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(CNN) — As the lowest-lying nation in the world -- with much of it sitting just a few feet above sea level -- the nearly 1,200 Indian Ocean islands scattered across the Maldives' sun-soaked atolls are famed not just for their magazine-cover-ready beaches and bungalows, but for their increasing vulnerability to rising sea levels.
According to reports from NASA, as much as 80% of these islands could be uninhabitable by 2050. And that's not the only pressing environmental threat. The island nation's remote setting and limited refuse facilities -- combined with a large influx of tourists (numbering more than 1.7 million annually, pre-pandemic) -- has led to improper waste disposal, with the Maldives tourism board going so far as to encourage visitors to carry out their own nonbiodegradable waste. The delicate coral reef ecosystem, too -- a huge lure for divers and snorkelers -- has been experiencing damage en masse: A scientific survey in 2016 found that climate change-induced coral bleaching had damaged more than 60% of the country's reefs.
"A large draw for tourism is the healthy ocean environment that visitors come to see. Clearly this type of environment must be preserved in order to continue attracting high-spending tourism," says James Ellsmoor, CEO of Island Innovation, an agency that helps stakeholders in small island destinations -- including in the Maldives -- achieve sustainable development goals.
Indeed, this nature-based tourism is something of a paradox here. While much of the nation's 540,000 citizens rely on related revenue for their livelihood, the tourism industry is frequently blamed for exacerbating the environmental crisis. Maldives resorts claim high energy and resource demands, and turn out excess waste production -- and perhaps most grievously, are dependent upon emissions-heavy, long-haul flights to bring the tourists in.
As a result, many of the country's 150-plus, luxe-leaning resorts aren't just choosing to "go green" for good PR optics --- experts say that in the Maldives, operating as sustainably as possible is essential to a business's long-term survival.
Plus, some resort initiatives, like those toward clean energy infrastructure, are also good for their bottom line.
"The high cost of importing fuel to power noisy, polluting generators simply does not make sense when compared to the much lower cost of solar, wind and battery storage," says Ellsmoor.
Today, several Maldivian resorts are leading the pack on innovative sustainability actions that are helping to minimize impact -- while proving that luxury and sustainability can go hand in hand.
On-site recycling facilities
Historically, much of the nation's waste has been poorly managed, relegated to open burn pits or disposed of at sea, creating air pollution, damaging the marine ecosystem, and/or washing back ashore in the process. Thankfully, the government has taken steps to remedy these issues.
Meanwhile, research shows that tourists are the highest generators of garbage in the Maldives, per capita. In response, some island resorts are now employing creative solutions to waste management. Eco-pioneering Soneva Resorts, for instance, which operates two properties in the Maldives, has a robust composting program and also operates their Eco Centro -- an on-site waste-processing facility that recycles around 90% of the resorts' plastic, aluminum and glass waste.
Everyone gets on board with recycling at Soneva.
The company also launched its Makers' Place concept at Soneva Fushi last year, where makers and artists repurpose "waste" into sellable arts and crafts, like wall tiles and glassware.
Fairmont Maldives, meanwhile -- which aims to be the "first zero-waste-generating resort" in the country -- launched its Sustainability Lab earlier this year, which likewise focuses on reimagining resort- and ocean-salvaged plastic, glass and aluminum waste into tourist keepsakes and local products (like turtle-shaped luggage tags and stationary for area schools).
The facility is destined to become a regional recycling center for the surrounding communities, with a further mission of educating local schoolchildren on recycling and conservation.
Sam Dixon, in-house sustainability manager and resident marine biologist at Fairmont Maldives, says that the school partnerships are important, as they're "encouraging the next generation to care passionately about protecting the ecosystem and marine life that inhabits it."
Solar energy installations
One resource that the tropical Maldives has in abundance is sunshine, offering a path to renewable solar energy generation that more resorts are looking to tap into.
In 2018, Kudadoo Maldives Private Island became the first resort in the country to be fully solar-powered, thanks to nearly 1,000 solar panels that cover the rooftop of "The Retreat" (a hub for dining, wellness, and retail). Other properties that have integrated substantial solar projects include Dusit Thani Maldives, where solar panels blanket the roofs of main resort buildings; The Ritz-Carlton Maldives, Fari Islands, which operates mainly on solar (guest villas come capped with panels); and LUX* South Ari Atoll, which claims the world's largest floating solar power plant at sea (bonus: the eco-friendly solar platforms provide a sort of artificial reef for marine life).
And it's not just resorts that are transitioning to solar. Earlier this year, Gan International Airport also announced plans to become the Maldives' first fully solar-powered airport.
With limited agricultural infrastructure, most food items served in the Maldives have to be flown in. To help offset some of that carbon footprint, reduce associated packaging waste and save costs at the same time, several resorts have stepped up to the (kitchen) plate to develop homegrown "zero-food-mile" solutions.
Amilla, for one, has a host of sustainable dining initiatives that go beyond the more standardized veggie and herb gardens to include a banana plantation, hydroponic garden, mushroom hut, coconut processing facility and a choose-your-own-eggs "Cluckingham Palace" chicken coop. Patina Maldives, Fari Islands, bills itself as "purveyors of conscious cuisine," with an on-site organic permaculture garden that's open to guest foraging; zero-waste kitchens; dining menus that promote plant-based diets; and an in-house water-bottling facility.
Patina Maldives: delicious and green.
Patina Maldives, Fari Islands
Guests dining at the Zero restaurant at Sun Island Resort & Spa, meanwhile, are promised a nearly zero-food-mile dining experience, with an emphasis on produce plucked from the hotel garden and fishermen-fresh seafood -- all served at a table tucked into the treetops.
Guest conservation programs
Zoona Naseem is the Maldives' second certified PADI course director. But rather than working with tourists, she opened a dive center for local women and children.
With the Maldives facing such dire environmental stakes, many travelers feel compelled to pitch in to help.
Marteyne van Well, regional general manager at Six Senses Laamu, says that Maldives visitors are increasingly seeking out sustainable resort brands that offer conservation initiatives and education.
"Travelers are looking for more local experiences, as they want to feel that they are contributing to local communities," she says, noting that, today, such resort sustainability initiatives are simply "a must in order to even start engaging a potential guest."
Six Senses Laamu visitors can hobnob with the largest team of marine scientists in the country, part of the resort-led Maldives Underwater Initiative (MUI), a group that has successfully protected hundreds of sea turtles and mantas and more than a million square feet of seagrass.
Resort guests can sign up for an array of marine conservation-minded activities, including regular reef cleanups, weekly conservation lectures, marine biologist-guided snorkeling outings and a junior marine biology program for kids.
Other impressive resort conservation programs include those led by the Coco Collection, with two Maldives properties behind the veterinarian-led ORP Marine Turtle Rescue Centre and a team of resident marine biologists in charge of ocean restoration. Guests can join in on coral tree planting outings, participate in reef cleanups, or even help rehabilitate rescued turtles. Gili Lankanfushi, meanwhile, will launch a new Marine Biology Center later this year with a dedicated research space and expanded coral regeneration program, where guests can participate in hands-on coral reef cleaning and rehabilitation and study conservation alongside resident marine biologists.
In the end, van Well says, with the rise of more conscious consumers, the Maldives resort's job is to provide guests "tips and some of our little secrets on how to lead a more sustainable life that they can take home with them -- and this takeaway is highly valued and appreciated by our guests."