herbs and vegetables. Behind the farm is a filtration plant that turns ocean water into drinking water and collects rain to hydrate plants during dry spells. Like Lux, Joali is restoring the reef surrounding it by growing corals in a nursery — “we call them fragments of hope,” said a staff member — and planting them in the reef when they’re large enough to stick.
We had hoped to snorkel near that reef; the weather had other plans. The day after we arrived at Joali, the wind kicked up and rain blew in, ushering in the sort of storm that eschews rules. “The classical, typical monsoon is no longer the case,” said Mr. Mausoom. “The rainy season is rather unpredictable because of global environmental changes.”
A bummer, but Joali prepared for this: sumptuous interiors, redolent in rose gold and emerald green, a bed that begot naps, a spa that offered a timely “inner strength and resilience” massage, which felt like being rolled out like a sheet of cookie dough. There was no shortage of gustatory delights: sushi and pasta conceived by Michelin star chefs, biryani as good as its brethren on the subcontinent, a Turkish breakfast buffet with an olive bar that rivaled Whole Foods. But I kept coming back to a simple curry of reef fish, creamy and piquant, that I ordered three days in a row before asking for the recipe.
Then there were the classes. Yoga and HIIT, yes, but also: gin tasting, wine tasting, sake tasting. We signed up for the last three and in the process, befriended the resort’s head sommelier, Gandip Khadka, and his associate, Tushar Patil, who invited us to the most exclusive hangout on the property: the staff bar, hidden behind a grove of palm trees. As at Lux and the majority of resorts in the Maldives, staff members live on the island along with guests, and it was on our final night, sipping gin and tonics while Bruno Mars played from the speakers, that we got to engage in the kind of conviviality that travel offers, and that the pandemic prevented. We shared Netflix recommendations with a bartender from Costa Rica, discussed Dogecoin with a server from the Philippines. “Pfizer or Moderna?” “AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson?” Everyone had an opinion, a story about side effects, bewilderment about vaccine hold outs.
We met a couple from Germany, fellow travelers who were on their fourth trip to the Maldives and had been island hopping for weeks. “Like maybe everybody, after the last year, I wanted total relaxation, a way to clear my mind from all the negative news,” said Teresa Wendrich, who works in the marketing department of the Munich International Airport. “Maldives is the place where I feel the most alive, where I can say thank you to my soul and body.”
Toward the end of our stay, a friend messaged me asking if the Maldives was “worth the million hour flight” “even though it’s basically just a beach.” You can’t blame the uninitiated for having that impression (I certainly did). Not even our departure from Joali — which, because of the weather, meant taking a speedboat to a barge that wobbled like a set piece on “American Ninja Warriors” and attempting to stay upright while walking across it to board a seaplane — could dim my enthusiasm for the Maldives. In the air, once the clouds cleared, the islands below gleamed like geodes, a final dose of sensory overload.