With misinformation and greenwashing rife in tourism, ‘Behind The Green’ interviews take it back to basics. Back to storytelling and human connection. Hear from the visionaries behind the world’s leading sustainable travel experiences, as well as the inspiring experts who help us to REIMAGINE, RESET, and REINVENT travel.
Written by Rebecca Woolford
Who left the tap on?
On this archipelago of over 1200 islands dotted along the Indian Ocean, tourism is said to fuel the Maldivian economy. An image of money flowing into the Maldives from travel, a destination that attracts 1.9 million visitors per year (estimates for 2023), isn’t a reliable or accurate one.
Tourism has transformed the Maldives in the past 50 years, particularly in the past decade as a change in law enabling locals to build and open guesthouses helped kickstart community-based tourism.
Once a destination for celebrities or extravagant fly-and-flop trips, today it is also visited by backpackers, adventure seekers, and those looking for travel experiences beyond the walls of a resort.
Maldivians marginalized in the Maldives in the city of Male. In stark contrast to the luxury water villas
Even with positive changes in law and plenty of hotels now talking about ‘going green’, not everything is what it seems in paradise. Tourism leakage, otherwise known as economic leakage is rife in the Maldives.
Tourism leakage is real…
Tourism leakage is when the revenue generated by tourism is lost to other countries and economies. Of the total money for an all-inclusive, luxury holiday to the Maldives, surprisingly little ends up in the pockets of the communities.
According to the UN, as little as $5 of every $100 spent by a tourist remains in the local economy. Tourism leakage is especially harmful to destinations that rely on tourism as their primary source of income. The Maldives is a prime example.
So, after years of researching and networking, I was relieved to hear about Secret Paradise Maldives, the only conscious and sustainable-focused tour operator we know of to explore the solutions and ways to not only turn off the tap but better protect this fragile and critically important ecosystem and its wildlife.
I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!
Ruth Franklin, Co-Founder of Secret Paradise Maldives
Thank you Ruth for making the time, it’s great to have you on the series. It makes sense to start at the beginning. What led you to the Maldives? And ultimately make the decision to relocate your life over 20 years ago.
“I had spent almost 30 years working in retail in the UK before I made the move. During that career-focused period of my life, I’d been fortunate enough to take a sabbatical and during that time travelling, I learned to scuba dive, which led me to the Maldives on a holiday.
For whatever reason the Maldives captured my heart. The diving was amazing. The people were welcoming and hospitable. That one visit turned into a habit, returning two, or three times a year to explore this whole other world beneath the waves.
When the resorts got too expensive for me and my friends we would travel more extensively on a dive liveaboard, visiting local islands and the lesser-known tourist hotspots. Over a period of the next 10 years, I made friends with the local communities.
Everything changed after one afternoon when I was having coffee on the beach with a friend. A local businessman joined us, he was an engineer by trade, and he was working for resorts doing erosion protection, building water villas, etc.
It was also the same year the law changed in the Maldives to allow guest houses to open up and operate on local islands. Prior to this change of law, guests could only stay on an official resort or travel around on a boat.
This businessman was naturally pro-resort, they were his clients after all, and he couldn’t understand what would attract tourists to experience a destination like a local. I did my best to share my experience and educate him on the fact that the Maldives had huge potential outside of the ‘fly and flop’ package holiday. To experience a destination in a more authentic way, to connect with a sense of place, meet local people and connect with the culture was something missing from people’s visit to the Maldives.
I thought nothing more of the conversation over coffee and headed back to the UK and back to my life in retail. Later down the line, I got an unexpected call from this same businessman asking whether I’d like to set up a travel agency. I wasn’t interested, especially not in selling luxury resorts many of which are owned by international companies. I was however interested in showing a different side to the Maldives, a side most people often don’t see.
It’s funny… It seemed the most natural thing in the world to hand in my notice and move my entire life to the Maldives.
I arrived here in 2012 and have been here ever since. I was eager to connect tourists with local families and traditional Maldivian culture. This is the story of how Secret Paradise Maldives was born.
I feel privileged to call the Maldives my home, and in the spirit of being a considerate guest, I hold deep respect for the country, its communities, and its people.”
What does Secret Paradise Maldives do that’s different from the large resorts or operators? And what are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome to go against the grain as such, to create authentic and positive impact experiences for your guests?
“In the very beginning, we had to start from ground zero. This involved conversations with local people who were not necessarily seeing the benefits of tourism like the big resorts were. We shared why tourists were interested in connecting with them.
The initial responses would include: Why would somebody want to come to visit my home? What’s interesting about our traditionally cooked meals?
We shared how travel is an exchange, it’s a two-way experience. It’s not just the tourists learning from the locals. It’s the locals learning from those that are visiting. It’s a widening of horizons for everyone.
As local tourism has developed here, guest houses are not necessarily owned by locals. There is a lot of foreign investment here.
This is why we ask questions to the hotels and guest houses we promote to ensure they are 100% locally owned, and where the majority of the employees are Maldivians. We also do our best to assist these places with their sustainability practices, which is an ever-evolving journey.
Every member of my team is Maldivian, apart from the sales director, and we offer continuous training and self-development opportunities to everyone. Despite the importance of tourism in this economy, locals often find it hard to reach good positions within tourism, having to settle for lower-paid roles. That’s why working in tourism doesn’t always appeal to Maldivians.”
You can find out more about Secret Paradise Maldives HERE. Click on the leaf-rating tab to discover the efforts made to date and the improvement areas.
Source: Secret Paradise Maldives, Coral regeneration
Tourism leakage is a topic I’m often talking about. When the majority of the money ends up leaking out rather than staying in the destination, the inequality gap continues to widen. Large cruise ships are the worst offenders. Alongside reducing tourism leakage, what are the other ways travel agents and conscious travellers can make their trip count? What do we need to look out for in order to be more conscious and mindful?
“You’ve got over 170 resorts in the Maldives, and the vast majority are internationally owned. This means the majority of the money tourism brings just doesn’t stay here, it jumps out of the destination.
These resorts, as well as many of the bigger guesthouses or hotels, are not only providing accommodation, they’re providing meals and excursions, they even have their own dive shops, so the guests aren’t going out and spending their money in the community. Tourism can be one of the most effective distributors of wealth but when done wrong it does the complete opposite.
From land grabbing to reclaiming lagoons for profit, benefitting the wealthy few, you can read more about what the island communities in the Maldives are asking for here.
Source: Secret Paradise Maldives, Local community experiences and cooking classes
Done right, tourism can empower people financially, and help communities to preserve and restore their local island cultures and environment.
A positive impact adventure begins with doing your research, that’s why Kiwano is great because you guys do a lot of that yourself, providing transparent and honest information.
There are various resorts in the Maldives with green certifications, but with greenwashing rife we need to ask better questions and delve deeper. I recommend starting by visiting the hotels or tour operators’ websites and looking at what they say.
Do they talk in a generic marketing way? Or is there evidence to support what they say? Are there annual impact reports? Are they transparent about the areas of improvement? For the excursion and activities, what codes of conduct do they follow?
What does sustainable travel look like? How can tourism be a force for good? What are the pitfalls we must avoid? All this and more can be found here.
Source: Secret Paradise Maldives, a team beach clean-up and research expedition
Whilst there are no regulations in the Maldives, each of the marine life organisations has a clear code of conduct, for instance, there is a regulation in place to say that shark and ray feeding is illegal but we know for a fact that this still happens.
Secret Paradise Maldives follows the Green Fins Policy. Which includes:
- Avoiding touching coral or any kind of marine life
- Making sure that boats aren’t anchoring on coral reefs
- Having experienced, knowledgeable, local guides
99% of the Maldives is ocean. People visit the Maldives because of its marine life and coral reefs. And like coral reefs around the world, they’re impacted by climate change, by ocean warming, and coral bleaching. But coral reefs are resilient, just like other aspects of nature given a chance it can bounce back. I’ve seen coral reefs that have been previously bleached in the past, slowly come back.
The coral reefs are battling pollution, climate change, and tourists who don’t know better who are not used to snorkeling, and who are not wearing buoyancy aid, their fins can hit the fragile coral that has taken hundreds of years to get to the size that it is. This can easily be avoided with the right briefing.
Just as it’s essential to have a good briefing for swimming amongst the coral reefs, it’s key to work with a tour guide who has a code of conduct with marine wildlife encounters. This includes keeping a healthy distance, of no less than 3 meters depending on the species.
Avoid blind spots when in the water, do not come directly in front of the marine wildlife OR from right behind, particularly for turtles. Hanging back, observing, being patient and letting the creature get familiar to you being in their home makes for a more positive encounter.
Avoiding hotspots that are overrun with people is a great starting point.
Within the areas of SAMPA – South Ari Marine Protected Area I’ve witnessed situations that looked almost circus-like. Greater regulations such as those in place at Hanifaru Bay UNESCO Biosphere Baa Atoll are desperately needed.
With over 100 people in the water and 25+ boats circling the same areas. Speedboats are zooming up and down the reef trying to find whale sharks or manta rays and the wildlife can get hit. There’s been an increase in injuries identified on whale sharks in that area that has been pulled together by data research from the Maldives Whale Shark Programme.
It’s about understanding as an individual that, yes, people come to the Maldives because they want to have a special encounter, but it’s not only about what we want, it’s about putting the animals’ welfare first. By doing so you’ll have a richer and more positive experience.
Choose a tour provider that follows the Green Fins environmental best practices. But also, it’s worth saying, use your common sense, if there are loads of boats, and 100+ people in the water, that’s not going to be a good experience for the whale shark, or you.
Unbalanced tourism is a big problem here, as it is with many other destinations. Part of that is tour operators or businesses not better-educating guests.
Many people who come to the Maldives have little knowledge of marine life or the Green Fins code of conduct, we can’t expect people to know what’s good and what’s bad if they haven’t had those experiences before.
In UNESCO Biosphere Baa Atol where there is a manta ray aggregation from May to October there is now a ticketing system in place. So, there is a limited number of people per day that can visit and snorkel in the bay. That’s exactly what we need to see in Sampa with the Whale Sharks, although this is an area covering 45+ kilometers which makes it a much greater area to manage effectively. I am pleased to say, though, that I’ve seen adverts in place to recruit rangers for Sampa so hopefully that’s a step in the right direction.
To avoid the overcrowded ‘honeypots’ and seek positive natural encounters with wildlife, to combat unbalanced tourism and restore some much-needed balance – where do you recommend conscious travellers or travel agents to focus?
“If you look at the archipelago as a map you can break it up into three thirds. The central third, is the area closest to Male, this is where we find the highest number of resorts, and developments because of close proximity to Male, the capital where the airport is. This is the area where you’re going to find the most tourists at any time of the year.
If you move into the top third or the bottom third, that’s an area where you can still explore islands that have retained their authenticity and magic. Equally, they perhaps don’t have the same level of infrastructure, as they are more off the beaten path.
There are plans by the government to add more domestic airports to allow tourists to navigate with more ease outside of the central zone. Although building more airports doesn’t sound great in the face of climate change, this can be positive as it helps tourism spread more evenly to the other islands.
As a destination, the Maldives understandably wants to move forward and further develop tourism, but there must be a balance between protecting and conserving what makes the Maldives so special, and why I fell in love with it all those years ago.”
From partnering with grassroots NGOs on ‘Save the Beach’ to taking care of the Maldivian staff you continue to train, develop and empower, which aspect of Secret Paradise Maldives are you most proud of and why?
“Oh goodness, I think the big thing for us and where we’ve seen the greatest benefits from a team and tourist point of view, and then from a partner perspective is our partnerships with either NGOs or local marine organisations.
Why? Because our team spends a huge amount of time in the water.
Talking about turtles, coral reefs, whale sharks, manta rays, has not only brought knowledge to our guests, but it helps us provide critical data to marine biologists and NGOs so they can see what’s happening under the surface. When we take underwater photographs this all gets fed back to the organisations we work with.
We first connected with the grassroots NGO ‘Save The Beach’ back in 2015. I initially joined them in their coral planting. They were also having to move coral because of reclamation that was happening in the capital. So, that’s where our paths first crossed.
We take our guests to meet their team so they can learn something new. So they can see with their own eyes the environmental impact us humans are having on this fragile and important ecosystem here.
I feel proud as ‘Save The Beach’ was a very small organisation, yet through our partnership we’ve given them more exposure, and have even had television crews from around the world come and do a tour with us, where we help shine a light on the impactful work of ‘Save the Beach’.
As a business, we have to be profitable in order to operate and provide local jobs but for me, our mission is to create a space so everybody benefits.
Post-pandemic, we started to work much more closely with Women’s Development Councils on the local islands to create a platform in which they can share cooking experiences, and traditional craftsmanship with visitors.
Learning how the local community feels and benefits from tourism on these islands is an area I’m passionate about sharing with others. Understanding better the challenges the local people face, a lot of it comes down to simply having conversations and creating meaningful connections between people. This isn’t always possible if one doesn’t think to go beyond their resort.”
If this has piqued your interest in the Maldives or if you’d like to book more conscious trips? Click HERE to find out more about the tours and experiences available.
Source: Secret Paradise Maldives, Swimming With Turtles and Manta Rays
Travel done right can have a profound impact not just on the places and people we visit, but on our hearts and minds. Can you tell us about a travel experience that profoundly impacted you, whether that was in the Maldives or somewhere else? What kind of transformation did you experience?
“I guess I would go back to when I had my sabbatical, to the first part of that trip, trekking to Everest Base Camp. It took me, my friend, our porter, and our guide just over 30 days to hike there and back.
This was 20 years ago so it was much less popular than it is today.
There is something about waking up in the morning knowing that there is just walking ahead of you. No technology. I wasn’t able to jump in my car to get anywhere. I was simply immersed in this striking nature.
We stayed with local people and rested in tea houses so I got to make friends, and make meaningful connections with people along the way.
It was also transformational as it left you feeling vulnerable, and exposed on occasions because of the environment, being so far away from civilization. It was so far outside my comfort zone it was a step to building my sense of self and confidence.”
The question I always like to ask at the end is: What’s next for Secret Paradise Maldives, Ruth?
“We want to remove beef from our menus as well as from our partner’s menus because it’s the most carbon-intensive protein. Beef requires much more land and water than say plant-based proteins. And there’s fresh fish here, why would you want beef?
We are currently working towards our travel life accreditation. As a team were looking at the United Nations SDGs and we were fortunate to be involved in the Maldives First Tourism Climate Action Plan. And so we’re pulling together our own climate action plan and impact report.
We will continue educating guests on what responsible travel in the Maldives looks like, sharing information and solutions that help to change people’s hearts and minds long after the trip is over.”