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Beginning one degree north of the equator, the Maldives are a chain of twenty-six serene atolls running north-south through the Indian Ocean. A vision of sun-drenched indolence, they boast more than a thousand islands and islets, all steeped in white sand beaches, swaying palms, turquoise lagoons, and endless places to a sling a hammock and soak up the easiness.
Situated above a 960km underwater ridge, the atolls are composed of flat reefs and sand-bars, rising no higher than 2.4m above sea-level. Only two hundred of the chain’s islands are inhabited, the nation supporting a total population of some 330,000 – the equivalent of a medium-sized city. Since the 1970s, tourism – almost entirely in the form of resorts – has come to dominate a third of the GDP of a country otherwise severely constrained by its limited natural resources. Diving and snorkelling in coral gardens – a kaleidoscopic swirl of brilliantly coloured marine life – remains the big draw for travellers, as do sailing, fishing, surfing, and other aquatic sports.Read more
Culturally, the Maldives enjoyed a long history of Buddhism with many islands today concealing archaeological ruins like monasteries, temples, and monuments. The religion flourished for approximately 1400 years from the third century BC before Sunni Islam arrived with Arab tradesmen in the 12th century AD. Today, all other religions apart from Islam are outlawed, fuelling prejudices somewhat. In 2011, Muslim zealots destroyed numerous precious ancient Buddhist and Hindu artefacts. Maldivian society itself has been plagued by episodes of instability since declaring independence from Britain in 1965.
Owing to its status as a low-lying island chain, the Maldives have recently voiced concerns about the threat of changing weather patterns – specifically, the effects of rising sea levels, temperatures, and ocean acidification. In 1998, the island nation saw two thirds of its coral reefs destroyed by the El Niño effect, when sea temperatures rose, albeit briefly, as much as five degrees – a disturbing foretaste, some say, of global warming. The Maldives’ inherent vulnerability to natural forces was again highlighted by the tsunami of 2004, when six islands were destroyed entirely, dozens more seriously damaged, and the national economy impacted to a tune of 400 million dollars. Anticipating the possible need for a permanent evacuation in the future, the Maldives are now maintaining a sovereign fund garnered from tax revenues, for the purposes of purchasing new land in mainland Asia.