As the tiny city of Malè awakens from its slumber with a 5am call to prayer, the distant humming of imported motorcycles can be heard in the streets below.
The roads are paved with bricks. There are no semi trailers or 10-seater land cruisers. Even if they were imported, it would be impractical to drive the four-wheel drive vehicles on the narrow streets.
But, as if to compensate for the lack of large vehicles, there are literally hundreds of motorcycles. In fact there are more boats and motorcycles in the republic of Maldives than there are cars.
In 2015, Maldives celebrated 50 years as an independent nation. But its history is thousands of years old. The islands were settled by various peoples, and over centuries, the local culture was influenced by the Indians, Chinese and Arabs who introduced Islam.
Everywhere you can see strong Arab and Indian influences evident in the fashion and their single Dhivehi language – a hybrid of Urdu, Arabic Chinese and other influences. Even with the influences, the people promote a strong Maldivian identity and strong sense of nationalism.
“The red color on our flag represents the blood of those who died for this land,” says the tour guide, “Green means we are a peaceful people and the white moon means we are 100 percent Muslim.”
Upon first contact, the character of the local people, the food and generosity are strikingly similar to island peoples of the Pacific.
The capital, Male is located on one of the biggest Islands of the Maldives. The city occupies the entire land area 2 kilometres long and 1.5 kilometres wide. It is one of more than 190 small inhabited and uninhabited atolls that make up this island nation just South of India and Sri Lanka.
The country has many lessons that Papua New Guinea can learn from. At the small local food market, local food brought from the islands are put on sale: Bunches of ripe banana, small mangos native to the Maldives and chillies.
The limited choices in vegetables and greens gives you a hint of how much food is imported.
There is very little land and much of the country’s food is imported. At a local restaurant in Male, I posed the question to a worker: “Where do you get your vegetables?”
“Sri Lanka,” she answered.
Yet Maldives has one of the fastest growing economies in the region with tourism being its main revenue earner. Maldives has very little land on which to grow its own food.
Seventy percent of the revenue coming into the Maldives is from tourism and associated industries. In total, the Maldivian tourism is worth K8 billion– that’s the equivalent of half the PNG budget.
Much of the tourism revenue is being spent in the local economy.
Everywhere in Male, you can see evidence of those tourism dollars are being spent. New buildings are being constructed and about 89 percent of the local people are employed in various sectors.
But you will not really understand how the people are benefiting directly from tourism unless you visit the neighboring island of Hulumale – 10 minutes by boat from the capital.
At Hulumale, the new roads are wider. There are new buildings and government offices. This is the site where a massive project is underway with significant Chinese investment at play but driven by the Maldivian-government owned, Housing Development Corporation Limited.
The government has invited both local and international investors, and also adjusted its policies to allow for small local guest houses to operate in Hulumale. On reclaimed land they are building the second part of a two-phase project that will include a tourism free trade zone, resorts, and gated communities.
But more importantly, the government is providing public housing for more than one-third of its 450,000 people. 80,000 Maldivians have already come to settle on Hulumale.
If there is anything that can be learned from the Maldives; it is the positive impact of tourism, government spending for the people in the local economy and the empowerment of a people by their government.