Cruiser's Paradise Lost?
- yachting in the Maldives is a bit complicated

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(This story has also been posted in the Blog section, on February 26, 2011)

Image source: Website of Maldives Tourism Ministry (Click for larger image)

1,200 tropical islands - 1,000 of them uninhabited, crystal clear water, abundant marine life, great weather and very friendly people.

A cruiser’s paradise, you may think? Not entirely so, unfortunately –the government of the Maldives does not encourage private cruising in their archipelago.

Let’s look at the obstacles in a the chronological order a yachtie will meet them.

The Cruising Permit

When you clear into the country (which we did in Uligan in the far north in January 2011) you get a 30-day visa stamped in your passport (at no charge), but as a cruiser you are allowed to stay only 72 hours without obtaining a cruising permit. During these 72 hours you are not permitted to move your yacht from the anchorage where you’ve entered.

If you decide to apply for a cruising permit, you have to use an agent. The process takes 2-4 days as all permits are issued in the Capital. Your local agent will be dealing with the main agent in Male. The price for a 30-day Inter-Atoll Traveling Permit (yes, one “L” in travelling) was 620-670 USD in February 2011. We never figured out why the price fluctuated from day to day, or even hour to hour, but at any price this is the most expensive official document that we have paid for during almost 20 years of cruising in over 80 countries.

The expenses and the hassle do not end at this point. By now you only have 30 days for the cruising of this large area of 90,000 sq km, and you have already spent about a week waiting for your permit at your port of entry. If you would like to spend more than 30 days in the atolls you need to apply for an extension both for your visa and for your cruising permit. This can be done only in Male, so the next 3 weeks or less (remember Friday and Saturday are holidays) you will spend cruising south to the Capital.

(Skip this paragraph if you are not interested in the details of extending your stay) When you get to Male you can obtain a two-month extension to your visa, but the cruising permit can be extended only by 30 days (note, not one month) at a time. Consequently, if you wish to use all 3 months of your visa, you have to apply for a third cruising permit before the first 60 days are finished. The extension costs are 75 USD per person for the visa and 35 USD for the permit. An extension of the permit for a third 30-day period will be another 35 USD, but in addition to these fees you will have to pay, when clearing out of the country, a daily anchoring fee of 50 rufia (4 USD), which will be applied after a period of 15 days from your arrival date. See update 3 below.

The expensive cruising permit is the main reason why very few yachts spend any time exploring these fabulous islands, which, actually should be regarded as a great cruising destination in its own right instead of just a stepping stone between Southeast Asia and Europe or Africa. I would guess that only a few dozen yachts per year obtain the permit to cruise all over the country, but about one hundred call in only at Uligan for a few days, to get some rest on a passage somewhere else. All those yacht are a missed opportunity for Maldivian tourism.

The Resort Islands

Well, a thousand bucks is not that much, I hear you say, I mean cruising is defined as standing in a cold shower tearing 100 dollar notes anyway! Ok, but let us see what we get for this money.
Here we are sailing through a beautiful archipelago with our precious permit framed on a bulkhead, and we start looking for a safe anchorage for the night, hopefully with a good snorkelling-reef close. We have been prepared for the fact that there are very few protected anchorages because of the anatomy of atolls and coral reefs. This is nothing new to us; it is the same in many other tropical areas, such as French Polynesia, Fiji or parts of Indonesia, for instance. But in the Maldives, we faced a new phenomenon: The Maldivian Resort!

There are more than one hundred resorts in the Maldives, with another 40 under construction. The majority of the resorts appear to be extremely luxurious establishments, and as far as we have discovered, they do not want cruisers in their waters. No problem, I hear you saying again, we are not interested in these very expensive, artificial constructions anyway. Right, but unfortunately, the resorts are occupying all the best spots, particularly if there are any kinds of natural anchorages around them.

Look at the photo at the top of this page. It would appear that there could be an anchorage in the lagoon behind the island, perfectly sheltered from winds from more than 180° of the compass. Unfortunately the fringing reef is too shallow to allow a keel boat to pass over. And even if there was a pass, it would probably be too deep for anchoring inside.


The formation of an atoll. Source: Wikipedia. Click for larger image and explanation.

The photo below shows a variation of the top photo, but in this case there would be no point in trying to get past the reef, because the water inside the lagoon is only waist deep - too shallow for a yacht. Outside the reef the bottom drops very quickly down to between 30 and 50 metres.

donut
Image source: Website of Maldives Tourism Ministry. Click for larger image.

These islands have been leased to the resorts by the Maldivian government, and apparently the lease of an island gives the lessee control over the fringing reef as well.

The only anchorage of any sort (and a rather exposed one still) at the island on the photo above would be on the left side, on the fore reef (diagram image below), and even this only if you are convinced that the winds will be from behind the island (from the right on photo above). Problem is, that it would probably either be too deep or you would be too close to the reef. A wind shift or current could swing the yacht up on the reef.


The anatomy of a reef. Source: Wikipedia
(Click for a larger image)

Cruisers have been told not to anchor near a resort without asking the management for permission. So far we have not been granted permission to anchor at any resort island. Either we have been told, that a) the manager is unavailable, or b) no, it is not allowed to anchor, or c) yes welcome, but you have to pay 50 USD per person (just to put your foot ashore).

In Male, we anchored in the reasonably protected public harbour of Hulumale island, near the airport. As we were expecting friends from back home to join us for a week or two, and needed somewhere to day-sail with them, I decided to check out a few of the resorts in the vicinity. I sent an e-mail to three of them, explaining that we planned to sail to their island, would anchor out, but would possibly also like to visit their restaurants and/or dive shops. All three resorts came back with a negative response. Velassaru resort told me there would be a minimum charge of 150 USD per person, which would be deducted from the bill if we used their restaurant, Half Moon Resort (Sheraton) does not allow day visitors at all, and forbid us to anchor in their lagoon, and Meeru resort bluntly told us that they were “not in a position to consider our request”.

Money talks

The Maldivian resorts look absolutely fantastic on the photos of the brochures, and I don’t doubt they are great, even though staying in places like that is not my cup of tea. But who am I to blame if somebody with enough money, who wants to escape the cold weather in harsher climates, is spending some time in the sun on a white sandy beach surrounded by turquoise water and enjoying culinary meals. On the other hand, the resort visitor, who has been picked up at Male airport and rushed to his resort of choice in a speed boat or sea plane, will be a complete stranger to anything Maldivian. Usually he will not visit any native villages or towns (except maybe Male, which has a nice atmosphere, but is still almost just like any other island city) and will have few opportunities to meet ordinary Maldivians.

But I blame the decision makers in the Maldives for their (in my opinion) misguided efforts to segregate tourists from their own citizens. With the present situation, the Maldivians are being taught that all tourists are made of money and the locals will thereforel without shame ask ridiculous prices for services to foreigners, such as 150-200 USD for a speed boat trip to the airport, which for Maldivians costs maybe 20 USD. The authorities are setting the example: for instance, the admission fee to the National Museum is 20 Rufiyaa for foreigners but only 5 for Maldivians.

On our way south from Uligan we anchored one night inside the breakwater of the commercial harbour at Kulhudduffushi and were charged for two nights. The reason given, was that anchoring fees are calculated per week day, midnight to midnight, so although we only stayed for 18 hours we paid for 48 hours! How crazy can it get? There were no services (such as showers etc), so why charge at all, but on top of this they applied an outrageous calculation. That felt like adding insult to injury.

Suggestions

Let me say, that I wouldn’t complain very much about the cost of the cruising permit, if we felt that we would be getting something in return. One suggestion would be to put out moorings in some places for the use of yachts; not only would we get a service for our dollars, but also the coral reef would suffer less damage from anchoring. Also, they should trash the mandatory agent-requirement for recreational yachts, it only adds to the costs and to the hassle, we haven’t needed agents in any other country either – the Customs and Immigration people are smart enough to administer this business. The use of agents should be required only for the shipping companies.

I apologise to the wonderful guys presently employed by the agencies, because I have no complaints against them personally, but I’m convinced that they would all find more meaningful job opportunities in a less regulated environment, with a growing number of cruisers asking for an increasing amount of services – more real work and less paper shuffling! Several hundred cruising vessels visiting the inhabited islands, outside of the resorts, would also definitely help creating small mechanical workshops and other businesses in the outback.

Let there be no misunderstanding because of my criticism; The Maldivian officials, particularly in Uligan, are the friendliest we have met anywhere - but let it remain like that. The Eastern Caribbean is a warning example; there all foreigners are regarded solely as a potential source of income, which does not provide a good base for mutual respect and understanding.

Having said all of the above, I highly recommend cruising in the Maldives. It's a unique place and we are having a wonderful time. Thanks to Imad, Assad, Mohammed, Niyaz and all others who have done all they can to make our visit as pleasant as possible.

Cruising tips: We have listed all our anchorages from Uligan to Male, with waypoints and some local info at: Our Anchorages in the Maldives.

Update 1

Later on our journey we anchored in the vast lagoon of Meerufenfushi, at a distance of about 500 metres away from the Meeru resort. Very soon some staff came out in a motor boat and told us to leave!

I talked to the manager of the resort on the phone, and he said that their customers were complaining!

Time to hit the Bullshit Button. Good to have it on board.

However, we moved away an other 500 metres as we still had some light for eye ball navigation. The lagoon is full of shallow coral heads, and there was not enough time either, before dark, to sail back to Thulusdhoo, were we are welcome (it is a village, not a resort). Our new position was rather unprotected from winds and seas, but fortunately the conditions were quite settled.

This incident is a prime example of how cruisers are being treated in the Maldives. Presumably with the approval of the authorities.

The panorama below shows the Meeru resort island from Scorpio's deck. One can't help but wonder how on earth (or water) we could have been disturbing any guests. The photo of our radar screen illustrates our distance from the shore. (Click images for larger versions)

Whom could we be disturbing out here?


Distance to shore is over 0,258 nm
(about 480 m). The 2 dots to the right
of the centre are the boats anchored
between us and the island.

Right: The very useful Bullshit Button.

Update 2.

Here's an other example from the island of Emboodho, and strangely there appears to be a village on this island also, not only a resort. The only possible anchorage (SW of the island) has been fenced off by buoyes. It's impossinble to get into shallower waters than 30 metres. We had to sail to Velassaru 5 nm to the west instead. Luckily we got there before dark.


The buoys at Emboodho have been highlighted on this photo

We understand that the official reason for the fencing is protection of the coral from anchoring. However, it that would be the actual reason, then, instead of going through the trouble of putting out all these buoys, they could as well have built a few moorings. A much friendlier approach.

Update 3.

After receiving our outbound clearence in March 2011, we could sum up the final cost of our cruising permit:

Initial permit (incl. agent's fees, tourism fee and 14 days "anchoring fee")
610 USD
Extension of permit (incl. visa extensions for 2 pers. + agents fees)
185 USD
Anchoring fee 23x50 rufia (52 days - 15 free days - 14 days incl. in first permit)
90 USD
Agents fee for arranging clearence out (you can do this yourself, but in Male it is complicated). If checking out in Uligan you don't need to use an agent).
100 USD
Total cost for cruising 52 days
985 USD
Staying the maximum allowed time (90 days) would add 38x4 in anchoring fees and 35 for the second extension of the cruising permit, or an other 187 USD.
1,172 USD

There's no guarantee, of course, that the fees will be the same an other time (see below Update 5). The local currency, Rufia is fixed to the USD (February 2011: 12.85/1).

Update 4.

Things at Kulhuddhufushi had improved when we visited next time in March 2012. They no longer charged for an extra day. The Rufia's exhange rate had also changed: 15.5/1 USD.

Update 5.

(March 2012): We cleared in at Uligan and intend to clear out at Gan when our visa expires in 30 days. The fees for a one month (actually 30 days) cruise are now as follows:

Agency fee
250 USD
Port control permit
13.75 USD
Derating certificate
3.45 USD
Entrance fee
3.45 USD
Customs in & outward clearence
138 USD
Tourism fee
344 USD
"Service charge for cruising permit formalities" (for the agent I guess)
70 USD
Anchoring fee for 15 days ("first 15 days are free")
51.60 USD
Total cost for staying 30 days
874.25 USD

As you can see, the situation is not improving. On the contrary, there are new fees in 2012: the customs clearence of 138 USD. Staying the maximum time in 2012 would have added visa extension costs and anchoring fees, with a total expense in excess of 1,300 USD! Shame on them.

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