If global warming continues at the current rate, 80% of the Maldives could become uninhabitable by 2050. This is a lesser-known fact for the millions of tourists that vacation in the beach resorts of this luxury holiday destination each year. Besides posing an existential crisis for the Maldivians, climate change also threatens the country’s highly economically significant tourism industry. As such, building the climate resilience of tourism is a priority for the small island state and Maldives is successfully tackling climate change vulnerabilities facing the sector using a multi-actor led holistic approach.
Located in the Indian Ocean to the southwest of India and Sri Lanka, Maldives is made up of 1,190 coral islands grouped into 26 atolls, and spread over 90,000 square kilometers. Termed the flattest country on Earth, most of the land in Maldives is only 1 metre above mean sea‐level. These conditions coupled with sea-level rise and extreme weather conditions have driven locals to occupy some of the most densely populated areas in the world. The country’s population of over 521,000 lives in constant fear of natural disaster with more than 90 inhabited islands experiencing annual floods. Undeterred by Maldives’ climate crisis and attracted to its pristine beaches and blue waters, tourists from around the world flock to the country. Being a geographically remote island nation with limited resources, Maldives’ economy is isolated from global trade routes. This has made way for tourism to become a mainstay of its economy, alongside fishing, allowing the state to generate revenue and accede to a middle-income country. Even in the pandemic year of 2021, tourism had the largest percentage share of the GDP at 21.4%.
It is thus not surprising that any climate risks facing tourism would have particularly detrimental consequences for the economy. Such climate risks range from obvious effects such as the chances of island submersion due to sea-level rises endangering the long-term viability of tourism, to cases of beach erosion, which take away from the tourists’ main attraction. Further, Maldives’ coral reef system is the seventh largest on Earth and coral bleaching events resulting from temperature changes are weakening the country’s tourism appeal. Ahamed Saleem, Maldivian Secretary General of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, commented that “We have to protect the coral reefs as they prevent erosion. If the reefs go, then the beaches will go and it is the beach that attracts the tourist.”
The answer to Maldives’ complex problem of climate change, according to Minister for the Environment Aminath Shauna, is a “holistic approach rather than just hard engineering solutions” and this extends to the governmental strategies employed to make tourism climate resilient. On the global front, Maldives has advocated for climate change – for instance, being the fourth small island state to ratify the Paris climate agreement and urging rich countries to follow suit. Maldives’ image as a climate leader influenced international fund allocation for climate action such as through a UNDP project which aims to reduce the cost of climate risks in the sector. Domestically, the Maldivian government has implemented overarching mitigation policies which inevitably seep into the tourism sector. This has been done through adopting country-wide targets such as the phaseout of single-use-plastic by 2023 and net-zero emissions by 2030.
Climate change mitigation to preserve tourism in the Maldives has accompanied greening of the tourism industry itself through resort-led initiatives. Since tourism is understood to exacerbate the environmental crisis by producing excessive waste and accounting for 40% of national emissions, the sector’s transformation is imperative for climate action success. In this sphere, the private sector is spearheading sustainability measures not as a PR strategy, but as a necessary step for its long-term survival. For instance, the Fairmont Maldives’s Sustainability Lab turns plastic waste into souvenirs through on-site recycling facilities while educating locals on climate change. Additionally, many hotels are trying to harness renewable energy with the LUX South Ari Atoll installing the world’s largest floating solar power system.
While some argue that the Maldivian government does not practically address climate issues and uses terms like sustainability as a form of greenwashing, the multi-actor approach allows the government to impact change in indirect ways. By creating guidelines and shaping global discourse, Maldives shifts the burden of climate mitigation to more resource-rich entities such as luxury hotels or countries that produce higher emissions.
Although seemingly paradoxically related, both climate action and tourism are indispensable for sustaining lives and livelihoods in the Maldivians respectively. Initiatives across the spectrum of actors including international organisations, the government, and resorts have culminated in the country’s holistic approach to addressing the climate vulnerabilities facing tourism. As a small state with limited resources, Maldives’ ability to influence tangible change is bolstered by multi-actor involvement. Its small state status also allows it to project a message for bigger states to meets their climate goals – “if the Maldives can do it, why can’t the rest of the world?”
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