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World's Most Innovative Hotels... in The Maldives

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Picture the Maldives and what do you see? Tiny coral islands, palm trees swaying in the breeze, tropical fish lolling about in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. You'd be right on all counts, but the Maldives also offer something else - arguably, the most technologically advanced and innovative hotels on Earth.

Tourism to the Maldives is relatively new - the first European visitors stepped ashore in 1972 - but the growth has been phenomenal. Kuoni Travel reports that the Maldives is now its number one honeymoon destination for British couples, and this year - the 40th anniversary of tourism in the country - the government hopes for the first time to welcome a million foreign visitors.

One reason for this phenomenal success story has been the Maldivian policy of "one island, one resort". Each hotel has its own slice of paradise, accessed only by speedboat or seaplane.

This suited the strictly muslim establishment as it kept alcohol and skimpy beachwear away from the resident population, but it also satisfied the Robinson Crusoe dream of late 20th-Century luxury travel. When in the 1990s other destinations started bragging about "barefoot luxury", the Maldives could retort that it offered little else.

Even despite the global economic downturn, tourism to the Maldives continues to grow, with the number of island resorts recently topping the 100 mark. Many of the world's leading travel brands are now represented including Shangri-La, Four Seasons, Six Senses, Hilton and One&Only.

Few visitors are disappointed. The sheer natural beauty of the Maldives is astonishing, and the colours - the dazzling white sand, the turquoise lagoons, the cobalt ocean, the lush emerald vegetation - look like they have been Photoshopped. It's one of the few destinations in the world that looks better in real life than it does in the brochures.

This is a huge upside if you're on a budget. Stay at a modest three-star resort and you'll have the same iridescent sea, the same orange sunsets, the same cooling sea breezes as at the most expensive luxury hotels. Wherever you stay, the Maldivian staff are gentle and charming.

This has presented a challenge for the owners and managers of five-star resorts: how to stand out from the every increasing crowd. What can a luxury hotel do to attract attention from the "been there, done that" high-spenders of the 21st Century?

The answer has been innovation: creative, architectural and technological. One of the first great innovations was the water villa. Rather than stay in a glorified beach hut, guests could sleep in luxurious wooden villas built on stilts over the glimmering lagoons, with sea views in every direction.

Ironically, water villas were first conceived in order to sidestep planning laws, which limit building to 20% of the islands' surface area. However, they quickly became a must-have amongst well-heeled tourists. Now about half of all the rooms in the Maldives are built on stilts. Some even have glass floors so guests can look directly down at the sealife below.

With planning laws forbidding building above the height of the palm trees, the next direction to go was underwater. The luxury resort Huvafen Fushi kicked off the trend by opening an underwater spa. Although you might question the value of this to guests (who were mostly face down staring at the floor while getting a massage, and unable to see the passing fish), it went down a storm with magazine editors.

Next came an underwater restaurant at the Conrad Rangali Island where guests could dine in an all-glass pod buried 16ft below sea level. This year, Niyama Resort went a stage further by opening Subsix, billed as the world's first underwater nightclub, launched with an appearance by the rap star Tinie Tempah.

This year also saw the launch of the super-luxe Beach House at Iruveli, which boasts an extensive underground wine cellar. Built 10ft below ground level and lined with igneous rock, it features a grand dining table where guests can feast on a five-course tasting menu surrounded by $1million worth of floor-to-ceiling fine wines.

Meanwhile, there is a growing emphasis on creating new experiences for guests. Many resorts now offer "desert island" excursions where guests are "stranded" for a few hours or even overnight on an uninhabited island. With cool boxes stuffed with champagne, sunloungers and shades, this is nothing that Crusoe would have recognised.

Some hotels are looking to the sky for inspiration. The Hadahaa by Park Hyatt, which lies 10km from the nearest island and suffers from near zero light pollution, guests can take a stargazing cruise where they are coached in astrology as they munch on canapes.

Arguably, the most encouraging trend is in local island visits. Several resorts are catching on to the idea that guests are interested to see how local people live, and may want to support their island economies.

Vilu Reef resort is working with a local school and the charity, Pack For A Purpose, to encourage guests to make room in their suitcases for some much-needed books, stationery and CDs. Guests can hand over the donations in person on a visit to the school.

The Beach House at Iruveli, which is located in the remote northern atoll of Haa Alifu, has moved its cookery classes from the resort restaurant to the local island of Mulhadhoo (population 350), where guests can chat with the locals before preparing a lunch of cocount and pumpkin salad and spicy fish curry. The islanders are directly benefiting: the resort's owner has already made donations to pay for street lights and a new jetty on the island.

It's even possible to combine a stay in the Maldives with some environmental work. The Conrad Rangali is working with the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme to offer a two-week voluntourism project that will include helping with photographing and measuring whale sharks, and assisting an outreach programme at a local school.

While it can only be a matter of time before the first underwater villas are unveiled, it's great to see hoteliers and resort owners looking to their local communities for inspiration. Sun, sand and sea are wonderful, but ultimately it is the people that give a destination its value.

* Mark Hodson is editor of 101 Holidays

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