Every day at about 6PM dozens of sharks and sting rays gather in the shallows on the shore of a tiny strip of land, accessible by seaplane, about 800km from the southern tip of the Indian mainland.
This soft white sand beach is located right next to one of the three restaurants on an island less than 1 km across: The Aqua - the buffet restaurant, The Spice - the Italian restaurant by day and Indian by night, and The Well Done - the meat and seafood restaurant.
A few minutes before 6PM, you can see these top marine predators making their way to the shallows from the ocean depths, gracefully and tactfully.
The backdoor of the restaurant busts open and out walks a tall Maldivian man with long black hair curled up in a messy bun, wearing shorts and a surfers nylon long sleeved shirt. He's carrying a big plastic bucket filled to the brim with fish guts, spines and heads.
He's making his way to the beach to feed the meter long rays and reef sharks, swimming in the knee-high shallow, crystal clear, bright blue waters. You can see and sense the animals getting excited as they assume pecking-order formations: 3 big rays are first in line, seemingly not afraid of being beached in water barely covering their bodies. Behind them, five for six sharks that seem to be at least a meter long are second in line. And then there's a third row, in a wider semi-circle at least 10 smaller sharks. And behind them still, smaller rays and sharks darting about, hoping for some lucky scraps.
The man puts the bucket firmly in the sand, takes a handful of chow, goes in the water ankle deep, crouches and splashes the water around with a fistful of fish guts and then stays still, hand feeding the rays. He occasionally throws bigger pieces to the sharks in the back. The spectacle turns into a feeding frenzy as the water turns from bright blue to pink; the sharks get closer and closer to the shore, half their bodies sticking out of the water. The man teases the sharks, temping them ever so closer to the edge of dry beach.
This seems completely unnecessary and quite demeaning if not most undignifying. Especially for such majestic creatures. But it has become a tourist attraction in the Maldives and it's become common practice at most resorts on both private and local islands. Under Maldivian law shark feeding is illegal and the Tourism Ministry had to issue a warning in 2021 to all tourism facilities when some were offering shark feeding as an excursion activity.
Now, I'm as much a marine biologist as George Costanza, but I can't help but wonder - isn't this ray and shark feeding that happens both frequently and regularly bad for the animals? They already know to show up daily, at the exact time. Don't they become dependant on the resort staff, losing their ability to hunt? Aren't rays nocturnal and doesn't this disturb their natural feeding patterns? Won't sharks get too comfortable with humans, making an unfortunate association between man and food? What happens if the resorts suddenly stop feeding the animals?
The Other Feeding
In about 30 mins as the sun starts to set this one spectacle ends but another one begins. This second one is truly horrifying. I have to issue a warning to my more sensitive readers for I am about to depict, in some detail, scenes on the order of the grotesque, the monstrous and the perverse: the all inclusive dinner buffet.
With similar punctuality but aided by timekeeping technology instead of circadian rhythms, a different type of animal starts making its way to the buffets: the tourist.
The bipedal hordes emerge from their air-conditioned rooms, half drunk and dazed from their after lunch naps. They are in paradise no doubt, but you couldn't tell by looking at their faces. Bloodshot eyes hiding behind brand name sunglasses, sad faces, hefty bodies, awkwardly limping with each step as their feet struggle to maintain balance on the treacherous sandy beach.
Let me paint the picture for you: imagine an outdoor enclosure the size of a basketball field, under a round faux bamboo roof, massive fans attached to the ceiling, sand on the ground. In a semi circle around inside of the venue dozens of stainless steel food warmers and catering trays. In the middle, in a concentric circle cooking stations with flat tops, grills and gas burners manned by chefs in white hats: grilling station, pasta station, burger station. On the far end of the restaurant, a stage surrounded on both sides by massive speakers. Sitting on barstool, an Asian lady with a beautiful voice sings a cover of Van Morrison's Browned Eyed Girl, all but drowned out by the clickety clackery of silverware meeting plates.
An army of bee-like, wait staff in resort branded pink shirts, about half as many as the guests, are busy clearing plates and getting drink orders.
Making my way to the bar I can't help but glance at servings. One elderly man is carrying his haul to the table. In one hand a small mountain of pasta with meatballs and tomato sauce, just about to collapse. In the other hand another large plate. Beef steak, baked potato wedges covered in ketchup and what seems like gravy, tucked next to a mould of thin rice noodles with seafood. Another fella scored a trove of desserts - surprising because it's just beginning of dinner-time. Later, I learn it's strategic: you eat the dessert first, to mitigate against the risk of missing out on the good stuff. It's a way to get first dibs. But it must be a myth. I've almost missed dinner on occasion, even ten minutes before closing, the trays are stacked with cakes and cookies, ice cream display freezers filled to the brim. For the tourists, this place knows no scarcity. It's a festival of excesses.
I wonder briefly about food waste, only to have my fears confirmed as I see people standing up leaving behind half-full and sometimes barely touched second or third servings.
One evening at 10:15 PM I play a game of billiards with 2 staff members. They had to get approval from the resort management. They live in the staff quarters located on the middle of the island, where they run the diesel generators to power our air conditioners. Their work schedule is 7 AM to 10 PM. Sometimes they have training sessions in the evenings that run past 10pm. I really wanted to ask (but didn't) - how come you don't hate us?
Origins of Travel: Trade, War or Pilgrimage?
There is something deeply disturbing about Tourism. It's a completely modern invention, with roots traceable to War, Trade and/or Pilgrimage, as American anarchist author Peter Lamborn Wilson writes in his critical essay Overcoming Tourism.
I'm picking out Pilgrimage as a particularly interesting one to explore. As Wilson correctly notes, there is an important difference between the "site of tourism" and the "site of pilgrimage". The product of the site of pilgrimage is blessing (baraka in Arabic), and the more demand for it, the more supply there is. A popular shrine grows with the more prayers it answers.
In contrast, the tourist consumes cultural difference. Difference from what they are used to seeing at home. But the more popular a tourist site becomes, the less cultural difference it can provide. And when it runs out of cultural difference, it starts running out of culture all-together, transformed and terraformed to cater for long cues of people holding ticket stubs; where the ground is scarred, marked with signs telling you where to stand to get that perfect Instagram photo.
In addition, the touristic experience is entirely mediated - by the camera viewfinder, the phone's screen, by the tour guide, by the expectation set by the guide book, the travel documentary or the "Top 10 things you have to do / see / taste / buy".
The culmination of these prescriptions is the phenomenon known as the Paris Syndrome, the sense of extreme disappointment - with severe psychosomatic manifestations - particularly noted among Japanese tourists visiting France's capital city for the first time. There's a disconnect between their expectations of find a dreamy far-away land completely different from what they know at home and the reality that they find there: interminable cues, obstructed views, the omnipresent smell of urine, steaming garbage piling on the sidewalks. It's an unfortunate side-effect of tourism, that we prefer no to hear too much about.
Speaking of garbage - here's another glum form that tourism can take: Ghetto or Slum tourism. Apologists defend the practice saying that it brings money to the tour guides, who are locals. But let's peel back a layer and see what's hiding behind: turning abject poverty into entertainment, a disgusting voyeuristic excess available to the rich. "Something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from" writes Kennedy Odede, a Kenyan, in a op-ed for the New York Times. Slum tourism is nothing more than poverty porn.
Is better tourism possible?
"We need more options for Eco Tourism", I tell my wife one morning in our air conditioned bungalow on the beach.
"No, we don't need more options for Eco Tourism", she replies pausing for a second before continuing... "we need to start by making all tourism Eco Tourism".
There is no widely agreed-upon definition for Ecotourism, but most people seem to agree on two principles:
- conservation of the natural environment
- wellbeing of the local population
If we start there maybe one day we can start talking about making tourism sustainable as well. But for the moment that's on the order of the fantastic.