Tourists Flock To A Sinking Paradise...

Zena Gahasi stands in front of her 10-year-old students in their neatly pressed blue and white school uniforms. "If the sea rises, what will happen to the Maldives?" she asks. "It will go down!" the students chant back. "So maybe, after 50 years, will the Maldives exist on the earth?" prompts Gahasi. "No!" the children cry.

It's a lesson most Maldivean schoolchildren learn: Their small island nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean is sinking. Or more precisely, they are told, the sea is rising because of global warming, a phenomenon many scientists believe is melting the polar ice caps and causing the oceans to rise.

The Maldives' vulnerability comes from its unique geography. The country is made up of 1,192 tiny islands, all formed from coral and, on average, just one meter above sea level at high tide. The most dire predictions say that much of the Maldives--home to 240,000 inhabitants--could be underwater before the mid-2000s. Even though the scientific community is split on global warming, the Maldiveans don't intend to take chances. "There is enough evidence to be worried about this issue fairly seriously," says Ismail Shafeeu, the Planning, Human Resources, and Environment Minister. Already, residents of three islands have had to be transferred--their islands were going under.

Since the late 1980s, Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has been acting as a kind of poster child for global warming, pleading at international conferences for industrialized nations to do something about the gas emissions that are said to cause rising temperatures. "I stand before you as the representative of an endangered people," he told the U.N. Environmental Conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Gayoom wants more than sympathy. He wants money, namely $1.5 billion in aid to build sea defenses for 50 of the country's 200 inhabited islands.

The Maldives' slide obviously won't do much for its booming tourist industry. Each year over 250,000 mostly European tourists--more than the population of the country--visit 72 resorts to scuba dive among the coral reefs and lie on deserted beaches. Any change in sea level could severely erode most islands' shorelines. "Long before we go underwater, our economy will be crippled," says Hussain Shihab, director of the South Asia Co-operative Environment Program.

But resort owners aren't too worried: Three more are being built now. According to Ibrahim Saleem, vice-chairman of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry, a resort builder can easily make back his money in as little as five years. So any talk of the islands sinking even in 20 or 30 years isn't too worrisome. "The investors are not depressed," says Saleem.

Many Maldiveans aren't too worried either. In this devoutly Muslim country, they think Allah will protect them. "We have been here a long time. I don't think God will let it happen," says Sayid, a tour operator in the capital, Male.

Maldiveans are more than happy to take tourist dollars, but that doesn't mean they mix with the tourists. Although tourism contributes one-quarter of the country's gross national product, the visitors are effectively segregated.

Geography helps the Maldiveans in that endeavor. They live on their 200 islands; tourists vacation on another 70 that are individual resorts. The government won't allow tourists to visit most inhabited islands. And it requires permits--aside from Male--for the rest.

The reasons are cultural. A strict Muslim country where alcohol is forbidden, the Maldives doesn't want its citizens mingling with partying vacationers. "We are playing host to a bunch of people behaving irrationally," says Planning Minister Shafeeu.

Few seem to mind the government's attempts to keep them away from Westerners. "This is a good thing for us. It helps to preserve our own cultural identity," says Ali Rafeeq, editor of the Haveeru Daily. And others don't think the tourists are hot to meet locals anyway. "They want the sun, the sand, the beaches," says Ibrahim Waheed, founder of a local environmental group. "They're just out for some fun, and I think we should give it to them." Just as long as the fun doesn't involve the Maldiveans.