No one traveled to this island 50 years ago. Now it's one of the hottest destinations.

When imagining paradise, the Maldives’ pristine beauty often comes to mind.

Powdery white sand reflects sunlight so brilliantly it feels like it's searing your pupils. The inviting turquoise water is crystal clear, showcasing fish swimming below the surface like a glass aquarium. You may even spot a baby blacktip shark hugging the shoreline if you're lucky.

Spend a little time on #TravelTikTok or Instagram, and you’ll see endless videos and images of the Maldives and its iconic over-the-water villas, which put guests literally inches from the ocean. Resorts occupy entire islands, lending a sense of privacy and luxury desired by travelers.

The Maldives’ rapid rise to becoming a top travel bucket list destination unfolded only over the past 50 years – with no signs of slowing down. International tourism accounts for 58.3% of the economy, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. (Following closely behind is fishing.) By 2033, it’s forecasted to make up nearly 60.7%.

The number of tourists visiting consistently surpasses previous records. In 2022, there were 1.68 million tourists, and in 2023, more than 1.8 million tourists visited the country with just over half a million residents.

“The outlook for the Maldives tourism industry has never looked brighter, and we are confident that we can achieve the 2 million tourists target set for this year,” Fathmath Thaufeeq, CEO and managing director of Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corp., told USA TODAY.

The one island, one resort concept of the Maldives gives travelers a sense of privacy, luxury and safety.
The one island, one resort concept of the Maldives gives travelers a sense of privacy, luxury and safety.

Now recognized as a sought-after vacation spot, the country is focusing on preserving its beaches and coral reefs – primary factors drawing in visitors – amid climate change and increased human activity.

“As the world's lowest-lying country, we are acutely aware of the crisis and its daily impacts,” Thaufeeq said. “Our very livelihood, heavily reliant on a thriving tourism industry, is inextricably linked to safeguarding our pristine environment.”

A ‘kept secret’ for decades

Before the 1970s, the Maldives – a remote archipelago comprising 1,192 islands in the Indian Ocean – was a “kept secret amongst the most adventurous travelers,” Thaufeeq said. There was essentially no tourism infrastructure. Many islands were uninhabited – to this day, more than 1,000 remain so, visited only by locals for beach days and picnics. Local villages sustained themselves with coconuts and fishing.

The country’s first official resort opened in 1972 by a Maldivian on a former coconut farm. It encompassed 30 rooms built of coral and limestone with palm thatch roofs. The resort was called Kurumba, meaning “coconut” in the local Dhivehi language. It was a rugged experience, with guests wading through water from the boat to the shore and not much to do besides fishing and enjoying the beach. Meals were served in canteens or in a beach barbecue.

Despite this, the natural beauty of the Maldives was a complete hook, line and sinker.

The natural beauty of the Maldives is what travelers come to experience.
The natural beauty of the Maldives is what travelers come to experience.

New resorts are continuously being developed to accommodate the growing number of visitors. From 2023 to 2024, seven opened across the atolls, bringing the total number of operating resorts to 175, the Ministry of Tourism reported. The government has played an active role in shaping the Maldives as a tourist hot spot.

Though Russian and Chinese tourists have long dominated the market, more Americans are making the trek to the Maldives as interest in ecotourism grows, Thaufeeq said. Sixty-four percent of Americans surveyed in’s 2024 Travel Predictions said they look for sustainable accommodations.

Today’s resorts offer the same beloved beachside experience while pushing the boundaries of what they can offer to travelers.

Part of a Maldivian-owned Sun Siyam Resorts, the all-inclusive Siyam World offers guests more than they could ever imagine to stand out among the many other resorts.

The 133-acre resort, which opened in 2021, offers the classic sunset cruise, snorkeling and dolphin cruise excursions, as well as the Indian Ocean’s biggest floating waterpark and a FIFA-standard soccer field. Guests can choose from water activities like flyboarding, e-surfing, and the self-proclaimed world’s first underwater jetpack.

Siyam World is one of the newer resorts pushing the boundaries of the Maldivian tourist experience.
Siyam World is one of the newer resorts pushing the boundaries of the Maldivian tourist experience.

The face of the climate crisis

While frolicking in the water, some tourists may not realize the Maldives is grappling with a climate crisis.

Sitting at an average 3.77 feet above sea level, the Maldives is highly vulnerable to coastal erosion and rising sea levels. In 2018, scientists from the United States Geological Survey predicted that as much as 80% of the Maldives could be uninhabitable by 2050. The islands are particularly susceptible to flooding, droughts that affect freshwater access and storm surges.

Nearly 45% of resorts have reported some kind of beach erosion, according to the 2015 Maldives Climate Change Policy Framework.

Less than 200 islands are uninhabited.
Less than 200 islands are uninhabited.

The country is moving swiftly to mitigate the damage from climate change.

“From the very beginning, the Maldivian tourism industry has been rooted in sustainability,” Thaufeeq said, adding that nearly all tourist facilities embrace some sort of sustainability practice.

In February, the Maldivian government partnered with the U.S. Agency for International Development to launch the Ecotourism Framework and Roadmap, which designated 90 sites as protected and introduced ecotourism certification.

The road map joins a list of sustainability initiatives in action:

“In the breathtaking paradise of the Maldives, sustainable tourism isn't just a concept – it's a commitment to nurturing the very essence of these stunning islands,” said Erkaiym Tabyldieva, sustainability manager at Sun Siyam Iru Fushi, a resort on the Noonu Atoll.

The resort received the International Sustainable Award by Luxury Lifestyle Awards in 2023. Not only are plastic bottles eliminated on the property via an in-house water bottling and filtration system, but the resort also collaborates with nearby local islands to host educational workshops on sustainability and marine conservation for local young people. The resort also shreds and composts green waste on the property.

Despite resorts like Iru Fushi making every effort, the rise in sea levels threatens their future.

Tabyldieva said the sustainability team is “continuously brainstorming solutions,” such as seawalls and mangrove trees.

Responsible tourism

Travelers to the Maldives can reduce their environmental impact on the island nation while immersing themselves in Maldivian culture.

“The Maldives holds an equally vibrant soul, pulsating with a rich cultural heritage that stretches back centuries and awaits you wherever you go,” Thaufeeq said. She recommends travelers go beyond the confines of their resorts and seek out local markets in the capital, Malé – where most travelers arrive before boarding a seaplane or speedboat to their final destination – or visit a traditional fishing village.

Iru Fushi offers an excursion that takes guests via boat to a nearby island to tour the village and support local shops and restaurants.

Visiting a local village can offer guests a look into authentic Maldivian life.
Visiting a local village can offer guests a look into authentic Maldivian life.

Tabyldieva added that when exploring the ocean, guests should be mindful not to step or touch coral reefs. Most resorts have an on-site marine biologist ready to educate and help keep the house reef healthy.

Additionally, visitors can pack their waste, including empty toiletry bottles, to dispose of upon returning home given the pressing waste management challenges facing the islands.

“Through these mindful actions, your Maldivian journey becomes a mutually enriching experience, fostering a positive impact on both you and the local community,” Thaufeeq said.

Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. You can reach her at

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why the Maldives got on everyone's bucket list in the last 50 years