Lounging on a beach chair on Maafushi Island, Carl Stott, a tourist from the UK, said: “I have travelled all over the world. I can tell you the best thing Maldives has to offer is the beaches and the sea.”
Stott is one of the dozens of tourists in Maafushi for Maldives on a budget.
The island, just three hours from capital Malé, pioneered guesthouse tourism in the Maldives. Since the first guesthouse opened in 2009, some 36 guesthouses with a total of 593 beds have cropped up. Business is booming, but today guesthouse owners worry severe beach erosion may drive tourists away.
Elders in Maafushi told me some 600 feet of beach have washed away in the past 15 years. Pointing to the “bikini beach” where tourists while their days away, 75-year-old Mohamed Ali said: “In my childhood, this area was full of trees and we had an enormous beach.”
Only five feet of beach is now remaining.
Maafushi’s beaches started eroding with the construction of a harbor nearly a decade ago. In most Maldivian islands, sand shifts from the southwest of the islands to the northeast with monsoon winds. The beach relocates with the shifting sands every season. In Maafushi, the harbor had blocked the seasonal flow of sand leading to severe erosion.
Some 97 percent of Maldivian islands experience erosion. Although it is mainly caused by shoreline modifications such as harbor construction and dredging and the construction of water bungalows in luxury resorts, many worry that effects of climate change such as sea level rise and frequent storm surges may exacerbate erosion.
In Maafushi, guesthouses and residences are located just a few meters from the shoreline. Ibrahim Rasheed’s house is located near the bikini beach. Waves lap at his house now.
“When I got this plot of land there was about 50 meters of sand from here to the sea. The beach here was nicknamed the “Dhon Manje” [fair lady] because of its beauty,” he said.
Now there is only three feet of sand between the water and his house.
Repairs have to be done almost every day. Hirundhu trees and coconut palms that used to protect his home from the waves have fallen into the lagoon. Rasheed has to pile up sand bags on the beach now. He says a few coconut palms fall into the sea every day now. He has lost all hope of saving his small plot of land.
Tourists are also complaining of the shrinking beach.
In 2012, tourists had to be evacuated from a guesthouse because of flooding due to a storm surge.
“It was a disaster. We had to evacuate a dozen guests in the middle of the night. They were scared out of their wits. I am afraid if this continues people are going to be afraid to come here,” said Majdha Ibrahim, the only female member of the Maafushi council.
She says Maafushi does not have the money to protect its beaches. Luxury resorts spend millions on shore protection every year, employing methods such as sea walls, dredging and sand pumping to keep their beaches intact.
Although Maafushi is the highest tax-paying inhabited island in the Maldives, the government only gives it just enough money to pay its staff. Figures on how much money Maafushi guesthouses pay in taxes was not available, but one 10-room guesthouse said it had paid US$26,000 in GST alone in 2014. Guesthouses also pay bed taxes and business profit taxes.
In 2014, the council had placed several concrete slabs in the lagoon. But within three days, many slabs washed away with the waves and the remaining slabs no longer protect the island.
“That project alone cost us over US$9,727. It was money washed down the drain. Erosion will not stop until we are able to make a decent effort,” Majdha said.
According to some guesthouse owners, tourists often ask why the council is not doing enough to protect the island. In reply, Majdha said: “We’ve been doing everything we can.”
“We can only negotiate with the government in these types of things. How can we start a project that would cost millions when we get a budget that only covers salaries of a few staff?”
The Maldives’ vulnerability to waves is also demonstrated by the submergence of Vahmaafushi Island, just 600 meters away from Maafushi. It submerged during the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. One man said: “We used to go there a lot when we were little. There were lots of trees and two houses for shelter. But it was completely washed away by the tsunami.”
Tourists I spoke to were shocked by the story of Vahmaafushi. “Wow. Really? I didn’t know that before. But I know that the sea level is rising because of the melting ice caps,” a man from Holland said. “If there were no beaches I wouldn’t have probably come here,” his friend said.
Council member Majdha says she will never stop her work to protect her island.
Guesthouse tourism has improved the standard of living on Maafushi. Unlike other Maldivian islands, there are no unemployed youth or drugs here. People are happy as money is continuously rolling in. The jobs have even attracted job seekers from Malé.
“We pay a lot to the government. The least they could do is actually do something to protect these beaches. They have shown us drawings of sea walls one after another. They have put it in the budget to build sea walls only to delay the work month by month. But I will, we will not stop until something is done,” Majdha said.