Several years ago it was announced that yet another luxury resort was to be built on the North Malé Atoll, this time on the island of Thamburudhoo, home to the excellent right-hander Sultans and the even better left-hander Honkey’s, considered by many the best wave in the atoll. The resort would have exclusive rights to both waves, leaving just two of the seven world-class waves in the region open to the public.
Local surfers were naturally outraged. The Maldives Surfing Association argued that locals would lose not just their waves but also their jobs; the government meanwhile would lose taxes, the island’s heron colony its home. Nor were the area’s boat trip operators best pleased with the plans, which jeopardised their entire raison d’être. Together they launched a campaign to “save” the island, which appeared to have some effect. In March last year, the Maldivian Ministry of Tourism announced changes to existing regulations that would prevent resorts from restricting access to “popular” surf spots. The ambiguously worded statement was interpreted by some as a definitive end to exclusivity in the Maldives, but not by the resort owners themselves, who continue to keep line-ups closely guarded from outsiders (or locals, if you prefer); construction of the resort on Thamburudhoo, due to open this year, likewise went ahead regardless. What the future holds for local and visiting surfers remains unclear.
The developer behind the new resort, Harvard graduate Gunnar Lee-Miller, agreed to fund a new $5m military training facility on a neighbouring island in order to secure the lease; he has also promised to set aside two days every month on which locals will have the island’s waves to themselves — which is more than any of the other exclusive resorts allow them, but still something of an insult to those surfers who have enjoyed access to these waves for years and consider them their local breaks. Yet this isn’t necessarily a simple black and white case of evil foreign investors profiting at the expense of the impoverished local community. Jess Ponting, head of San Diego State University’s Center for Surf Research, considered the Thamburudhoo situation in detail, and arrived at the conclusion that the proposed resort would give the country a better economic return — in the form of lease payments, tax revenue, and employment opportunities — than the entire charter boat fleet currently in operation. (His findings are disputed by the charter boats). But Ponting also suggests that if the resort is properly managed, locals as well as tourists will benefit from an improved surfing experience; they would enjoy exclusive, albeit only occasional, access to an uncrowded line-up, and could “use that as a point of leverage to have the other exclusive resorts adopt a similar plan.” The locals are not convinced.