Chances are, when you close your eyes and dream of “island paradise,” the image that appears is the Maldives. Such has been the triumph of the tourism industry here that even our romanticized ideas of what paradise isles should look like have been influenced by the Maldives, a feat the nation has accomplished all while raising the per capita GDP to the highest in South Asia.
To ensure that this young republic continues to grow, the government plans to link the congested capital of Malé, a six-square-kilometer island rarely visited by tourists, into a more efficient region composed of six neighboring islands. The resulting union would provide never-before-seen economies of scale.
Though today enjoying economic high times, success was never guaranteed. The Maldives is one of the world’s most beautiful geographies, but also one of its most challenging. Islands are vastly dispersed. Land is scarce. People have been isolated. Yet, the nation’s rise to the top of the luxury tourism world has made it evident that geographic challenges can be overcome. The Maldives is due to register economic growth of over 6% for its third straight year, and tourism revenues are the highest in the Indian Ocean. Accounts are in top shape, with a fiscal deficit of 2%, the lowest in 10 years. Systemic airport upgrades worth an unprecedented $1 billion and at least 23 new luxury resorts will make higher visitor numbers possible. There is even a nascent mid-market segment, which will make the Maldives regularly accessible to not only the rich.
Through the new urban plan, the nation’s economic backbone will be able to decongest. “We’ll join Malé, Hulhumalé, Vilingili, Hulhulé [the airport island], and the industrial islands of Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi to form the Greater Malé Region,” says Minister of Finance and Treasury Ahmed Munawar. The country’s main port at Malé will move to Thilafushi, people will uproot to live in Hulhumalé, and new warehouses will open in Gulhifalhu. All of these islands are being built upon reclaimed land, part of a $110 million government campaign to support growing logistics and industry demand. “The port in Malé is very congested and we can’t expand it further,” observes Munawar. “The Maldives is an ideal location for sea traffic, so the Greater Malé Region concept will make Thilafushi a very viable logistics hub.”
The region will truly begin its transformation this year following the opening of the nation’s first bridge, which now connects Malé with Hulhumalé through the airport island of Hulhulé. “The 2.1-kilometer Sinamalé Bridge is not just a physical connection; it is a bridge of hope,” Mohamed Muizzu, Minister of Housing and Infrastructure, observes. “With Malé and Hulhumalé now physically connected, the dynamics of our capital region will totally change. People will get the nudge they have been waiting for to move their lives to Hulhumalé, a planned city with better roads and park.” The Sinamalé Bridge was officially inaugrated on August 30, with travel starting on September 7.
If all goes as planned, Malé, today home to 40% of the population, will rapidly deconcentrate. “We’re expecting Hulhumalé to become bigger than Malé by 2020 when the population is predicted to reach 160,000,” he adds. “By 2019, we’ll be able to move about 10,000 families out of Malé to Hulhumalé, plus invite some of people living on small islands across the country to abandon these underdevloped islands and come as well. It’s a very exciting time.”