Air links to the Maldives have been improved in an effort to boost tourist arrivals from Southeast Asia, and plans have been unveiled to double the accommodation on the tiny islands in the Indian Ocean. But in spite of assurances that the protection of the environment is being given top priority, coral has already been damaged by reclamation work, and dredging is going on at a resort now under development. The Maldives, nearly 1,200 islands scattered over 750 kilometres, are mostly uninhabited and contain around 75 per cent of the world's reef fish. The first tourists started arriving in 1972 - only 300 that year - but now there are a total of around 10,500 beds, and one resort per island on a total of 74 previously uninhabited islands. Singapore Airlines flies daily to the Maldives with connections from Hong Kong, and Malaysia Airlines has just introduced a second weekly flight from Kuala Lumpur, both connecting with their services to Kuala Lumpur from Hong Kong. Mr Mohammad Hamed, a member of the Maldives Association for the Tourist Industry (MATI) said the Maldives would add a further 10,000 beds, or 5,000 rooms over the next decade to cope with the increasing demand. Last year there were 324,000 tourist arrivals, more than the population of the whole island group (around 250,000), an increase of around 15 per cent on the previous year. 'Around 70 per cent of arrivals are from Europe, mainly in their winter season. May, June and July are the low season, and we are looking at trying to attract more tourists from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia and Korea during these months,' said Mr Hameed. 'The main problem as far as Hong Kong is concerned has been access,' he added. 'At Chinese New Year the demand is very high, but because of the lack of access this demand has not been tapped.' The tourism season is year-round as the rainy season is very short, and 15 tour operators from Hong Kong will go to the Maldives at the end of this month to discuss package tours in light of the better air links. Mr Abraham Hussen Zaki, Maldives Minister for Tourism, said the Maldives had opened its doors to all, including Israelis (the Maldives is Islamic). Hong Kong residents were allowed visa-free access. 'We have not spoilt the product by having mass tourism,' he said. 'The highest priority is the protection of the general environment.' At present all sewage is collected in septic tanks and new developments would have to install sewage recycling plants, he said. Rubbish was destroyed in incinerators. But later, when I went island-hopping, I noticed the crystal clear waters edging one of the new atoll resorts were devoid of fish, unlike other islands where only a few metres offshore tourists were feeding hundreds of large fish, including baby basking sharks. A Maldivian resort owner said that the island had been extended over coral, and later, a diving instructor said the reclamation work had interfered with the flow of currents, and the coral had died. At another resort which is under construction, machinery was being used to haul sand from the seabed at the edge of the atoll. 'This should not be allowed,' the Maldivian hotelier told me. 'Some people just want to make fast money. It has been proved that dredging can harm marine life. 'We can fine companies, but this will not bring back the coral.' He feared that unless harsh measures were taken to ensure the environmental laws were adhered to, more damage could be done in a rush for quick returns. Indeed, tourism in the Maldives would be hardly likely to survive without its marine life. The islands are only around three metres above sea level, and most are tiny. They are so low that it is feared the greenhouse effect could totally submerge them within 30 years, and Mr Zaki said scientists are monitoring the waters. Never before anywhere had I seen such vast number of fish swimming only a few metres offshore, and William Morrall who runs big game fishing excursions from Bandos island, said the biggest fish he had caught weighed around 250 kilos. There are so many fish in the sea around the Maldives that the vast number of sharks are not regarded as dangerous to swimmers and divers - they are too well-fed. Snorkelling and diving are the main attractions, though resorts have fitness centres, tennis courts, squash courts and even nurseries. Corporate incentive tourism is being encouraged, and some resorts have conference centres. Most resorts offer PADI diving courses, with levels from beginner to diving instructor, at fees ranging from around US$250 (HK$1,925) to US$500. Some also have decompression chambers - the Bandos decompression chamber can accommodate up to four divers. But divers should take out insurance before coming to the Maldives. There have been a number of diving accidents this year, with one fatality, and treatment and evacuation could cost up to US$150,000, as the islands are so isolated, I was told. Package tours here are up-market. Costs of development are high. Local fresh water supplies have virtually run out, and desalination plants provide water for bathrooms. Guests are advised to drink mineral water. Building materials have to be imported, along with soil and most vegetation. Palm trees are carried to the islands on barges. But labour is so cheap here that the ratio of staff to guests is among the highest in the world, guaranteeing pampered service. The islands are so scattered that it could take up to three hours by speedboat to reach some of them from the capital of Male, the tiny island which has a population of some 65,000. Some visitors are flown by helicopter to islands barely big enough for a helipad, where they await boats to take them to some of the more exclusive resorts. The Maldives are strictly Muslim, and the government encourages segregation between its people and visitors to protect them from moral pollution. It is not possible to visit inhabited islands unless on a guided tour. Island-hopping tourists who went skinning-dipping in full view of startled Maldivians were responsible for the ban. Some living in the more remote islands have never seen outsiders. Visitors who want alcohol can get it in abundance in the resorts - where Maldivians are forbidden to work as barmen - but it is expensive. And suitcases are X-rayed on arrival in the Maldives as well as on departure. No alcohol can be brought in, so forget duty free shops en route. Any alcohol is taken by customs on arrival and can be reclaimed on departure on production of a receipt. The authorities are also concerned about pornographic video tapes. On Male there are only two hotels with perhaps a total of 100 rooms for late arrivals to the nearby airport. They only offer non-alcoholic beer. Alcohol is banned on the island, where the few attractions include a few souvenir shops, an old graveyard, mosque and fish market. Yet despite the restrictions, tourism is already having a negative effect, as drugs have been introduced to the islanders. Signs in Male warn against pushers and anyone convicted of taking or selling drugs can be banished to one of several convict islands. I was told the drugs are being smuggled in by boat, and with more than 1,000 islands to patrol, the police are facing an almost impossible task. Passengers arriving in Europe from Bangkok or the Philippines can expect to have their bags thoroughly searched at customs, but so far Male is not regarded as high-risk. The beaches of the Maldives are as clean and white as the brochures portray them - you must wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from the glare - and the waters are as clean as you can see anywhere in the world. And with a maximum of 20,000 beds 10 years from now, it is unlikely that the Maldives will suffer the ravages of tourism experienced in other parts of Asia. But to protect this paradise the government must stick rigidly to its pledge of giving priority to the environment - in spite of the greatest environmental threat of all, the greenhouse effect.