“Wow, the Maldives!” exclaim our friends when we tell them we’ve booked a trip to the Indian Ocean paradise. It’s a polite disguise for, “Jeez how can you afford that?” People’s image of this tropical nation of coral islands is remarkably consistent: turquoise lagoons, dazzling beaches, luxurious water villas, amazing marine life, and dollar signs…lots of them. They’re correct. But, there’s a largely unknown and non-promoted option that provides an affordable (relatively speaking) and arguably richer alternative to the high-priced resort islands. It’s called local island tourism. Mike and I just returned from a week on Fulidoo Island. We’re tanned and relaxed and have money left in our pockets for our next trip.
Tourism in the Maldives developed in the early 70s when single resorts were built on uninhabited islands—one island, one resort. Today there are more than 130 of these private, resort islands, which run from a minimum of $200US/night to well over $1000/night, and receive the vast bulk of the nation’s tourists. It was not until 2009, with a change in government and a relaxation in local laws, that residents of inhabited islands were allowed to develop their own local islands tourism industry. Guesthouses, restaurants and even diving centers have sprung up on local islands. Prices vary, but it’s not difficult to find a nice guesthouse for $50-$100/night including breakfast.
Same crystal clear water, white sand and incredible sea life at a fraction of the price. What’s the catch?
If you’ve always dreamed of staying in a brochure-worthy, over-water bungalow with gourmet cuisine and pampering spa services you won’t find this on the local islands. Guesthouses on local islands are generally simple, food is uncomplicated and spa service means swinging on an over-water rope chair. And, if you’ve got your heart set on slurping piña coladas and strutting your thong-clad body around the island, you need to know that both these activities are verboten. Local islands are subject to Islamic Law where no alcohol is allowed and dress must be modest beyond the designated “bikini beaches” (local laws and customs don’t apply on the resorts as tourists remain ensconced on separate islands).
A local island holiday isn’t for everyone, however, as we discovered on Fulidhoo Island, it’s an affordable way for open-minded travelers to experience not only the famous Maldives water and beaches but also a slice of local life that is absent on resort islands. Local island tourism brings in money for the local economy and allows more islanders to work at home rather than travel long distances for employment at resort islands. It’s a win-win for visitors and locals.
Tiny Fulidhoo island is 700 m long and 200 m wide. It has 400 inhabitants and 8 small guesthouses. We selected it primarily because of its respected scuba diving operation but ended up getting a whole lot more than we expected during our 6 day stay.
Let me take you on a tour of Fulidhoo Island.
Fulidhoo Island is part of the Vaavu Atoll, 57 km from the capital and airport in Malé. It’s surprisingly easy to access via a roughly one hour speed boat ride at $50, or a 3.5 hour ferry trip at $3.50. We tried both. If speed is not an issue, the ferry is very pleasant.
Visitors are made to feel welcome on arrival at the public dock. We were warmly greeted by Adele from Fulidhoo Dive and Mohamed, one of three bothers who operate Island Break guesthouse. It’s a short walk to any of the island’s guesthouses and luggage is transported by wheelbarrows.
Seeing rays and large schools of sardines in the shallow water is a daily delight. A walk along the reef side of the island at low tide reveals moray eels and juvenile black tip sharks. You don’t even need to get your feet wet to see amazing marine life.
Almost 99% of the Maldivian population is Muslim. With the exception of the cell towers, the mosque is the tallest man-made structure on Fulidhoo Island. I must have slept soundly because I never heard the early morning call to prayer.
Bikini beach is a pretty swath of sand on one side of the island where swimwear is permitted. The thatched-roof beach “bar” serves soda, coconuts and non-alcoholic beer.
Visitors are welcome on the beautiful, long stretch of public beach but are requested to wear clothing that covers the shoulders and reaches the knees, both in and out of the water. It’s not such a bad thing—saved more of our pasty white skin from burns.
Unlike the resort islands, many local islands don’t have the budgets to transport out garbage and recyclables on a continuous basis. Despite the challenges, locals work hard to keep Fulidhoo Island clean. Residents are out sweeping beaches, school children collect recyclables, and Mohamed is hopeful that Fulidhoo will get a water filtration system that will minimize reliance on plastic bottles.
Fulidhoo’s peaceful sand streets are lined with colourful houses, little shops and the local school. For such a tiny island it has surprisingly good infrastructure. The service I received at the local clinic and pharmacy for my blocked ears was far more efficient than anything I’ve experienced at home (they opened up after hours just for me).
One of my favourite memories of Fulidhoo is hanging out on the public beach during late afternoons. After work, school, and the heat of the day, locals come to the beach to play and socialize. Later in the evening, the open-air community hall often features local drumming and dancing where everyone is welcome.
Mohamed, Adam and Fifshan, the three friendly brothers who operate the 7-room Island Break have all worked at resort islands and now bring their skills to this lovely local island guesthouse. Family members all contribute—dad is a fisherman, so deliciously- prepared fresh catch is always on the menu, and various uncles have helped make the furniture and decor that grace the rooms and sand-floor dining area. They work hard but always have time to chat with guests.
Scuba diving is a big draw on Fulidhoo Island but there are plenty of other activities like excursions to glorious sandspits, snorkelling with nurse sharks, fishing, playing football with the locals and even day packages to a resort island.
Our main reason for selecting Fulidhoo Island (the scuba diving) did not disappoint. The water around Fulidhoo is famous for being home to large pelagic creatures. Yup, that includes sharks…lots of them. It was a thrill and privilege to share the water with these amazing animals and to dive with the highly professional staff at Fulidhoo Dive. There’s too much to talk about, so I’ll be doing a separate diving post.
Fulidhoo is just one of about 25 local islands with tourism infrastructure. I wish I could provide a resource that describes and compares them all (or even the main ones), but this doesn’t seem to exist. I did a lot of googling and found some good blog posts about a few islands, which eventually led us to Fulidhoo. We were thrilled with our choice.
Upcoming Posts: Fulidhoo Island Diving and Sri Lanka Highlights.