These Maldives resorts are going the extra mile to protect their ecosystems
It’s easy to feel somewhat despondent when it comes to the state of the world’s most important ecosystems. But in the paradise that is the Maldives there’s hope on the horizon, thanks to a growing number of resorts going above and beyond when it comes to conservation
In a hot, sticky school classroom on Milandhoo, a tiny island on the Maldives’ remote Shaviyani Atoll, marine biologist Neus Segura is handing out plastic rulers to Maldivian tweens, explaining how they’re made from the same types of plastic they just scooped off their local beach.
Neus Segura, who regularly leads beach clean-ups on nearby islands, is a marine biologist at the Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi (opening image), a Green Globe-certified resort. In an era when most Maldivian resorts have marine biologists, Segura’s presence isn’t unusual. But the team at the resort is going one step further, proof of which was the presence of the Maldives’ Minister of Environment at the recent opening of the resort’s sustainability lab.
The star of the show is the tech – machines that turn large amounts of waste plastic – ranging from ghost nets to plastic debris dropped off by fishermen – into plastic pellets, which can be fed into an extruder to create smaller items such as the aforementioned rulers, or plastic slabs that can be transformed into tables and chairs. No other resort is able to process this amount of waste plastic or has invested this much in the technology required to do so.
Coral cubes and plastic-detecting drones
Sustainability was a priority from the start here. Sustainability manager and marine biologist Sam Dixon was employed before the resort opened to ensure that conservation was a consideration from the outset, and the approach goes well beyond plastic. Soon, floating solar panels in the resort’s lagoon will provide ten per cent of the Maldives’ total solar produce. Then there’s the Coralarium – a beautiful semi-submerged latticed cube made from pH-neutral steel. Inside the structure, designed by Jason deCaires Taylor, are structures to which coral fragments have been attached. It’s one of several coral propagation schemes at the resort, and guests are welcome to snorkel inside the cube.
It's easy to understand the government’s enthusiasm for such projects. With 1,190 coral islands, the Maldives has a complex topography. And although the government has made huge strides – creating protected areas and banning fishing using anything other than a pole and line – it’s becoming clear that resorts play a huge role in the region’s future.
“With limited resources, the government can deliver certain policy and infrastructure changes that protect the region, but resorts can help support conservation from the ground (and the reef) up,” says Maldives expert Steve Simpson, Professor of Marine Biology and Global Change at the University of Bristol. “Resorts can also create valuable economic resources for the country and leave guests with a deeper love of the ocean, which can inspire change worldwide.”
And a growing number of resorts are stepping up to the plate, not simply by filling brochures with buzzwords, but thinking about the bigger picture while engaging guests. Another resort going (literally) above and beyond is the Ritz-Carlton Maldives, Fari Islands resort, where marine biologists use drones to collect data relating to plastic pollution at sea.
“The ability to gain more data on plastics aggregations is extremely powerful,” says British PhD researcher Melissa Schiele, who’s leading the project. “With plastic, nobody knows what’s where, or how long it accumulates for. We’re also using drones to fine-tune ghost net detection methods, and then there’s the power of guest interaction, which provides fantastic educational opportunities.” Guests can use the drone simulation software used by researchers and also watch the drones in action.
This approach is paying off. Recently, it’s not just the tech that has undergone a transformation, but guests’ attitudes. In an era when they’re more clued up about conservation than ever before, resorts are keen to go one step further, and this is where collaborations come in. Partnerships provide conservation organisations with a base from which to gather game-changing research, and their presence lends credibility to resorts at a time when some sustainability projects are viewed with scepticism. Guests, meanwhile, can learn about the Maldives’ ecosystems, whether it’s through workshops or excursions led by marine biologists.
The InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort is a case in point. In 2019, UK charity the Manta Trust set up a base here. Its presence serves multiple purposes. Project manager and marine biologist Jess Haines was able to start gathering data relating to mantas, and the hope is that it will show that the waters around the island are a manta nursery. The long-term goal is that the area will be given MPA (Marine Protected Area) status, which will benefit both the marine life and the resort. The team is also studying the impact of boat traffic on mantas, and is in touch with Maldivian government officials keen to learn how activity inside potential MPAs should be controlled.
Guests benefit, too, whether it’s during annual Manta Retreats or expert-led manta-spotting sessions. One of the Manta Trust’s biggest projects is the creation of a database of manta mugshots. Many photos are provided by guests, who can name and adopt mantas (hence the recent addition of a creature christened Manta Claus by a guest).
But some of the region’s resorts aren’t stopping at simply embracing partnerships with charities. There’s a sense that resorts feel obliged to invest more in the ecosystems which enable their presence. The St Regis Maldives Vommuli resort works closely with Reefscapers, a Maldives-based marine consultancy company that restores the region’s reefs using pioneering techniques. And the results are monitored in a way that will benefit reefs worldwide.
“Every coral frame enters into a specific monitoring plan developed by our team,” says Sebastien Stradal, marine consultant at Reefscapers. “During the entire phase, each frame has a numbered tag and is mapped on a satellite QGIS interactive map. The frames are entered into a database linked to a website that provides details such as the date of transplantation, GPS coordinates, depth, coral species and health status.”
These partnerships help to spread the word while providing support for organisations that rely heavily on eye-wateringly expensive tech. At the InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort, for example, Jess Haines’ arsenal includes the world’s first underwater ultrasound camera, invented by scientists at the University of Cambridge. But Haines’ plan to secure MPA status for the area is a reminder that such projects are vital when it comes to safeguarding the region’s future, too.
Why there’s hope on the horizon
Recently, the team at the Six Senses Laamu succeeded in getting the entire Laamu Atoll Mission Blue Hope Spot designation. Mission Blue was founded by oceanographer Dr Sylvia Earle, who wanted to create a worldwide network of marine protected areas – Hope Spots. Shortly after the widely publicised Hope Spot designation, the Maldivian government, armed with data provided by the resort’s experts, announced the creation of six Laamu Atoll MPAs.
Six Senses Laamu has also tackled issues often overlooked– an approach that suggests the motivation is no longer simply to appease guests keen to brag about the (often meaningless) sustainability credentials of their resort. Take Six Senses Laamu’s seagrass restoration project. The Maldives’ vast swathes of seagrass – often found close to beaches – stabilise the seabed and provide habitats for marine organisms. But an urgency among resorts to lure guests with endless white sand and glass-clear water is the reason many destinations destroy their seagrass meadows.
It raises the argument that many of these problems wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the presence of resorts. But change is afoot. A growing number of resorts are no longer simply making amends for the impact created by their presence, but addressing problems that existed before their arrival.
“The future of the hospitality industry is gearing up towards going well beyond things like carbon neutrality,” says Sam Dixon, sustainability manager at the Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi. “It’s moving towards goals such as carbon negativity and zero waste. It’s so important that the tourism industry supports local communities while going beyond simply protecting habitats, to actively enhancing them, whether through coral propagation or the contribution of scientific data to create more informed conservation strategies.”
In a nutshell? It’s no longer about simply giving guests the chance to take a selfie with a newly hatched turtle, or against a technicoloured reef, which, let’s face it, is pretty common fare. Seagrass selfies, however…
How to work out if your Maldives resort is genuinely sustainable
Sam Dixon, the Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi’s sustainability manager, offers his tips
Look for third-party certifications recognised by the Global Sustainability Tourism Council. Examples are Green Globe and Green Growth.
Look for partnerships with conservation NGOs operating in the country, such as the Olive Ridley Project and the Manta Trust.
Find out what internationally recognised awards the resort has received for its sustainability initiatives.
Look for a sustainability section on the resort’s website to learn about any projects and initiatives. For example, look for information on solar, waste management and recycling projects.
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