Post-tsunami, Maldives bounces back with tourists
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Post-tsunami, Maldives bounces back with tourists

Tourism may have bounced back but the scars of tsunami are imprinted deep in people's psyche and geography of the region.

india Updated: Sep 06, 2006 15:17 IST

In Bandos, one of the 87 luxury island resorts in the Maldives that provide more than 50 per cent of the country's GDP, tourists thirsting for the sheer purity of sea, sun and sand have returned.

Tourists were counted on the fingertips last year. But this year Bandos, like other resorts that have set new standards of luxury and commune living, is back in business registering more than 90 per cent occupancy.

More than 20 months after the tsunami ravaged Maldives - the world's flattest country located at merely three-and-a-half feet above sea level - the atoll Indian Ocean nation is back in the reckoning.

Not that the threat of a tsunami has vanished, but it's just that Maldivians have learnt to live with it.

When a massive earthquake hit western Indonesia last week and news channels predicted a possible tsunami, locals soaked in the news, braced for the worst but carried on with their sea-inspired rhythms of life.

"In 2006 we are expecting 600,000 visitors, double the size of the population of the Maldives. This is higher than the 2004 record," Mohamed Hussain Shareef, spokesperson in the office of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, said.

Tourism may have bounced back but the scars of tsunami are imprinted deep in people's psyche and vividly etched on the very geography of the archipelago, about an hour's flight from Colombo.

Only nine islands of the 1,192 that constitute the Maldives were spared by the killer waves that struck around 9 am on December 26, 2004.

"Less than 100 people died in the Maldives but the scale of destruction and displacement was really huge. It has set Maldives back by at least a decade in terms of development," says Shareef, popularly known as Mundhu.

Here is a brief fact sheet on tsunami impact: deaths - 82; missing - 26; injured - 1,313; displaced and homeless - 15,000; totally evacuated islands - 13.

The damage to social and economic infrastructure was more thorough. According to official figures, 62 per cent of the country's GDP estimated at $720 million was wiped away in less than five minutes of the tsunami.

The tsunami shock continues to have its ripple effects on Maldivian economy, which has been growing at 9 per cent a year, but recorded a budget deficit of $93 million in 2005 for the first time in the last few years.

More than the destruction of infrastructure, what concerns the powers-that-be in the Maldives is the rehabilitation and resettlement of 15,000 displaced people, accounting for seven percent of the population.

In 50 islands, some 5,000 new houses are required to be built to accommodate the homeless who have been temporarily transferred to safer islands.

The government has, however, learnt the lessons of the tsunami and put in place a spate of safety measures, including a natural emergency disaster response system and an early tsunami warning system in which India is a partner.

An ambitious scheme called "safe islands programme" has been started that involves relocating people from economically insecure and unstable islands to safer and sustainable islands.

"The idea is to use economies of scale and consolidate populations in a few selected islands rather than scattering the population in some 200 odd inhabited isles," says Shareef.

Even as the Maldives converts a disaster into an opportunity for redevelopment, funds continue to be a source of nagging worry. The entire tsunami reconstruction project is expected to cost $390 million.

International aid has been slow and inadequate. The country received less than $40 million global aid so far - for an array of reconstruction projects in areas ranging from tourism, transport, power and housing to finding sustainable livelihood for the displaced.

But the lack of funds has been compensated by robust optimism and belief in what the Maldivians call "the sunny side of life".

One of the stirring signs of this 'we-shall-overcome' spirit is the dramatic decision by Gayoom to make the post-tsunami Maldives into a vibrant, functioning democracy. And that dream will not be washed away so easily, tsunami or no tsunami, says Saadha, a twenty-something woman in Male.

First Published: Sep 06, 2006 15:17 IST