What’s going on in the Maldives? Are the waves free to surf or not? Despite recent Ministry of Tourism announcements of changes to resort boundary laws, open access to waves and surf management plans, the situation remains unclear. Read on for the lowdown on the current situation and future prognosis:
In the surf playground that is the Maldives, all is not quite as idyllic as it may at first appear on the shimmering surface. Delve beneath the sapphire-blue waters and hollow blown-glass-perfect tubes of this typically serene Indian Ocean gem, and you may discover a brew of confusion and controversy, simmering away like the quintessential Garudiya soup.
It all started with Tony Hussein Hinde (R.I.P), father of Maldivian surfing. Shipwrecked on North Male Atoll in 1973, Hinde is co-credited with pioneering most of the best breaks in the area, introducing modern surf equipment and eventually tourism to the islands in the process.
He also introduced the concept of private waves.
When Hinde founded Atoll Adventures and claimed exclusive access to the famed Pasta Point, he set a precedent that allowed some of the Maldives’ best waves to be picked off by foreign investors and private resorts in subsequent years. By claiming that an island’s ‘home reef’ belongs to the landowner in the same way that the ground does, he paved the way for Hudhuranfushi and Kandooma resorts to later restrict access to the waves breaking on their own ‘home reefs,’ setting the stage for the current quandary.
When shots of perfect peeling reef breaks and empty lineups hit the mainstream surf media, tourism boomed, and scores of charter boats, camps and resorts sprang up to cater for the increasing numbers of tourists flocking to the remote island chain. Life was great: those who could afford to stay in a resort with exclusive access to the wave at their ‘home reef’ discovered everything the tantalising magazine photos had promised, and even those travelling with lighter budgets had no problem realising their dreams of isolated tropical barrels. As stories of lazy days and perfect Maldivian waves filtered back home, interest grew and investors’ noses twitched: more resorts were built to meet demand, more waves were privatised… Crowds grew at the remaining open spots.
Sounds great! What’s the problem?
Currently only four of the seven world class breaks in North Male Atoll are open for all tourists and local surfers to enjoy, and the resultant crowding is becoming a problem. No-one wants to fly halfway around the world to find stacked lineups, no matter how good the waves – indeed empty waves are often the lure that entices most of us to fly halfway around the world in the first place! Who wants to spend their precious holiday time hustling waves from an irate crowd? Every resource has a carrying capacity, a limit to the number of users it can sustain before quality drops… Surf is no different.
In 2012 news broke that a Singapore-based investment company planned to build a luxury resort on Thanburudhoo Island, and to claim exclusive rights to Sultans and Honky’s, two of the best and most consistent waves in North Male. The development would halve the number of open breaks remaining to just two: simply not enough to accommodate the ever-growing number of local and visiting surfers. Amidst the general outcry against the resort, outraged surfers – locals and visitors alike – campaigned to save the waves, and force a change in surf tourism policy.
Fundamentally, there are two main issues at stake. Firstly, wave ownership: most surfers consider the ocean and waves to be a birthright, a natural phenomenon that belongs to all; a communal wealth and natural heritage that cannot and should not be restricted. Exclusivity goes against one of the most basic tenets of surfing: freedom. Paradoxically, the second issue stems from this freedom: crowds. Totally open and unrestricted access inherently results in more people surfing a break, though as the number of waves remains the same each individual surfers’ wave count goes down, thus each individual’s experience is worth less than before. As in all markets, when a commodity loses value suppliers must slash prices: to maintain profit margins they must then sell more. A race to the bottom ensues; as a break is exploited way beyond the carrying capacity it can sustain, both experience quality and prices drop. This is evidenced the world over, from California to Indonesia – as Kelly Slater tweeted: “If there was any question as 2 whether we’ve ruined the Mentawais, the sobering reality of 16 boats @ 1 average break tonight confirmed it.” In the long term over-exploitation is good for neither tourists nor local businesses and the communities they sustain.
There is a real conundrum here, and a tangled mix of local politics, vested interests, and conflicting stakeholders – plus differing thoughts on the ethics of wave privatisation and the future of surf tourism in the Maldives. The extensive charter boat fleet, who make their living transporting ‘live-aboard’ surfers between multiple breaks, are naturally totally against privatisation: the more waves they can take their guests too the more attractive the prospect of a charter boat holiday becomes. More, they reason that if all waves were open they could better spread crowds around, lessening the burden on each break. Conversely, resorts that justify their high prices with exclusive access – and paid a lot of lease money for the rights to do so! – are unwilling to cede their claim to the waves. To do so would kill their businesses: why pay hundreds of dollars a night at the resort when you can surf the same waves from a guesthouse down the road for half the price? As the resorts generate roughly 180% more tax and 3-500% more jobs per tourist than the boat fleet, this is an influential argument.
So what’s the deal right now?
However, times are changing. Under pressure to ‘Save Thanburudhoo’ by the local and international surf community, earlier this year the Maldives Government made a major amendment to resort boundary regulations, excluding all ‘popular’ dive and surf spots from the resort boundary and apparently ending the concept of the ‘house reef’ – a defined boundary line established to prevent trespass into an area leased by a resort. Many consider this to mean that prohibition is over, though as yet there is still no word on when the new rules will be implemented and which breaks will make the list. A condition of open access is the introduction of a ‘surf management plan,’ which is still being debated by organisations such as the LAM (Liveaboard Association Maldives), MSA (Maldives Surfing Association) and the Ministry of Tourism. The situation on the ground remains complicated, with different stakeholders interpreting the new regulations in different ways. One charter boat operator, who wished to remain anonymous, reported problems when trying to surf resort breaks: “I got too much troubles trying to surf in the resort spots, all the boats have to drop their guest there to press [the issue], not only me.” In a press release dated 10th June 2014, Kandooma Resort insisted: “Until the names of the resort waves are officially announced and management plans implemented the resorts have the right to claim the reefs around their islands as their own property.” With no further guidance from the Ministry of Tourism on what form a surf management plan might take, speculation is rife; the situation is up in the air and seems likely to remain so in the immediate future.
One thing is clear, though – there HAS to be a management plan. Too many once perfect waves have been all but ruined by an unchecked growth in tourism; competitive crowd dynamics changing the surf experience from stoke-filled sessions to aggressive, free-for-all melees. If they need incentive, the Maldives Government should look to Fiji’s Cloudbreak as an example: once one of the most exclusive and legendary waves in the world, Cloudbreak is now an exercise in over-exploitation. According to a leading surf academic: “[the]place is slammed with surfers, surf rage, drop ins, backpaddling. Up to 80 people have been counted in the water at one time when the previous safe limit was thought to be 16. The surfing experience has been severely impacted.” Despite the differing viewpoints amongst stakeholders, no-one wants to see the Maldives play out in a similar fashion. Opening access to all breaks may help to spread the burden, but it needs to be done with future sustainability in mind. A ‘low quantity, high yield’ tourism model has largely worked for the Maldives in the past, and if this can be implemented more fairly, may well be the key to the future too – preserving the quality of the surf experience for all users in the years to come.
How should we play it now?
In the meantime though, how to achieve that dream of pristine tropical islands, deserted waves breaking over kaleidoscopic reefs, sand in your toes and margaritas in hand? Despite future concerns, that vision of perfection can still be found in the Maldives, whether you tend towards luxury or adventure. For now at least, resorts like Hudhuranfushi still offer exclusive access to their own private waves, and with limited numbers of surfers permitted to stay at any one time you can be sure of a good wave count. Chartering a surf boat to the Outer Atolls is a great option for the more adventurous Robinson Crusoe-types, and is far more likely to net you that deserted reef break! If your lottery numbers have finally come up or one of your oil rigs just struck black gold, consider a seaplane charter to celebrate: explore the very ends of the archipelago and score waves beyond the reach of even the hardiest of dhoni boats – epic adventure, guaranteed!