A tropical paradise, Maldives has a history of thriving trade and is primarily an Islamic country. Cowrie shells, made from the abundant mollusks that litter the shores, were used as currency in many countries in the 10th century and coir fibre, extracted from the outer husk of coconuts for use on ships’ rigging, was also a sought-after commodity.

Tourism is the country’s biggest industry and brings in more than a third of its GDP, 80% of government tax revenue and half a million visitors a year to the islands. Fishing is the second largest economic activity and tuna is the main species caught. Islanders grow crops such as vegetables, cassava, sweet potatoes and breadfruit in home gardens, while the capital’s market is a bustling hub of food, spices, fabrics and jewelry.

Several attempts to overthrow Gayoom’s unchallenged rule were made in the early years of this century. In 2008 he agreed to multicandidate elections and to reform the constitution, bringing in greater checks and balances and a more democratic political system. Mohamed Nasheed, who once held a number of political prisoner charges, won the election and ended 30 years of one-party rule.

Islam is the state religion and alcohol is strictly forbidden outside of resorts. In mosques, women are expected to keep their legs and shoulders covered and wear long skirts, tops or a headscarf. It is also advisable to remove shoes before entering homes and mosques. Non-Muslims should also dress modestly when visiting inhabited islands and be aware that foreigners may not be permitted to enter mosques.

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