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Tsunami-hit Maldives' tourism industry resurges

The Dec 26, 2004 tsunami hit a dozen Maldivian islands with four-metre waves, killing 108 people and destroying 5,535 houses.

india Updated: Dec 25, 2006 11:14 IST

As the speedboat carrying foreign tourists approaches Olhuveli Resort of the Maldives, two young men wearing sarongs walk to the end of the pier to welcome the guests, beating long drums strapped to their waists.

The tourists, led by the drum-beating youth, walk down a bridge to Olhuveli Resort's reception hall where they are presented with an ice-cold face towel and a glass of lemon tea.

The serenity of this palm-fringed paradise shows no sign of the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which destroyed all the island's cottages, forcing the resort to shut down for one year to rebuild. The resort reopened December 23, 2005.

The tsunami hit a dozen Maldivian islands with three- to four-metre waves, killing 108 people and destroying 5,535 houses.

Tsunami damage and tourists' fears resulted in a 35.9 per cent drop in tourist arrivals in 2005.

After the tsunami, the Maldivian government set up the National Disaster Management Center (NDMC) to launch an early warning system.

"When the system is completed in 2008, the department of meteorology (DOM) and the NDMC can issue warnings for natural disasters to all islands, and the islands will warn the local residents and tourists," said DOM Director Abdulla Algeen.

The UN is coordinating a regional tsunami early-warning system.

"It is complicated because problems like which country should take the leading role and where the system's centre should be situated are still to be solved," he said.

All the Maldivian island resorts have megaphones to issue warnings about natural disasters and have stocked up on first-aid kits, food and water.

The Maldives is a coral archipelago in the Indian Ocean, 480 km southwest of India and 720 km west of Sri Lanka.

The country, whose capital is Male, consists of 1,190 islands, 200 of which are inhabited, including 59 that have been developed into tourist resorts.

Tourism and fishery support the Maldives' economy, as the island nation has no other industries.

One night on an island resort costs anywhere between $150 and $10,000, plus transportation to and from Male's airport, usually by speedboat.

The Maldives' tourism industry kicked off in 1972, attracting 1,000 tourists. By 2004, annual tourist arrivals had grown to 600,000, twice the Maldives' population.

Lured by its reputation as "paradise on earth", foreigners flock to the Maldives all year round - for honeymoons, diving, or just to forget worldly worries.

Silke Exius, an editor for a German publishing company and a diving enthusiast, is on her fifth trip to the Maldives.

"I keep coming back because the sea here has warm water, clear visibility and abundant species of fish and corals," Exius said while relaxing at Olhuveli Resort.

The isolated island resorts also attract celebrities.

The US-based Chinese kung fu movie star Jet Li, his wife and daughter were on a Maldivian island when the tsunami struck and nearly drowned when their cottage was destroyed.

US film stars Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes arrived in the Maldives Nov 20, this year, for a 12-day honeymoon on a yacht after their wedding in Italy.

Ismail Shahyr, marketing manager of the Maldives Tourism Promotion Board, said the industry has recovered from the tsunami.

In the first 10 months this year, tourist arrivals rose 61 per cent year-on-year to reach 490,000.

However, another natural disaster may be looming: reports warn the Maldives, with the capital island of Male only 1.3 metres above sea level, will sink under the sea in 20 years' time due to global warming.

But DOM Director Algeen thinks the danger is further off.

"The rising sea level threatens countries big and small alike. The Maldives, being a low-lying country with no high ground to evacuate people to, is particularly vulnerable.

If global warming worsens, the Maldives could vanish in 100 or 150 years, but certainly not in 20 years," he said.

First Published: Dec 25, 2006 11:10 IST