Difference between revisions of "Maldives"
Revision as of 18:23, 4 May 2011
The Maldives (Dhivehi: ދިވެހިރާއްޖެ Dhivehi Raajje)  are an archipelago of 1,190 coral islands grouped into 26 coral atolls (200 inhabited islands, plus 80 islands with tourist resorts) in the Indian Ocean. They lie south-southwest of India and are considered part of Southern Asia.
Formerly a Sultanate under Dutch and British protection, the Maldives are now a republic. Long ruled over with an iron fist by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who did not hesitate to jail dissidents and was re-elected five times in more or less rigged elections, resistance to his rule culminated in violent rioting in 2003 and 2004. Much to everybody's surprise, free and fair elections were finally held in 2008, and Gayoom gracefully conceded defeat to opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed, "Anni".
The Tsunami of 26 December 2004 caused extensive damage to the Maldives - of a population of only 290,000, over a third was directly affected by the tsunami and more than 29,000 people were left homeless. The economic damage alone was over 62% of the GDP or US$470 million.
Some islands, including Thaa atoll Vilufushi, felt the brunt of the wave, and residents on the island are now living in temporary shelters on the island of Buruni in the same atoll. More than a year later, there are in excess of 11,000 people in temporary shelters across the country. It was a brutal shock to the small island state which is so vulnerable to environmental disasters and global warming.
Tourism, Maldives largest industry, accounts for 20% of GDP and more than 60% of the Maldives' foreign exchange receipts. Over 90% of government tax revenue comes from import duties and tourism-related taxes. Over 600,000 tourists visited the islands in 2006. Fishing is a second leading sector. The Maldivian Government began an economic reform program in 1989 initially by lifting import quotas and opening some exports to the private sector. Subsequently, it has liberalized regulations to allow more foreign investment. Agriculture and manufacturing continue to play a minor role in the economy, constrained by the limited availability of cultivable land and the shortage of domestic labor. Most staple foods must be imported. Industry, which consists mainly of garment production, boat building, and handicrafts, accounts for about 18% of GDP. Maldivian authorities worry about the impact of erosion and possible global warming on their low-lying country; 80% of the area is one meter or less above sea level.
Maldivians are almost entirely Sunni Muslim, and the local culture is a mixture of South Indian, Sinhalese and Arab influences. While alcohol, pork, dogs and public observance of non-Muslim religions are banned on the inhabited islands, the resort islands are allowed to exist in a bubble where anything goes.
Note that the weekend in the Maldives runs from Friday to Saturday, during which banks, government offices and many shops are closed. You won't notice this at the resorts though, except that lunch hours may be shifted for Friday prayers.
The Maldives are tropical, with plenty of sunshine and temperatures around 30°C throughout the year. However, rainfall increases considerably during the April-October southwest monsoon, particularly from June to August.
The Maldives are formed of 26 atolls, or atholhu in Dhivehi — the source of the English word. These are not single islands, but giant ringlike coral formations hundreds of kilometers wide that have fragmented into countless islands.
Atoll naming is complex, as the atolls have both lengthy traditional Dhivehi names like Maalhosmadulu Dhekunuburi, and snappy code names like Baa that refer to administrative regions and may consist of more than one geographical atoll. The code names are actually just the letters of Dhivehi alphabet, but being easier for non-Maldivians to remember and pronounce, the code names are popular in the travel industry and are hence also used here. Of the 20 administrative atoll groups, only (parts of) 10 are open to tourism, and from north to south these are:
The Maldives have a remarkably easy visa policy -- Everybody gets a free 30-day visa on arrival, provided that they have a valid travel document, a ticket out and proof of sufficient funds, defined as either a confirmed reservation in any resort or US$25/day in cash. This can be extended up to 90 days at Male, but you'll need to indicate where you're staying for that long. See the Department of Immigration and Emigration website  for details.
Importing alcohol, pork or pornography (very broadly defined) into the Maldives is forbidden and all luggage is X-rayed on arrival. On the way out, note that exporting sand or seashells is also forbidden.
Practically all visitors arrive at Malé International Airport (IATA: MLE, ICAO: VRMM), located on Hulhulé Island right next to the capital Male. The airport is served by a wide array of flights to India, Sri Lanka, Dubai and major airports in South-East Asia, as well as an increasing number of charters from Europe. Many flights stop in Colombo (Sri Lanka) on the way.
Departure taxes are included in your ticket.
British Airways now flies directly from London Gatwick to Male 3 times a week (Sunday, Tuesday and Friday)
Singapore Airlines flies daily direct from Singapore to Male, with late night timings.
There are no regular passenger boats to the Maldives. Even yachts usually steer clear, as navigating around the reefs is hazardous and permits are expensive.
Getting around in the Maldives takes three forms: boats, sea planes (air taxis) and private yachts. The boats are the Maldivian equivalent of a car, while planes and private yachts are mainly reserved for tourists.
Air taxis and boats prefer not to operate at night, so if you arrive at the airport after dark and are going to a distant resort, you may have to spend the night in Male or at the airport hotel in Hulhule. Private transfers, though expensive can be opted for resort transfers, instead of spending the whole night at Male. Private transfers could cost anywhere between US$500-800. On the way back, there may also be a significant gap between the time your transfer arrives and your flight departure. Check with your resort or travel agent.
Independent travel to inhabited islands other than Male requires an Inter Atoll Travel Permit from the Ministry of Atolls , and receiving one requires Rf.10, a copy of your passport and — the hard part — an invitation from a resident of the island you wish to visit. Permits are not necessary for the organized island-hopping tours arranged by resorts and liveaboards.
No point in the Maldives is more than 45 minutes away by plane from Male, and visitors to the more far-flung resorts use air taxi services. There are two main operators: Maldivian Air Taxi , with red and white planes, and Trans Maldivian Airways, with yellow and blue planes. The services are largely identical, with both flying DHC-6 Twin Otter seaplanes that take around 10 passengers.
The taxi boats generally take tourists to and from the islands in the North and South Male atolls. They come in all different shapes and sizes depending on the quality of the resort you stay in — the Four Seasons has a large enclosed motor cruiser with drinks and food, while the lesser resorts have open sided dhoni fishing boats.
Maldivian Dhivehi, a close relative of Sinhala (spoken in Sri Lanka) but with borrowings from Urdu, Hindi, Arabic and many other languages, is the official language. It is written in a remarkable hybrid script called Thaana, which uses Arabic and Indic numbers as the base of the alphabet, written from right to left with Arabic vowel signs. The script is thought to have originated as a secret code for writing magical formulas so that outsiders can't read them, which would also explain why the ordering of the alphabet is, as far as linguists can tell, completely random!
English is widely spoken, particularly by government officials and those working in the tourism industry. English is the language of instruction in schools.
Diving and snorkelling
Aside from making the water bungalow rock on your honeymoon, the primary activity on the Maldives is scuba diving. The atolls are all coral reefs hundreds of kilometers away from any major landmass, meaning that water clarity is excellent and underwater life is abundant. Manta rays, sharks, even a few wrecks, you name it, you can find it in the Maldives.
While diving is very good by world standards even in the immediate vicinity of Male, visibility and the chance of encountering large pelagics increases as you head to the outer atolls. Many divers opt for liveaboards, which can actually work out much cheaper than paying high resort fees. Currents vary considerably, with generally little inside the atolls but some powerful streams to be found on the sides facing the open sea. Water in the Maldives is warm throughout the year and a 3mm shorty or Lycra diveskin is plenty. Diving is possible throughout the year, but rain, wind and waves are most common during the season of the southwest monsoon (June-August). The best time for scuba diving is from January to April, when the sea is calm, the sun is shining and the visibility can reach 30 m. Decompression chambers can be found on Bandos in Kaafu (15 min from Male), Kuredu in Lhaviyani Atoll and at Kuramathi on Alifu.
The one downside to diving in the Maldives is that it's quite expensive by Asian standards. Prices vary considerably from resort to resort, with specialist dive resorts offering better prices, but in general, you'll be looking at around US$50 for a single boat dive with your own gear and closer to US$75 without. Beware of surcharges: you may be charged extra for boat use, guided dives, larger tanks, etc. On the upside, safety standards are usually very high, with well-maintained gear and strict adherence to protocol (check dives, maximum depth, computer use, etc) being the rule rather than the exception.
The local currency is the Maldivian rufiyaa (MVR, Rf), divided into 100 laari. However, by law resorts price services in US dollars and require payment in hard currency (or credit card), so there's absolutely no need to change money if you're going to spend all your time at the resorts. Most hotels have a shop but this is limited to diving and holiday essentials (sun cream, sarongs, disposable cameras, etc.) Some excursions from resorts will take you to local islands where there are handicraft type things to buy, but there are typically made outside the Maldives and sold at outrageous markups.
If you are heading to Male or the other inhabited atolls, exchanging some rufiyaa will come in handy. The coins, in particular, are quite attractive and make an interesting souvenir in themselves, but the smaller denominations are rarely used or seen. The official exchange rate to the US dollar is fixed at 12.75:1, but while dollars are near-universally accepted, shops usually exchange them at 12:1 or even 10:1.
There's no way around it: the Maldives are expensive, and there is effectively no budget accommodation or transport. Resorts have a monopoly on services for their guests and charge accordingly: for mid-range resorts, $1000 per week per couple is a conservative budget for meals, drinks and excursions, above and beyond the cost of flights and accommodation. Practically anything — including hotel rooms if booked locally — gets slapped with an arbitrary 10% "service charge", but tips are expected on top.
All the resorts are self contained so they have at least one restaurant, which generally serve the type of cuisine expected by their guests. ( i.e. modern European or generic Asian). Breakfast is almost always included, and most resorts offer the option of half-board, which means you get a dinner buffet, and full board, which means you get a lunch and dinner buffet. These can limit the damage compared to ordering a la carte, but your options are typically very limited and drinks are often not covered, not necessarily even water. If you're planning on drinking a lot, it may be worthwhile to go all inclusive, but even this typically restricts you to house drinks.
The only other place to find food is Male. This comes in two forms. Either small restaurants aimed at the tourists (of which there are a couple of nice Thai restaurants), which are often expensive, or small cafes called hotaa, selling local Maldivian food at prices as low as Rf.20 for a complete meal.
Maldivian food revolves largely around fish (mas), in particular tuna (kandu mas), and draws heavily from the Sri Lankan and south Indian tradition, especially Kerala. Dishes are often hot, spicy and flavored with coconut, but use very few vegetables. A traditional meal consists of rice, a clear fish broth called garudhiya and side dishes of lime, chili and onions. Curries known as riha are also popular and the rice is often supplemented with roshi, unleavened bread akin to Indian roti, and papadhu, the Maldivian version of crispy Indian poppadums. Some other common dishes include:
Snacks called hedhikaa, almost invariably fish-based and deep-fried, can be found in any Maldivian restaurant.
As the Maldives are Muslim, alcohol is banned for the local population. However, nearly all resorts and liveaboard boats are licensed to serve it, usually with a steep markup. Expatriate residents have an allowance that they can use in Male.
Maldivians generally do not drink alcohol although this is less true of the younger generation. They are, however, unhappy about being filmed or photographed while drinking.
Tap water in resorts may or may not be drinkable -- check with management. Bottled water is extortionately priced, with US$5/bottle being typical.
Aside from the capital Male, there are no hotels in the Maldives, only resorts. Most resorts take up their own island (1500x1500m to 250x250m), meaning that the ratio of beach to guests must be one of the best in the world and it is hard to imagine that you would ever have to struggle to find your own private piece of beach to relax on. Many have a "no shoes" policy and with such soft sands it is easy to love this idea.
The range and themes or the resorts is impressive, and most people will find one they like. Broadly speaking, however, they can be grouped into three brackets:
A Maldivian classic is the overwater bungalow, built on stilts directly above a lagoon. While these look fabulous and sound appealing, they have their downsides:
These factors vary from resort to resort, so research carefully. A good one is definitely worth trying at least once, but many Maldives repeaters prefer a bungalow with a private beach.
When considering where to go, factor in transport time and costs from the airport: the more far-flung resorts generally require an expensive seaplane transfer and you may have to stay overnight at the airport on the way. On the upside, the further away you are from Male, the more peaceful the islands and the better the diving.
Many resorts, especially the smaller dive-oriented ones, cater largely to a single nationality, leading to "Italian" resorts, "Dutch" resorts, "German" resorts, etc. While almost all welcome any nationality and have some English-speaking staff on hand, you may be cut off from any evening entertainment and have problems eg. diving if you don't speak the local lingo.
The only serious schools are in Male and many children travel here each day. There are some village schools on the outlying islands.
There are no universities and this is starting to cause a problem as more and more of the younger generation want to get away and study.
Getting a Job in the Maldives can be tricky. It is not the kind of place where you can just turn up and start job hunting. Generally the resorts take on a mix of local and international staff so you need to approach the resort Human Resources departments. There is a good mix of jobs but a lot of the roles are diving based (divemasters, instructors, photographers etc)
Most resorts are predominately one or two nationalities so finding the resorts that match your language skills helps. After that experience always helps (especially for diving instructors as the Maldives are well known for their strong currents and half of the time the currents will take you straight out into the Indian Ocean.)
Generally if you get a job with a resort then they will get you a work permit and pay for your flight, food and accommodation. They don't really have much choice its hardly as if you can pop out to the supermarket and pick up a Pizza for dinner.
All foreign workers have to have a series of medical tests before you can start work in the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital. This includes a blood sample (lots of tests including HIV as well as x-ray etc). It is quick and easy but they are very uncommunicative about what they are doing.
There is very little crime in the Maldives as the tourists generally stay in the resorts since there is not much to do outside. This means that you can feel safe on your own at all times. Generally Maldivians are honest, helpful and welcoming people although you are unlikely to come into much contact with them in resorts.
There are no drugs anywhere in the resorts and most Maldivians rarely come into contact with anything more than an occasional beer that has been smuggled out of a resort. That said, there is a growing drug problem among the local population and hence petty crime to support this has arisen. Take the usual precautions such as not leaving money and valuables lying around. Remember that $50 that you were going to use in the bar that night represents 10 days' wages for the cleaners etc.
Anti-government street rioting occurred in Male between 2003 and 2005, but political tensions have largely been relieved by the opposition victory in the elections of 2008.
There are no serious problems with diseases in the Maldives. Beware that tap water may not be drinkable at all resorts: enquire locally. The Maldives are malaria-free, but some islands do have mosquitoes and catching dengue fever from them is possible, albeit highly unlikely. For those coming from regions infected by yellow fever, an international certificate of inoculation is required.
Most of the problems come from diving or sun related injuries. Heat stroke always cause problems in the tropics but couple that with divers spending hours at a time on a boat wearing a wetsuit and overheating of one form or another is a real issue. As long as you know this, drink lots of water, and get into the shade as much as possible it is easy to avoid.
Lots of the resorts have their own doctor or nurse and most are within easy reach of the decompression chambers. Male has an efficient and fairly modern hospital but bear in mind that it is a long way to get medevaced home from.