Tourism commands one-third of the economy directly - but is under threat
By Olivia Lang
The Maldives' idyllic, pristine beaches and tropical reefs attract more than half a million tourists to the small Indian Ocean nation every year.
But an unavoidable catastrophe awaits the Muslim nation and its natural beauty: the threat of global climate change and rising sea levels.
An increase in sea levels of 58cm (22.8in), as projected by the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), could see most of the country's 1,192 islands submerged by next century and leaving many of its 369,000 citizens without a homeland.
But locals say the effects of global warming have begun to show already, with the phenomenon likely to damage significantly the nation's key industries - fisheries and tourism - not far into the future.
The atolls of the Maldives are protected by networks of coral reefs which act as a defence against natural phenomena including flooding, tidal surges and erosion.
Many fishing catches have also been reduced
But scientists say that many such reefs are facing extinction from fluctuating water levels and rising temperatures as the Earth warms up because of climate change.
According to Abdul Azeez Abdul Hakeem, head of conservation at the Banyan Tree Resort, a rise of sea temperatures of only 2C will wipe out many coral reefs if it is sustained for a period of two weeks.
"With climate change there will be more tidal surges, more swells, and more storms," he says. "Weather patterns are changing rapidly. From fishermen we know these are not normal. Before we knew what to expect; today those things are very unpredictable."
Tidal surges will not only increase the risk of houses and communities being flooded, but will also result in a higher level of salt water on local vegetation - which will impact on food production too, says Mr Azeez.
Erosion is already affecting many of the Maldives' 200 inhabited islands, with domestic activities such as pollution, reclamation and illegal coral and sand mining contributing to the damage.
Islanders are beginning to feel the impact. On one island in Raa atoll this month, residents held protests demanding government action after four houses collapsed into the sea due to the erosion of sand banks.
A rise in sea temperature is also likely to have a significant, but still under-researched impact upon fishing in the Maldives, the second biggest of the nation's industries.
The lifeline of the industry, tuna fishing, which depends on bait fish which live in the reef, is likely to be at threat.
Mohamed Hassan, 37, a fisherman from Gaaf Daal atoll, says he believes climate change is already having an adverse impact.
"When the temperature of the water rises, the plankton lives deeper so the fish also live deeper and it is much more difficult for the catch," he says.
Hassan, who has been fishing for 25 years, now says he has to travel three times as far for his catch, but still brings in much less than he used to.
Three years ago his fishing vessel caught 70 tonnes of tuna a week, he says, but nowadays it brings in only around 35-40 tonnes a week.
Tourism commands one-third of the economy directly, making the Maldives the region's highest earner in tourism in relation to Gross Domestic Product.
But the slow destruction of reefs could have an impact on the quality of diving - the Maldives currently boasts more than 250 types of coral - as well as its vast, flawless beaches.
Ali Rilwan, executive director of local environmental NGO Bluepeace, says that if the IPCC projection is accurate, the luxurious white sand beaches of the Maldives could disappear in a similar way to the ice sheets in the Arctic.
"Our natural asset is the beauty of the islands. If the proper measures are not taken to protect these islands, I don't think the Maldives as a tourist destination can be sold as it is today," he says.
But Mustag Hussein, owner of Maldivers' diving company, argues that it is "a very slow and gradual process" and corals and ecosystems may well adapt to the changing conditions.
"This will not be a sudden thing like pouring a pot of boiling water on the reef," he says, "Some types of coral are very resilient. Certain species die but certain species will grow back".
Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was credited for bringing international awareness to the perils posed to small island states by global warming.
But the former leader has faced criticism domestically for failing to implement a proper waste disposal management system, as well as for widespread reclamation projects and a lack of monitoring of environmental impact assessments.
The Maldives felt the full force of nature during the 2004 tsunami
"We are not na´ve to think climate change is not happening. It will have a severe impact," says Minister for Housing, Transport and Environment Mohamed Aslam.
He says that while there is global awareness of the issue, there is a surprising lack of research in the country on how climate change may affect local ecosystems.
"It is only through understanding and protecting our environment that we can even have any hope of surviving here given the climatic scenario."
After being sworn in last month, President Mohamed Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected leader, said he would put money aside to save for a new homeland to relocate his people in the face of the threat.
But Mr Rilwan, from Bluepeace, argues in favour of an alternative contingency plan: reclaiming land for seven safe islands, one in each region, as a last-resort option.
"Finding a new homeland is not a solution. It is not easy for people to abandon 2,000 years of heritage and migrate," he says.
"We don't believe in reclamation, but in a doomsday scenario we don't have much choice but to develop a few places for our survival."