The Maldives Republic is located 500km (300 miles) southwest of the southern tip of India and consists of about 1190 low-lying coral islands, of which only 200 are inhabited. Most of the inhabited islands are covered by lush tropical vegetation and palm trees, while the numerous uninhabited islands, some of which are mere sand spits or coral tips, are covered in shrubs. Each island is surrounded by a reef enclosing a shallow lagoon. Hundreds of these islands together with other coral growth form an atoll, surrounding a lagoon. All the islands are low-lying, none more than 2m (7ft) above sea level. The majority of the indigenous population does not mix with the tourist visitors, with the exception of those involved with tourism in the resorts and Malé.
For a long time, the Republic of the Maldives was one of the best-kept secrets in the world; a beautiful string of low-lying coral islands in the Indian Ocean, a paradise for watersports enthusiasts and sunseekers alike. Now the tourism potential of the country has developed significantly: the islands have become an increasingly popular long-haul destination.
However, the Maldives is somewhat divided between being an idyllic tourist destination, and being a country with indigenous people who rarely intermix with the tourists. The Dhivehin, as the islanders are called, are a mixed people
of Aryan, Negroid, Sinhalese, Dravidian and Arab descent. The mix reveals their history: the islands were under Muslim control from the 12th century, then Portuguese rule from 1518, a dependency of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1645, then a British Protectorate with an elected sultan as head of state in 1887. The islands achieved full independence as a Sultanate in 1965. Three years later, the Republic of the Maldive Islands established Ibrahim Nasir as president, who was succeeded by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in 1978, who has been the dominant figure in the islands’ politics since then.
Somehow it is difficult to think about the Maldives' history when relaxing on one of the country's 26 natural atolls. The resort islands offer nautical delights from night-fishing trips, windsurfing and scuba diving. Many islands embrace enormous lagoons, where bright blue-green water laps gently. Indeed, photos of the Maldivian sea look doctored: it is only when you travel there that you discover the sea really is that luminous, enchanting color.
Yet, even in paradise, trouble can bubble beneath the surface. It is precisely because the Maldives are so low-lying (80 per cent of the territory is less than 1m above sea level), so transparent and perfect for snorkeling, that their very existence is especially threatened by global warming. They are also particularly vulnerable to natural catastrophe, as shown in the devastating tsunami on 26 December 2004: of the Maldives' 199 inhabited islands, 20 were totally destroyed. In addition are human factors: the Maldives continue to spark international outrage for their detention of prisoners of conscience, jailed for journalistic reproach of governmental conduct. With no formal political parties, there is no credible threat to Gayoom, and dissent is firmly repressed.
All of these factors need to be seriously discussed by the international community in future years. Otherwise, paradise really might be lost.