Eco-tourism, an exciting new venture for remote islands

people looking at trees
Vishah Saeed offers a tour of Vaadhoo Island’s banyan tree. Photo: UNDP Maldives 2012

The Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, attracts over 900,000 tourists annually from all over the world. However, tourism activities are confined to ‘resort’ islands, and the participation of Maldivian communities in tourism activities – the economic backbone of the country – is limited.

For many in the community of Gaafu Dhaal Vaadhoo Island, eco-tourism was a concept unheard of. People were not sure whether the 400 year old banyan tree in the island’s dense woods, their ancient cemetery, or quaint mosque with intricate religious carvings and a deep well used to draw drinking water - could generate the interest of foreign visitors, and much less be a source of income for the island community.

Highlights

  • In many Maldivian communities, eco-tourism is an unheard of concept
  • Partnership 4 Development (p4d) Forums presented the opportunity to explore prospects for eco-tourism
  • The forums helped promote partnerships and economic linkages between local communities and the tourism sector

However, the Partnership 4 Development (p4d) Forums, an initiative of the Government of the Maldives, supported by UNDP, changed that perception.

“During the assessment prior to the Forum, a team found several historical and cultural sites on the island, and the youth community and Island Council saw the opportunity to develop Vaadhoo as an eco-tourism destination,” says Vishah Saeed, a member of the youth group ‘South Vaadhoo Association’, who was a part of the team from the island who presented the prospects for eco-tourism at the South p4d Forum.

Prior to the p4d Forum in the South, communication between resorts and islands in the region were limited and no formal business arrangements had been made between the two, despite possibilities of mutual benefit. The Forum - organised under the UNDP supported Employment and Enterprise Development for Women and Youth project, implemented by the Ministry of Economic Development, in collaboration with Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture and Ministry of Human Resources, Youth and Sports - supported the government’s goal of sustainable tourism, and aimed to promote partnerships and economic linkages between local communities and the tourism sector.

 Cemetary
Centuries-old cemetery in Vaadhoo Island – an ideal location as a highlight of the tour. Photo: UNDP Maldives 2012.

Following the dialogue initiated at the Forum, high-end resorts such as Park Hyatt Maldives and Ayada Maldives expressed interest in arranging excursion trips to Vaadhoo Island for their guests, which will include visits to nine historical and cultural sites, as well as viewing unique flora, fauna and natural sites of the island.

Building on these opportunities, NGO’s and cooperatives from the island are engaging in discussions with the Island Council to develop proper facilities to drive the eco-tourism concept further.

“We are keen to find resources to develop restaurants, souvenir shops, rest areas, and implement proper waste management techniques to make this concept work well in the island. We are encouraged by the idea that a police station and harbour will be built soon in the island, and it will contribute to easier access and reducing security risks. We are also looking at providing interested individuals with trainings on becoming tour guides to facilitate these excursions for the visitors,” Vishah Saeed elaborates.

As the resorts get ready to send their guests to Vaadhoo Island, the project is looking to bring together partners to assist the islands develop proper business plans to facilitate the success of the eco-tourism concept. UNDP will also introduce the concept to other islands through follow-up forums planned to be held at different locations in the country, bringing together the myriad resorts and untapped islands, to educate travellers, to promote ecological and cultural conservation, and benefit economic development and empowerment of local communities in the Maldives.