About 30 years ago, a tourism master plan for the Maldives identified the ‘Robinson Crusoe factor’ as a critical feature of the Maldives appeal. It said there was a market for unspoilt palm-fringed, tropical islands with footprint-free beaches and brilliant turquoise lagoons.
Planning and professionalism are the hallmarks of Maldives tourism. The same plan recognized that contemporary Crusoes wanted their creature comforts, and that mass tourism would destroy the appeal of the place. The industry followed the plan, building a limited number of quality resorts, each on its uninhabited island, free from traffic, crime and crass commercialism. The industry has been enormously successful and is now recognized as a model for sustainable, environment-friendly tourist development.
The other key attraction is the underwater world. Everywhere there are reefs, caves, canyons and cliffs of superb coral, absolutely alive with fish of every shape, size and color. Over three-quarters of the world’s reef fish can be found in the Maldives, and many can be seen just by snorkeling a short distance from the beach. For scuba divers, the Maldives are world famous. As well as the beauty of the myriad fish and corals, there is the thrill of diving with turtles, moray eels, manta rays, reef sharks, and dolphins. It is one of the richest and best-preserved marine environments anywhere in the world.
Of course, this quality comes at a cost. The Maldives is not a destination for low budget backpackers, and independent travelers aren’t allowed to drop in on any island they please – that’s the price of protecting the sensitive social structure. It’s not impossible to visit the outer islands, but it’s difficult enough to deter all but the most dedicated and determined.
On the other hand, the capital city of Malé is entirely open to visitors and is an intriguing place with mosques, markets, and a maze of small streets. Also accessible, at least for short visits, are the island communities close to tourist resorts. These two possibilities are enough to gain an appreciation of both local life and culture, both modern and traditional. After seeing these places, most thoughtful people agree that the more isolated Maldivian villages would not benefit from extended visits by an uncontrolled number of tourists.
So you’ll have to like the idea of being stuck on a picture-perfect tropical island or condemned to a safari-boat cruising crystal clear waters. If that’s ok, you could probably cope with a Maldives holiday. If you don’t need any hassles finding food, accommodation or recreation, you might even enjoy it. But if you’re an underwater eco-tourist or water-sports enthusiast, a closet beach bum or a chronic escapist, you’re in danger of atoll addiction. You even come back year after year to another fix of Maldivian sea and sunshine.
VISAS AND DOCUMENTS
You need a valid passport current for the duration of your stay.
Visas are not required. Most foreigners are given a free 30-day visitor’s permit on arrival; citizens of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Nepal get a 90-day permit. Officially, a visitor must have at least US$25 for every day of their stay in the Maldives. In practice, the authorities are unlikely to check, especially if you are booked into a resort and look respectable.
If you want to apply for an extension on your visa, you need to go to the Immigration Office in the Huravee Building next to the police station in Malé. You must first buy an Extension of Tourist Visa form from one of the windows on the first floor. The primary requirement is evidence for a visa extension is that you have accommodation, and for this reason, it’s best to have your resort, travel agent or guesthouse manager act as a sponsor and apply on your behalf. You’ll also need a passport photo, return air ticket and money for the fee. Proof of sufficient funds or a credit card may also be required. If you are applying in person, you will have to go and get the form signed and stamped by your sponsor and return it to the Immigration Department between 07h30 and 09h30 in the morning. The usual extension is to three months from the date of your arrival. Overstaying your visa can involve fines and hassles.
Foreigners must have an Inter-Atoll Travel Permit to stay on an uninhabited island, other than Malé or a resort island, and permits are also required to visit uninhabited islands outside the tourist zone. You don’t need a permit for a day trip organised by a resort.
Permits are issued by the Ministry of Atolls Administration on Marine Drive in Malé. All foreigners must have a local sponsor, who will guarantee their accommodation and be responsible for them. Note also that it is illegal for anyone to request payment for accommodation on an inhabited island.
Permit applications must be in writing with name, passport number, nationality, the name of the island/atoll to be visited, dates of the visit, name and address of the sponsor, the name and registration number of the vessel to be used, and the purpose of the visit. Applications should be accompanied by the foreigner’s passport.
If you are going on a diving or sightseeing safari through the atolls, in a registered vessel with a registered safari company, the company will obtain the necessary permits before you start. In effect, the company is acting as your sponsor and supplying accommodation on the boat. If it’s to be a diving safari visiting sites of historical importance, additional permission may need to be obtained from other government departments.
Your sponsor should be a resident of the island you wish to visit and must be prepared to vouch for you, feed you and accommodate you. The support must be given in writing, preferably with the go-ahead from the kateeb (island chief) and submitted with your application. It’s best to have the sponsor submit the application on your behalf.
The most straightforward way to visit the outer atolls is with a registered safari boat, but a reputable tour company, travel agent or guesthouse proprietor may be able to help you make the necessary contacts to get a sponsor. Many Malé residents have friends or family in various outer atolls, but as they will be responsible for you when you visit, a great deal of trust is involved. Also, getting a letter of support-cum-invitation back from the island can take a couple of weeks if it’s isolated from the capital.
The Atolls Administration can be slow and discouraging, so perseverance and patience are necessary. The stated purpose of the visit can be something like visiting friends, sightseeing, photography or private research. A genuine purpose will help with your application, but it sounds like earnest research or professional filming, they may require additional permission from other government authorities. If you obtain a permit, it will specify which atolls or islands you can visit so it may be best to apply for an atoll approval that will permit you to visit any island within the specified atoll, though this must be consistent with the purpose of the application and the domicile of the sponsor. Permits are issued only between 08h30 and 11h00 on all days except government holidays.
As soon as you land on an island, you must go to the island office to present the permit. Don’t arrive without one because the island chiefs will enforce the law and can be in trouble if they don’t. A foreigner travelling in the outer islands without a permit, or breaching any of these conditions can be fined, but the consequences for a Maldivian could be much more severe.
Finally, the most apparent condition applied to a permit is also the most important:
“It is prohibited for foreigners on inter-atoll trips to conduct or participate in any activity that might jeopardise the peace and harmony prevailing in the country. Legal action shall be taken against persons known to conduct such activities.”