Karo was surfing his home break with some buddies one morning 14 years ago when a strange thing happened. The local police buzzed up in a speedboat and ordered the young men—about two dozen of them in the water—to paddle back to their dhoni and return to the island of Malé, the capital city of the Maldives, their home.
After catching a few more waves and ignoring commands from the authorities, Karo and his friends motored from the atoll back to Malé. When they arrived at the dock, more officers were waiting and the surfers were marched, surfboards in hand, a few blocks to the local police station and questioned. “We were at the station five hours or so before they realized that there was corruption behind it and let us go,” says Karo.
Today, 34-year-old Karo, whose full name is Ahmed Fauzan Abbas, is president of the Maldives Surfing Association. He later learned that the warden of a local prison, which sits on the small island where Karo and his friends were surfing that day, had attempted to pull off a bit of extortion. The warden’s scheme was simple: Unless each surfer paid $25 to ride the break, which the local boys called “Jails,” the warden would phone the cops and have them locked up. Such rackets are a part of life in the small island nation, Karo says. Its reformation from a dictatorship to a democracy in 2008 hasn’t erased its longstanding tradition of government corruption at every level.
The warden didn’t get away with his scheme. But in the years since the Jails incident, a different government agenda is fastening its grip on the islands and threatens to separate surfers from their backyard breaks: private surf resorts.
North Malé atoll, where Karo surfs, is postcard beautiful. Its roughly 85 islands feature white-sand beaches, palm trees, frangipani flowers, and nine world-class breaks that draw surfers from across the globe. Of the eight islands in the atoll adorned with breaks, six are occupied or being developed by what the Maldivian government calls “boutique” surf resorts. In the past 15 years, as development has taken root, the region’s roughly 200 local surfers have witnessed a discomforting trend. Resorts are claiming exclusive rights to nearby breaks under a 36-year-old provision in the country’s tourism policy. The provision grants owners claim to the area 700 meters from an island’s vegetation line into the ocean—“home reef” zone. Places that once functioned like public parks became private commodities for guests only, literally overnight.
“When the resorts first started, years ago, people didn’t complain, because we had all the other breaks to surf,” Karo says. “Now the breaks on North Malé are endangered too.”
Three years ago, Karo and his friends caught wind of a proposal to put a private four-star resort on the atoll’s last uninhabited island, called Thanburudhoo. As part of the lease agreement, the developer will cover the cost of a $5 million military training facility on a neighboring island. More importantly to surfers and safari-boat skippers, the deal would effectively fence off two of the best waves in the country: Sultans and Honkeys. The developer, a Harvard-educated American named Gunnar Lee-Miller, whose private equity firm bought the Thanburudhoo lease, promises to set aside two “surf days” per month for locals as a compromise.
By 2015, only two breaks—Jails and another called Cokes—are set to be open to locals. Surfers and safari-boat operators are outraged. Government mechanisms promoting resort developments are cutting into the safari boats’ market share, displacing local surfers, and eroding the country’s limited public space. With each island a resort carves off the map, tension builds at the spots that remain. The surfing experience today at one of the most remote places on the planet conjures for many visitors the same aggressive scene as many high-density surf spots in California, Hawaii, and Australia. Stories of visitors fist-fighting and arguing with locals on the waves in North Malé are common. More than a black eye or bruised pride, Maldivian surfers worry that private ownership will soon leave them without a home break to fight for.
“We’re fed up with having to go to these rich companies to beg, like, ‘Can we please surf our own break?’ I’d rather be locked up,” Karo says. “We are going to surf every exclusive break next year. We are ready to get arrested again.”
Thanburudhoo’s natural attributes aren’t particularly enticing from a vacationer’s point of view. A south-to-north current has ripped away any trace of beach, giving the island the look of a narrow spear tip. Nearly every inch of its surface is rugged and overgrown; there are no clearings or grass. But the breaks off its southern tip make the island a worthwhile investment. According to Lee-Miller’s development proposal, which he co-wrote with the country’s Defense Ministry, “the island’s only strength is its surfing waves.”
Construction on Thanburudhoo began in January, despite pushback from the surfing association and safari boats, which serve surf tourists who can’t afford or aren’t interested in upscale resorts. Thanburudhoo is set to open in the spring of next year, when the eight-month surf season kicks up. The breaks are open to locals while the resort is being built, but the impending closures have cast a shadow over this surf season. The local uproar caught the ear of the international surf community, which was quick to cast the project as the latest chapter of injustice in paradise.
In October 2012, a man named Jess Ponting made the journey from his home in San Diego to North Malé for a look at Thanburudhoo. The 41-year-old Australian surfer runs the Center for Surf Research, a program at San Diego State University that funds surf-tourism research around the world. Flying in from Singapore, Ponting soared over a vast, empty sea into the center of the Indian Ocean. From the airplane window, the outer islands of the Maldives appear as dots of naked white sand hovering at the surface. The country has been described as a string of bright pearls. The Maldives’ 328,000 residents live on fewer than 200 of the country’s 1,200 tiny islands. “It felt like Waterworld to me,” Ponting says.
When natural resources are made available to only the highest bidders—typically foreign companies and their upscale clientele—groups with no capital, like local surfers, are often first to lose out.
When Karo and his friends heard about Thanburudhoo, they launched a counter campaign (called Save Thanburudhoo), rallied a base of opponents, drew up a petition to halt the project, and messaged Ponting. His extensive research in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands highlights the importance of conscientious tourism development. He is particularly attuned to the economic exclusion and exploitation of native people in tourism hot spots—what he calls “neocolonialism”—and his center is designing a framework to assess a resort’s environmental, cultural, and economic impacts. His primary concerns in North Malé were local surf access, employment opportunities for Maldivians, and environmental degradation (the Thanburudhoo proposal involves building a new harbor).
Karo is certain that putting a resort on Thanburudhoo would be disastrous. Locals would lose jobs, the government would lose tax money, and a colony of herons on the island would lose their homes, he says. He thought that if Ponting panned the Thanburudhoo proposal in his field report, the surfers would have the ammunition they’d need to scuttle the project. (The country’s Environmental Protection Agency has authority to trump projects that don’t meet certain standards of ecological sensitivity.)
“The locals thought I’d don my beret with a star on the front and charge into battle,” Ponting says. “But that’s not what I do.”
At the center of the string of island pearls, rising out of the water, is the capital city of Malé, a slice of Western civilization—high-rise apartments, offices, and government buildings—tightly packed onto a 2.2-square-mile sand pancake. Karo describes it as a concrete jungle in the middle of paradise. It’s denser than Manhattan and, similarly, sits 8 feet above sea level. It’s also the hub of a country in the throes of rocky political changeover. After decades under the dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has been accused of everything from blatant nepotism to ordering political assassinations, the Maldives held its first democratic elections in 2008. The victor was activist Mohamed Nasheed, who grabbed the world’s attention in 2009 when he staged an underwater cabinet meeting to bring attention to the threat of rising sea levels. Nasheed was overthrown during a coup in 2012 and has also been accused of corruption. In November 2013, voters elected Yaamin Abdul Gayoom, the former dictator’s brother. Through it all, the Thanburudhoo proposal survived.
“I started this process with one government and ended it with a second one,” Lee-Miller says. “They’re ideologically opposed and yet both parties wanted this project done. The economics of it are clear.”
What Ponting went to investigate is whether Lee-Miller’s proposal would come at a cost to the local community. “There are good arguments from the locals about why a development would be bad for them,” like the loss of prime public space, Ponting says. “But the idea that this will lose money for the government is not one of them.”
If you graphed the trajectory of the Maldives tourism industry’s growth since the country’s first resorts opened in 1972, it would look like that of an airplane just after takeoff. The country is short on industrial resources, and tourism is its primary economic engine. It accounts for about one-third of its gross domestic production and it is accelerating.
In 1985, there were 55 resorts catering to about 42,000 tourists. By 2013, the country was mobbed by more than one million visitors. In its latest Tourism Master Plan, the government is aiming for 10 percent tourism growth per year, which would mean serving 1.7 million foreigners per year by 2017. That’s more than five times the number of Maldivian residents.
The rapid growth isn’t fueled by hostels or guesthouses or mid-range accommodations. It’s largely the product of upscale all-inclusive resorts that deliver meticulously manicured leisure and, to an extent, live-aboard boats. Guests pay to avoid bumping shoulders with locals and to maximize their time on the waves. “The tourism situation is set up for the kind of person who doesn’t want to have an understanding of where they are, who just want to surf in the place they saw on the postcard,” Ponting says. As more well-heeled travelers flock to the islands, resorts are cordoning off nearby breaks to preserve that postcard experience.
Privatization as a means of crowd control in the Maldives is the legacy of the late Tony Hussein Hinde, an Australian surfer known as the country’s “father of surfing.” After becoming shipwrecked in North Malé in 1973 with a friend, Hussein married a local woman and became a Maldivian citizen. In 1989, he founded the surf operation Atoll Adventures at a camp now called Chaaya Island Dhonveli, a few islands away from Thanburudhoo in North Malé. In 2001, Dhonveli set the privatization precedent when it claimed Lhohi’s break for guests only. “Unfortunately, Hussein’s attempts to preserve the magic of the early days of surfing in the Maldives led to local surfers being shut out of more and more of their own surf breaks,” Ponting says.
A simple solution to preserving surf paradise on that individual level—the one favored by Lee-Miller and other resort managers in North Malé—is to buy the break and sell tickets. Whether it’s a fair one is up for debate.
The country’s tourism policies haven’t helped either. Unlike many vacation destinations in Southeast Asia, the Maldives has resisted integrating local culture and foreign guests. The country’s “Quality Tourism Strategy,” laid out in 1978, sought to safeguard the predominantly Islamic populace from Western influences. It contains language like “cultural pollution” to characterize the effect of backpacker hippies who danced topless and smoked pot on the beach. At its heart is the “one island, one resort” policy, which mandates that resort islands be out of sight of ones inhabited by Maldivians. The policy carries over today, keeping locals at arm’s length from the economic forces shaping the country.
“It’s funny, living in the Maldives,” Karo says. “You’d think I’d be able to go to a nice beach, but no. We don’t have access to the nice beaches or lagoons or anything because they’re owned by corporations. This is a public-space issue.”
Now, local councils on the islands near Cokes and Jails are considering whether to apply for the same privatization rights afforded to resorts. A local surf guide and founding member of the Maldives Surfing Association, Mohamed Hamza, who goes by the nickname Bongo, says the move would effectively evict surfers in the atoll: “If the island council decides to privatize the waves at those islands, we won’t have a break to surf.”
On his first visit to the Maldives, in 2002, Lee-Miller stayed on a safari boat and surfed Huvadhoo Atoll, in the south. The businessman, who grew up in Southern California, says he quickly “fell in love with the place”—the pristine water, the unspoiled islands, and the friendly people. He pondered how he could justify spending more time there.
In 2010, the government approached him with a unique proposition. In exchange for an exclusive 50-year lease to develop Thanburudhoo, Lee-Miller’s firm, Telos Investment, would pay an additional $5 million in cash for upgrades to a 25-year-old military training facility on an adjacent island called Girifushi. Rebuilding the Girifushi facility is the top priority of the government’s National Strategic Action Plan, which lays out ways to ensure national security during natural disasters. Given that the Maldives is about 6 feet above sea level, sea-level rise is a pressing concern. The United Nations warns that the country could be uninhabitable by 2100 if sea levels continue rising at current rates.
The state-of-the-art facility the Defense Ministry envisions, which it calls the “Leadership & Management Centre for Excellence,” would train Coast Guard officers, police, immigration and customs officials, and visiting military officers in emergency response, “protection and defense,” and counterterrorism, according to the development proposal. It would also facilitate “technology and intellectual property transfer.”
Bankrolling the Girifushi center is a small price to pay, considering Lee-Miller’s grand vision for the Maldives. Apart from Thanburudhoo, his firm is pursuing a project in the south called Five Islands Resort, a 150-acre affair that promises on its website to be the “largest resort development project in the Maldives” in terms of space and bed count. It will include lagoons, sandy beaches, “world class surfing,” the “most privacy of any resort,” and the country’s first 18-hole golf course.
“We think very highly of investment in the Maldives, so we’re going to continue to put our resources here,” Lee-Miller says.
If the pushback at Thanburudhoo is any indicator, Lee-Miller has his work cut out for him. Due to the military’s interest in developing Girifushi, Thanburudhoo was never put through a public bid like most other tourist islands. It was a deal done behind closed doors, raising suspicion among skeptics familiar with the government’s traditionally shady business dealings. “How can it be that the military sells tourist islands without involving the Tourism Ministry?” one told me. Lee-Miller assures that every facet of the deal was conducted in accordance with the law.
To ease local surfers’ concerns about access at Thanburudhoo, Lee-Miller drew up a management plan. It sets two designated days each month when locals can surf Sultans and Honkeys. That’s more than other resorts offer, but surfers take it as a slap in the face. The plan also grants access, on any given day, to a maximum of two charter boats that have made the proper arrangements ahead of time. Guests from certain nearby resorts in North Malé—the Four Seasons is one—will have entrée to the breaks at all times. The plan promises guests what Lee-Miller calls a “low-density, high-enjoyment experience.”
“It makes sense that you manage the number of surfers, because people come a long way and pay a lot of money,” Lee-Miller says. “If it’s going to be hectic out there, you might as well stay home and fight it out at Huntington Beach.”
According to Lee-Miller, the only way to save the waves from saturation is to manage them: “If you don’t manage a resource, it will continue to deteriorate and yield less for its owner”—the Maldivian nation. Lee-Miller is confident that his plan, when it is imposed, will cause other resorts in the area to open up waves in North Malé, if only for a couple days a month. He takes the vitriol from locals in stride, chalking it up to being the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“No one here will ever call me a good person, but this project will change the dynamics in the Maldives,” Lee-Miller says. “Hopefully locals will get to surf all their breaks through the little holes that we create for them.”
When natural resources are made available to only the highest bidders—typically foreign companies and their upscale clientele—groups with no capital, like local surfers, are often first to lose out. Surfers in Fiji anxiously watched the privatization debate unfold at Cloudbreak just four years ago. Recognizing the importance of surfing as a pastime, competitive sport, and billion-dollar industry, the country’s tourism authorities decreed that the waves would be free to all.
On March 5, the Maldivian Ministry of Tourism tried something similar. It issued correspondence stating that “popular” diving destinations and surf spots within the home-reef boundary would be exempt from privatization, implying that a national management plan was in the making. The sudden policy pivot, quietly posted to a state media website in the native Dhivehi language, took the local surfing community by surprise.
“Nobody expected this,” says Tim Heising, owner of booking agency LUEX Travel, which sets up surfers in North Malé. Lawmakers had showed no signs of reconsidering the policy, then threw the public a curveball. The ministry didn’t specify which spots would be exempt or what exactly “popular” means. “Even the people who are very close to the government are not sure what’s going on,” Heising says.
In the hours after the announcement, surfers rejoiced. Charter-boat operators broadcasted plans to start unloading customers wherever they wanted to surf. Resort managers downplayed the announcement, saying they will keep the breaks off-limits until the government clarifies its stance and produces a list of surf breaks.
“There is a vast difference of opinion about what this means,” says Lee-Miller. “How this is going to unfold is way up in the air.”
Lee-Miller views the shakeup as an opportunity to have a broader conversation about the role of surfing in the Maldives. Despite the enthusiasm for the sport, there is no professional circuit, no international competitions, and no infrastructure in place to give Maldivians a boost onto the world surf stage. Lee-Miller would like to see the country host an international surf competition, perhaps at Thanburudhoo.
In the summer of 2013, a group of local stakeholders—surfers, safari-boat companies, and surf operators—met to discuss the mounting pressure caused by privatization and how to offset it. Two resorts had just staked claims to waves and Thanburudhoo was on the horizon. A few ideas emerged: setting up a certain number of buoys at each surf spot to act as parking spaces for safari boats; requiring boats to carry certified surf guides who would help maintain reasonable numbers of surfers on the waves; and, most drastically, limiting the number of surf tourists allowed in the country on a given day. To at least a few people at the meeting, it felt like the first step toward a workable compromise. Then, a few weeks later, one of the surf operators who had attended the meeting announced that he was taking his resort’s break private.
“We are trying to work with everyone,” Heising says, “but everyone has their own agenda.”
After spending a week in North Malé gathering research, Ponting issued an assessment of the situation. In his full report, published in the Annals of Tourism Research in February, Ponting echoes Lee-Miller’s enthusiasm for the Maldives’ potential as “a world leader in progressive surf tourism management.” But without a cultural ethic of resource conservation or government regulation, he writes, “the resource will be abused.” The country, he says, is at a turning point.
“The Maldives,” Ponting writes, “like many other surf tourism destinations before it, now has to make decisions about which kinds of surf tourism to encourage and for what reasons.”
Managing breaks is a prickly proposition, in the Maldives and developed countries alike. An empty lineup at a world-class wave is the dream of every surfer; however, the sport’s global appeal has all but washed away that possibility. How do surfers reconcile the individualistic nature of surfing within the context of an increasingly communal experience? A simple solution to preserving surf paradise on that individual level—the one favored by Lee-Miller and other resort managers in North Malé—is to buy the break and sell tickets. Whether it’s a fair one is up for debate.
The Maldivian government’s latest move to open some breaks will surely invite legal arguments from resort owners. They signed 50-year leases to the islands and rely on exclusive access as a cornerstone of profit. The move may also open the possibility of bringing all the surf interests to the table for a discussion about how to guide the growth of surfing and tourism moving forward.
“I’m all for an intelligent surf-management approach,” Lee-Miller says. “I’m all for locals having access if we can find the right balance to lessen the crowds.”
In the meantime, locals may have to abide by Lee-Miller’s vision.
In a detailed economic analysis, Ponting shows that, in terms of lease payments, tax revenue, and employment opportunities, a resort like the one Lee-Miller proposes offers the country a greater return than the entire safari-boat fleet. (The safari-boat association disagrees.) As for the surf experience, if Lee-Miller is true to his word about including locals, they would effectively gain access to an uncrowded break, which could be a more enjoyable experience for surfers than duking it out on a daily basis.
“I honestly think the surfers will be better off,” Ponting says. “If you have locals surfing at one resort, you can use that as a point of leverage to have the other exclusive resorts adopt a similar plan. To me, that sounds like a big win.”
To Karo, who has surfed North Malé his whole life, leaving control of the waves to the discretion of businessmen sounds like betrayal. Fifteen years ago, he could look at a map of North Malé and plan which of the atoll’s nine breaks he wanted to surf that day, knowing that his biggest issue might be unfavorable winds or a shady prison warden. The waves, Karo says, are his heritage—his birthright.
“We have been surfing and sharing waves for all these years,” Karo says. “Thanburudhoo, to me, means freedom. It’s the last island here that no one owns. It is the one island that everyone can go to and share. When people from outside come in and say, ‘We own this now and this is how it’s going to go,’ we can’t accept that. This is going to be a never-ending story.”