Keeping things local in the Maldives

Before six-star resorts and water bungalows, the 26 coral atolls of the Maldives were considered unsuitable for tourism, with a 1960s UN report stating that there were just too many obstacles to overcome, as well as little or no infrastructure to make a go of things. Fast-forward 50 years, and you’ll find over a million tourists a year staying on over 100 islands that are privately owned and operated as holiday resorts.

These resorts offer customers the kind of images that inhabit glossy magazines and phone backgrounds the world over, with all the trappings of luxury available at a click of your fingers, alongside tropical sun, sea and spritzers by the spa.

However, resort islands offer little chance to engage in the local culture, meet Maldivians or understand anything about the country they’re located in.

What are Maldives local islands?

Under government regulations in 2009, non-resort islands, known as ‘local islands’, were given the opportunity to provide tourist facilities to increase job prospects for local people and allow them to benefit financially from the tourism industry. Before long, guest houses, coffee shops and restaurants were appearing on local islands and a small, yet steady, stream of travellers was heading to the Maldives in search of a more authentic piece of paradise.

Local islands in the Maldives tend to offer a more rounded experience, as you’ll be rubbing shoulders with regular Maldivians, at a fraction of the cost of a resort stay. You can still enjoy the beaches, diving, watersports and tropical weather – but you also get a dose of genuine Maldivian hospitality as you interact with local people beyond a simple guest-employee relationship.

And, because you’ll be staying in guest houses and eating in restaurants that are locally owned, more of the money you spend on holiday stays within the community.

Why stay on a local island in the Maldives?

A more authentic cultural experience

Staying on a local island as part of a cultural tour in the Maldives gives you more chances to meet local people and interact without feeling like a sightseer. Enjoy hedhikaa (snacks, or ‘short eats’) with black tea and betel nuts, share meals around the family table and listen to the rhythmic beat of the bodu beru. Local guides can help these experiences come to life by broadening your understanding and making the introductions. You just don’t get this kind of cultural connection when staying in a plush resort.

Although many resort islands offer daytrips to local islands, this sort of tour doesn’t scratch the surface when compared to staying over for a couple of nights or more. The early morning call to prayer, shouts of fishermen bringing home the catch and those smoky smells around dusk, where kitchen doors are opened and barbecues lit, are all authentic local island experiences that simply can’t be recreated on a whistle-stop tour.

Financial benefits for visitors and local people alike

The Maldives is never going to be a shoestring option but staying on a local island is much more affordable than a resort. Islands like Guraidhoo, Hulhumale and Maafushi offer a choice of guest house restaurants and neighbourhood cafés so that you can enjoy the island cuisine without spending a small fortune.

And local island tourism means the financial benefits, and employment opportunities, have spread around parts of the Maldives that previously never got much of a look-in. Now, people looking for work in tourism can continue to live with and help their families. Increasing numbers of islanders have been able to return home after working away from their families on resort islands. This improved work/home balance is essential for creating happy, healthy and sustainable lifestyles where everybody benefits.

Expanding tourism has also improved some social aspects of life in the Maldives. Cafés and restaurants aren’t for the sole use of visitors – they have added to the number of meeting places for local people.

Several dive and watersports centres offer subsidised rates for islanders, and actively encourage kids and adults to get involved, including the chance to progress on PADI courses to Dive Master Level. This is a worthwhile initiative; nearly 18 percent of the Maldivian youth population is unemployed.
Travel Team
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What is the Maldives local island experience?

The ‘local island experience’ in the Maldives is all about gaining a deeper insight into the culture. You’ll meet Maldivian people on their own terms instead of while they’re mixing drinks, serving dinner or watering ornate gardens, and learn a little about their lives. You may be going out on organised excursions, but much of the enjoyment on the islands comes from immersing yourself in the sights and sounds of community life – fishermen going about their business, afternoon tea in a café, wandering narrow lanes and greeting your neighbours.

To us, it’s always seemed an odd idea to travel halfway around the world and not experience much of the country you’re staying in. But that’s precisely the kind of artificial reality that most resort islands offer. You come home relaxed and pampered, but with little idea of what the Maldives is like.

Something that’s important to keep in mind when visiting a local island is that, unlike resort islands, they follow Islamic law, so you will not be able to order alcoholic drinks in restaurants, and it’s considered polite to dress modestly.

That’s especially the case if you’ve been invited into someone’s house. Although you can’t stay overnight in a family home, if you have a local guide making the introductions you may well be invited around for a home-cooked meal. There’s nothing better than eating alongside Maldivian kids and grannies as you tuck into freshly cooked tuna curries flavoured with coconut and chili.

Guest houses on local islands are a simpler affair than the five-star resorts but will always have been chosen for the levels of comfort they offer. En suite bathrooms, fans, air con and Wi-Fi are the norm.

Best local islands in the Maldives

Ruth Franklin, co-founder of our partner Secret Paradise, has lived in the Maldives since 2012.

“If you’re looking for a culinary experience,” says Ruth, “then I’d recommend Fuvahmulah (90 minutes by air from Malé) or Thoddoo (one hour from Malé by ferry), as they are agricultural islands that produce a lot of fruit and veg. Fuvahmulah also has a unique beach, Thundi, which is made up of tiny pebbles that have been polished by the waves to give a beautiful shiny effect.”

Other Maldives local islands that we have a fondness for include Dhigurah (about 3.5 hours from Malé by ferry and speedboat), which is fantastic for diving and snorkelling with the famous Rangali manta ray cleaning station offshore.

For a deep dive into Maldivian culture, meanwhile, we recommend Guraidhoo (an hour by ferry from Malé), where you can dine with a local family, watch fishing boats being made, visit the mosque and enjoy the aromas as households start preparing the evening meals.

How to choose a Maldives local island

Choosing which local islands to stay on in the Maldives very much depends on the type of experience you’re looking for, given there are dozens of them spread across many atolls.

Do you want a dive school with lessons on tap, and a host of sites to explore with a tank on your back or a snorkel? Dhigurah is a great option. Do you want just a short boat transfer from Malé? Guraidhoo is an hour by ferry from the capital, so there’s no need to hop on a small plane. Is food a priority? Larger islands such as Thoddo – which exports everything from papayas, watermelons and coconuts to pumpkins – will have a greater choice of restaurants and cafés available.

What to wear on a Maldives local island

As opposed to the resort islands, which are allowed to follow their own rules, Maldives local islands are governed by Islamic laws, and as such there is a fairly conservative dress code. Ideally, wear clothing that covers the shoulders, and the legs below the knee. A lightweight scarf or two can come in very handy.

Basically, don’t wear a swimsuit to the supermarket. Most people are very polite and if you’re not dressed appropriately nothing will be said, though you may well get some stares. But it’s just basic respect to do as the local people do and cover up, especially if you’re visiting religious or historic sites.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Buiobuione] [Intro: Buiobuione] [A more authentic cultural experience: Buiobuione] [Shop on Dhangethi island: Bapak Alex]