Maldives Controversy

Local surfers and foreign developers battle over the privatization of the atoll's waves

While the Maldives are known for quality surf, the number of accessible spots is small, and potentially getting smaller. Photo: Joli

If a planned development on the Maldives' North Male Atoll takes form, public access to many of the fabled lineups in the archipelago may soon become a thing of the past. Of the waves that have forged the sterling reputation of the islands—Honkies, Sultans, Chickens, Pasta Point, Lohis, Jails, and Cokes—it's possible that by 2014, more than half of them will become privatized as the result of foreign companies building boutique surf resorts and reserving access to the lineups for paying guests. For Maldivian surfers and workers whose livelihoods depend on access to these lineups, the proposed privatization provides an unsettling future.

Beginning the mid-1980s, surfers from around the world began to flock to the Maldives. With tourism rapidly expanding and the government fearful of the types of development seen in places like Kuta, Waikiki, and Phuket, the country built a unique format to encourage a low-volume, high-yield brand of tourism in hopes of minimizing social and environmental impacts. Commonly referred to as the "One Island, One Resort" policy, the approach has been studied and emulated across the world. In order to attract high-end boutique hotels, the Maldivian government granted landowners property rights up to 700 meters out to sea from the island's vegetation line. In many cases, prime lineups fell within this "house reef" zone, eventually giving rise to privatization of two of the area's most esteemed breaks, Pasta Point and Lohifushi.

In 2011, Singapore-based Telos Investment Corporation contacted the Maldivian government to lease the island of Thanburudhoo—home to two of the country's best breaks, Sultans and Honkies, for 50 years. The proposal, put forth by the company's president, Dr. Gunnar Lee-Miller, would see the construction of a boutique surf resort on the island with plans to be open by 2014. The original proposal would inhibit access to both Sultans and Honkies, only allowing local surfers access to the lineups twice a month.

According to the 2011 proposal, Telos Investment wouldn’t be obligated to provide any access at all to locals. By offering to provide bi-monthly access to their breaks, they would in effect, set a new standard.

"As a surf resort, Thanburudhoo will open its doors to Maldivian surfers for a special surfing session twice per month. Unlike other resorts, which do not allow local Maldivians to surf, Thanburudhoo would make available two surfing sessions per month, most likely Friday mornings or Saturday afternoons," said the 2011 proposal. "The Maldivian surfers coming to Thanburudhoo for the special local surfing session must be in good standing with the Maldivian Surf Association and must abide by all the rules and regulations of Thanburudhoo surfing activities. Generally understood, the local surfers will not be on the resort island per se, but in the water surfing.”

When the information included in the 2011 proposal was made public, local surfers were understandably outraged. Known more for the quality of its lineups than for the quantity, many Maldivian surfers are worried that the few accessible breaks remaining won't be able to accommodate all of the visiting and local surfers in the area. With two premier waves already privatized (Pasta Point and Lohis) this would leave only three other consistent, top-tier waves open to the public: Jailbreaks, Cokes, and Chickens.

In reaction, locals like Ahmed Nasru, who owns a surf-travel agency in the Maldives, explained their frustrations with the planned development:

"The proposal for the development of the boutique surf resort on Thanburudhoo is considered a major drawback in the sustainability of surf tourism in the Maldives and the safety of its surfers. The North Male Atoll is one of the busiest and most preferred areas for surf tourists in the Maldives due to various reasons like accessibility, availability of resources, affordability, and the quality of the waves…If this proposal gets approved Sultans and Honkeys would no-doubt become privatized leaving only a few other breaks accessible for the rest of the tourists who are on safari boats, surf camps and guest houses. Needless to say, by now as a surfer you should realize how severe the matter is."

In opposition to the development, a group under the name "Save Our Surfing" is circulating an online petition with hopes of gaining 10,000 signatures in order to stop the privatization of the breaks. In response to the outcry from some Maldivians, Telos Investment altered the number of days it will open up its lineups to locals from bi-monthly to bi-weekly. For the Maldivian surfers in opposition, it was still not enough.

Dr. Lee-Miller has been upfront in stating that the initial approach set forth in the 2011 proposal was insufficient and that the waves on Thanburudhoo would remain open to the public until 2013, one year prior to the estimated opening date of the resort. In regards to the economic impact the proposed development may have on locals deriving an income from shuttling surfers to different breaks, Dr. Lee-Miller cited numerous benefits the resort would contribute to the island nation, including the addition of up to 75 jobs for Maldivians and an estimated $1 million paid to the national revenue authority each year. Additionally, the resort would finance a leadership center for the Maldivian government, as well as help create a Coast Guard center for the country to combat piracy and illegal commercial fishing.

In an effort to mitigate the rising tension between locals and the proposed resort, Telos Investment has contracted The Center for Surf Research, based out of San Diego State University, to act as a consultant. According to the center’s founder, Dr. Jess Ponting, the group will not be playing a role in the development of the resort at Thanburudhoo, but have been contracted to provide recommendations to ensure that the resort follows both environmental and socially sustainable practices.

"The conditions I stressed to the developer in relation to our involvement were that our recommendations will be based on the assumption that the development is to: ensure daily access for Maldivian surfers; incorporate the Maldivian Surfing Association's input into the design and management of surfing on Thanburudhoo, potentially involving them in the day-to-day management of the surfing resource; actively nurture and develop the sport of surfing in the Maldives; ensure not only the environmental sustainability of the surf tourism industry but also its contribution to environmental conservation and improvement; and, establish conditions that research suggests maximize the potential for sustainability of the industry and its contribution to the local economy and sustainable local livelihoods. These conditions were agreed to and this is the basis of the center’s involvement in developing recommendations for management."

By contracting the Center for Surf Research, Telos Investment is clearly taking measures to deal with local opposition to the resort. They have also been adamant that they hope the resort at Thanburdhoo will set new standards when it comes to granting public access to breaks that they legally own. Yet the fate of both Sultans and Honkies remains in jeopardy as Telos Investment has not yet confirmed that they will officially open up complete access to the breaks.

According to Dr. Lee-Miller, the developments on Thanburudhoo reach beyond just surfing and are essential to creating a more prosperous future for the Maldives. "The Maldives are a sovereign nation attempting to develop itself and provide the most for its people that it can,” he says. “The government has leased many islands for various infrastructure projects, which it deems critical to the country's development. This project follows a very long line of island leases for the improvement of the country. What I can influence is how our proposed resort works with and improves the sport of surfing for locals at Thanburudhoo…I sincerely want this project to establish a new precedent for local surfers which other resorts will find compelling to join. Local access to all waves was stated to me by Maldivian Surfing Association as a number-one priority and I'm committed to assisting in making this happen."

When asked directly if he was prepared to open up uninhibited access to Sultans and Honkies, Dr. Lee-Miller said he and his organization are committed to setting new standards for access that can be emulated by other resorts.

“We can’t confirm ‘full, uninhibited’ at this point because there are various scenarios which need to be discussed with MSA, Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Defense and other stakeholders,” he said. “In my one meeting with MSA [Maldivian Surfing Association] we discussed different options regarding locals having access. Some of these options included assistance with transportation out to the breaks. Other scenarios included how to create a system where other resorts will be encouraged to join in on a slot program which always offered openings for locals to surf. We have many things to explore. We are embarking on a significant process, ultimately involving many stakeholders, and the best thing we can do is commit ourselves to the time and discussions necessary to go through all the details carefully and respectfully.”