Tourism is the principal industry and leading foreign exchange earner. It has developed rapidly with government support, climbing from 9,000 visitors in 1975 to 196,112 in 1991 and 467,154 in 2000. In 2000, income from tourism reached $344 million. There were 8,329 hotel rooms and 16,658 bed-places, with an occupancy rate of 68%.
Natural attractions are crystal-clear lagoons and white beaches that are ideal for swimming, fishing, and both snorkeling and scuba diving. Modern, one- and two-story tourist facilities have been built on various otherwise uninhabited islands, mainly in the Malé atoll but also in neighboring atolls. Developed with European, Sri Lankan, and Indian assistance and part ownership, such resorts are confined to these individual islands, thus allowing the conservative Islamic government to profit from the presence of foreign tourists while shielding its citizens from the presence and consumption of alcoholic beverages and other un-Islamic holiday practices of these tourists. Maldivian resort workers maintain their homes and families on other islands, and non-Maldivians—often Sri Lankans—are hired to serve the alcohol. Passports are required of all visitors, as are yellow fever inoculation certificates for those arriving from infected areas.
In 1993, the US Department of State estimated the cost of staying in Maldives at $198 to $242 per day. Past UN reports indicate that the cost of staying within the country can be much lower, even as low as about $30 per day.