I knew from the documentary "The Island President" before coming to the Maldives that this area of the world was facing serious devastation due to ocean level rises. Whether you believe in global warming or just think it's something cyclical, the fact that our oceans are rising is a data-driven fact. In a country made up of sea-level atolls, you can begin to imagine just how frightening this fact can be.
I'm going to sidetrack here for a second, but don't worry, I'm working my way back to what I said above...
One of my biggest issues with today's travel and lifestyle blogging culture is that "influencers" (not a word I love, but going to use it out of convenience here) tend to travel to a lot of corners of the world, showing the photogenic highlights and most often writing out captions and descriptions that all but ignore a darker truth. A good example is the elephant orphanage here in Sri Lanka (where we've just arrived). It's a place that's popped up on my feed (and probably yours) well over a dozen times. Travel bloggers tend to see it as one of the photographic locations necessary to "tick off" for engagement. Unfortunately, a lot of those same influencers openly admit on their own blogs that it's not a happy place at all, but more of a sad tourist trap overrun with visitors and containing animals that aren't being given the room to roam or kind of care you would hope for. I did a lot of research on that place because, coming to Sri Lanka, I imagined from all the photos I'd seen that it was this gorgeous, uplifting program, rehabilitating orphaned elephants. The more I dug into the facts and read testimonials of those who'd been, influencers and non-influencers alike, the more I felt kind of cheated and naive; it feels disingenuous to me that people would go somewhere and have a negative experience that tainted them enough to go into detail on it on their own blogs, but not be swayed into mentioning it to their far bigger Instagram audience. Maybe that sounds whiny or holier-than-thou, but when I see photos from that place now it makes my stomach cinch. Because of that experience I've felt driven to make sure we call attention to the less positive sides of some of the places we'll be visiting. After all, knowledge empowers.
Fortunately, the hotel we collaborated with for our final week in the Maldives could not feel more similarly. Gili Lankanfushi, a small island just about a twenty minute boat ride from the Maldivian capital, Male, is situated smack-dab in the center of all the environmental pressures these islands face. Fortunately, it's also the most sustainably-driven hotel in this island country, and (should I say it? I'm going to say it...) most likely the world. The commitment here to not just pushing off what a lot of people view as the impending doom of global warming, but doing their part to attempt to reverse its effects made our time here meaningful in the kind of deep, feel it in your bones way we all search for.
^ I was absolutely blown away by the herb & vegetable garden here (not only because of how sustainably-driven the chefs are, but because it was impeccable!).
Here are a few quick facts that you might not know about the current environmental crises in the Maldives:
In April of 2016, the combination of El Nino (a kind of warm current storm that increases ocean temperatures) and the effects of global warming caused the Maldives to lose somewhere between 80-90% of their reefs to coral bleaching. Let that sink into the pit of your stomach for a second. 80-90%. More than a fifth of the Great Barrier Reef was taken out by the same event. On top of all this, the Crown of Thorns Starfish, a violent-looking starfish with black and purple spines that kind of reminds me of Maleficant from Sleeping Beauty is attempting to take out what's left. These starfish are ultra invasive, poisonous, can spawn more than 100 million more of their own kind and are eating any coral they can get to due to the bulk of their food supply suddenly vanishing. They're so menacing, they almost sound fictitious, but in a single snorkel excursion of a very tiny reef, we found two within five minutes. And then, on top of this, there's pollution, a problem anyone living near a city faces, but a bigger one in a country that relies heavily on tourism and providing those visiting with the pristine beaches and oceans they've seen on screens.
Okay, deep sigh, now that we're through with all those not-so-uplifting realities, let's talk about what Gili Lankanfushi and those attempting to mimic its example are doing to change things. In the past year, they've removed almost one thousand Crown of Thorns Starfish from their reef. They've achieved the status of Best Hotel in Asia on Trip Advisor multiple times, but simultaneously have achieved something that I think deserves equal applause: they've become an entirely plastic free island, going so far as to provide cloth bags to guests who may have arrived with bottled water or a plastic-encased snack to place that waste into, so that they can then take it to the local recycling plant. 90% of all food waste here from guests and staff alike goes into a gigantic composter that's then used as soil in their organic vegetable and herb garden. They frequently dive and snorkel their reefs searching out and removing trash and invite guests who are interested to come along for the hunt. Their overwater bungalows rest atop recycled telephone polls and every bit of wood this place was built with is recycled. Even the little wooden labels on the bicycles in one of the photos above is fulfilling a second role in life.
^ From the moment your boat picks you up from the airport, shoes go into a reusable drawstring bag & feet are cleaned before entering restaurants or your villa with pots of ocean water and wooden ladles located all over the property.
^ recycling plastics is still not widely done by the Maldivian population, but Gili Lankanfushi is helping to change that.
But this, this is my very favorite because, when you're attempting to solve a problem as big as the environment, doing as best you can as a team can only take you so far, you have to educate. So they do. This hotel invites local Maldivian school children to work with their resident marine biology team and their "Waste to Wealth" eco centre to learn about all kinds of stresses their country faces from coral bleaching to turtle ensnarement in fishing lines to recycling. Picture that for a second. This is a five star hotel with the largest overwater bungalow in the world, and a reputation that means it's nearly always at full capacity. If hotels were all students enrolled in the same school, than Gili would be the naturally chosen Head Boy. In the hospitality sector, they deserve a standing ovation.
We love seeing and experiencing beautiful places. We're grateful for the opportunity we have at this stage in our lives and in our business that we get to visit countries like the Maldives and experience a lifestyle a lot of people might covet. But, at the end of the day, as in life, material things like hotel rooms and stunning locations can only take your experience of a place so far. There has to be meaning. There has to be purpose. There has to be a bigger goal than just hosting guests. Here, there is, and just like listening to podcasts about entrepreneurs gets our wheels going on long flights and steers our conversations into the direction of how we can do this whole blogging thing not necessarily bigger, but just better,
Gili put our creativity into a whirlpool. You see a place like this and you know the limits of the future are endless if a few good people are willing to sacrifice one kind of green for another. There are more than a few good people here. There are dozens. And fortunately, that goodness seems to be spreading and impacting exponentially.
Anna Lisa & Porter
*Thank you to Gili Lankanfushi for hosting our stay. As always, all thoughts and opinions remain our own.