The Maldives is a by-word for luxury, romance and tropical bliss. A beautiful string of low-lying coral islands in the Indian Ocean, they're also a paradise for diving enthusiasts and sun seekers alike.
The country's 26 natural atolls and over 1000 islands boast uniformly perfect coasts lapped by turquoise lagoons the temperature of bath water. White powdery sand fringes most of the islands, which partly explains why more than a million people come here a year.
Tourism only began in the 1970s. Now the Maldives’ most important industry, it concentrates on the luxury market, meaning that the country is home to some of the world’s best hotels. Pretty much every resort here has its own private island. With the finest hotels offering personal butlers and in-room massages, the Maldives are a firm favourite with honeymooners. There are also islands offering slightly less opulent options, and some are aimed at families and divers.
Sadly, even in paradise, trouble can bubble beneath the surface. It is precisely because the Maldives is so low-lying (80% of the territory is less than 1m/3.3ft above sea level) that their very existence is threatened by global warming. As such, since the 2008 election of young reformer Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives have worked hard to become one of the most environmentally friendly countries on earth, and continue to do so under new president Mohammed Waheed Hassan.
Beyond all the luxury and tourism, these coral islands are not the most hospitable, with inhabitants having long struggled in previous times to eke out a living here. There is little in the way of local resources, and while the immaculate ocean may make visitors wonder, it also serves as a constant threat.
Recently, it has become more feasible on the Maldives for independent travellers and backpackers to avoid the luxury hotels and stay among the local people. The growing number of private guesthouses may well give the Maldives a new lease of life away from big-money tourism. What luxury means, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.