(CNN) — As the lowest-lying nation in the world — with much of it sitting just a few feet above sea level — the nearly 1,200 Indian Ocean islands scattered across the Maldives’ sun-soaked atolls are famed not just for their magazine-cover-ready beaches and bungalows, but for their increasing vulnerability to rising sea levels.
“A large draw for tourism is the healthy ocean environment that visitors come to see. Clearly this type of environment must be preserved in order to continue attracting high-spending tourism,” says James Ellsmoor, CEO of Island Innovation, an agency that helps stakeholders in small island destinations — including in the Maldives — achieve sustainable development goals.
Indeed, this nature-based tourism is something of a paradox here. While much of the nation’s 540,000 citizens rely on related revenue for their livelihood, the tourism industry is frequently blamed for exacerbating the environmental crisis. Maldives resorts claim high energy and resource demands, and turn out excess waste production — and perhaps most grievously, are dependent upon emissions-heavy, long-haul flights to bring the tourists in.
As a result, many of the country’s 150-plus, luxe-leaning resorts aren’t just choosing to “go green” for good PR optics — experts say that in the Maldives, operating as sustainably as possible is essential to a business’s long-term survival.
Plus, some resort initiatives, like those toward clean energy infrastructure, are also good for their bottom line.
“The high cost of importing fuel to power noisy, polluting generators simply does not make sense when compared to the much lower cost of solar, wind and battery storage,” says Ellsmoor.
Today, several Maldivian resorts are leading the pack on innovative sustainability actions that are helping to minimize impact — while proving that luxury and sustainability can go hand in hand.
On-site recycling facilities
Historically, much of the nation’s waste has been poorly managed, relegated to open burn pits or disposed of at sea, creating air pollution, damaging the marine ecosystem, and/or washing back ashore in the process. Thankfully, the government has taken steps to remedy these issues.
Everyone gets on board with recycling at Soneva.
The company also launched its Makers’ Place concept at Soneva Fushi last year, where makers and artists repurpose “waste” into sellable arts and crafts, like wall tiles and glassware.
The facility is destined to become a regional recycling center for the surrounding communities, with a further mission of educating local schoolchildren on recycling and conservation.
Sam Dixon, in-house sustainability manager and resident marine biologist at Fairmont Maldives, says that the school partnerships are important, as they’re “encouraging the next generation to care passionately about protecting the ecosystem and marine life that inhabits it.”
Solar energy installations
One resource that the tropical Maldives has in abundance is sunshine, offering a path to renewable solar energy generation that more resorts are looking to tap into.
And it’s not just resorts that are transitioning to solar. Earlier this year, Gan International Airport also announced plans to become the Maldives’ first fully solar-powered airport.
With limited agricultural infrastructure, most food items served in the Maldives have to be flown in. To help offset some of that carbon footprint, reduce associated packaging waste and save costs at the same time, several resorts have stepped up to the (kitchen) plate to develop homegrown “zero-food-mile” solutions.
Patina Maldives: delicious and green.
Patina Maldives, Fari Islands
Guest conservation programs
Zoona Naseem is the Maldives’ second certified PADI course director. But rather than working with tourists, she opened a dive center for local women and children.
With the Maldives facing such dire environmental stakes, many travelers feel compelled to pitch in to help.
“Travelers are looking for more local experiences, as they want to feel that they are contributing to local communities,” she says, noting that, today, such resort sustainability initiatives are simply “a must in order to even start engaging a potential guest.”
Six Senses Laamu visitors can hobnob with the largest team of marine scientists in the country, part of the resort-led Maldives Underwater Initiative (MUI), a group that has successfully protected hundreds of sea turtles and mantas and more than a million square feet of seagrass.
Resort guests can sign up for an array of marine conservation-minded activities, including regular reef cleanups, weekly conservation lectures, marine biologist-guided snorkeling outings and a junior marine biology program for kids.
In the end, van Well says, with the rise of more conscious consumers, the Maldives resort’s job is to provide guests “tips and some of our little secrets on how to lead a more sustainable life that they can take home with them — and this takeaway is highly valued and appreciated by our guests.”