Almost a third of the Maldives’ population of 350,000 are expatriate workers. The vast majority are labourers imported from Bangladesh, but include maids, doctors, teachers and hospitality staff from countries such as India, Sri Lanka and the Phillipines. Western expatriates - usually referred to locally as “foreigners”, make up a minority of the imported workforce and tend to be found mostly in the management rungs of the resort industry.
A registered Maldivian company can apply to the Immigration Department to sponsor a business visa for employees for up to three months, at a cost of Rf 250 (US$16) per month. This can be renewed up to three times, however you are required to leave the country and return on the new visa.
Fully-fledged work permits are more tightly controlled, and require that the company apply to the Labour Department of the Human Resources Ministry for a work permit quota to import foreign employees. That must then be validated with the Immigration Department, and a hefty ‘deportation’ deposit paid along with an annual fee. The size of this deposit depends on the workers' nationality, and can reach thousands of dollars.
It is a good idea to confirm that your employer has your visa arranged, as there have been cases of employees deported or temporarily placed in immigration detention due to mishaps with the paperwork and/or laziness.
Due to an ongoing foreign currency shortage in the local economy, the official exchange rate sits at the maximum of Rf 15.42 to the dollar, with the blackmarket rate 2-3 rufiya higher.
Another symptom of the shortage - and crippling state budget deficit - is that rufiya is not freely convertible to US dollars, even at banks. Unless you have a US dollar account in the country, you will be unable to withdraw dollars - and even then bank tellers are frequently grudging.
Despite the dollar shortage, many local shops and restaurants will still try and exchange at Rf 12.85. You should always ask for the exchange rate before handing over US dollars, and it's ok to whip out your own calculator to do the math before paying the bill.
Tourists are unlikely to need rufiya, as most resorts accept (and prefer) dollars and credit cards. All businesses in the country are legally obliged to both accept and charge in rufiya, but this has not historically been enforced. Due to a sometimes impressively lazy cafe culture, the waiter might ask for your P.I.N. number to complete a transaction. Think twice, and offer to supervise the card swipe.
As an expatriate, it is recommended that you limit your exposure to the rufiya beyond day-to-day expenses, especially if you are based in Male’, where changing rufiya to dollars requires generous friends or blackmarket connections.
Listings are available in daily newspaper Haveeru - classifieds in English are usually targeted at the foreign market, or will read ‘for foreigners’.
Being introduced to a landlord by a mutual acquaintance makes negotiation far easier, and can protect you later.
Quality is highly variable and it is worth shopping around. Anything expressly targeted at professional expat staff is usually decent - but comes with a price to match.
Most bedrooms are en suite.
Most landlords will try to charge foreigners rent in dollars - especially if the accommodation is marketed as “for foreigner”. This is technically illegal and against currency regulations, although you are unlikely to be able to argue the point. Just be aware that your rent is then at the mercy of future exchange rate fluctuations.
Rental deposits are frequently demanded at up to six months, but can (and should) be haggled down.
Apartments on nearby ‘suburb’ islands such as Villingili and Hulhumale are far cheaper, larger, and by all accounts, nicer environments in which to live compared to the bustle of Male’. Regular ferries take 5 mins (Villingili) and 15 (Hulhumale) to connect with Male’. However they can feel very isolating, particularly if you are alone.
Villingili is tiny and has more of a local island flavour, while Hulhumale has more of a social vibe, plenty of space and greenery, and a beach (with a strict no-bikini dress code).
Tenants have little legal protection under Maldivian law. All in all, you are far better off letting your employer worry about the whole thing.
A smattering of Dhivehi can break the ice - or at least tip you off as to when you’re being gossiped about. Even then, it's sometimes best not to know.
Tuna - tinned and fresh - is a local staple and some of the best in the world, and a huge chunk of fresh yellowfin capable of feeding several people can be bought for the equivalent of just several dollars. The fish market located to the west of Republic Square is the place to get fresh fish, and for a few rufiya extra it will be expertly gutted and scaled. It gets busiest around 4:00pm on weekdays.
Finding fresh vegetables is a mission. The variety of locally-grown produce is limited and freshness highly variable, even at the local vegetable market (the fenced in area near the fish market). The Seagull store, located on the tourist strip next to the restaurant on the same name, sells a variety of hydroponic lettuces, tomatos and herbs grown on a nearby island. Brown bread and savoury (rather than sweet) biscuits are also a challenge, for some reason.
Local supermarkets include two branches of the Agora department store, and a large shop run by the State Trading Organisation (STO), which imports many of the country's commodities and sells them wholesale. Many of the items purchasable in the STO are available in many cornerstores. There is a new Western-style supermarket, Fantasy, but it has a repuation for been exceedingly expensive - don't expect much change from US$12 for a box of cereal.
You can eat out relatively cheaply, once you know your way round Male's restaurants, especially if you are comfortable with curries and Maldivian cusine.
A word of warning - foreign females report receiving incessant phone calls and texting from young men once their number ‘enters circulation’, and ‘reloading’ is a prime way to fall foul of this as it requires revealing your phone number. In one incident, the number of a British expat was obtained and auctioned off to the young men of a local island by no less than the island chieftain himself. Stick to recharge cards if you want to avoid this.
Getting a mobile contract requires a hefty deposit as a foreigner. It is much easier to ask a friendly Maldivian to either endorse you or apply for the contract in your name, in exchange for a coffee or two.
Wataniya recently introduced the Blackberry service to the Maldives.
Focus Infocom offers broadband under the ‘Raajje Online’ (ROL) brand, delivering it through cable service. The company also offers a new, extremely fast fibre-to-the-home service, but the install cost is pricey.
Many expats - and locals - opt for mobile broadband via dongle. Prices are much more competitive, as both Dhiraagu and Wataniya compete for the market, but download limits are meagre if you’re a heavy internet user.
Callers will rarely identify themselves unless prompted, or even offer a greeting, expecting that you will have already identified them via caller ID.
Most switchboards outside the resort industry are customarily staffed by a timidly-voiced young lady with poor English, who will hang up in panic the moment you even slightly confuse her.
There is also no compulsion to answer the phone - this even applies to government ministries and official spokespeople. Indeed, until you have actually met and exchanged numbers with somebody, don’t expect them to answer at all - and then, only if they like you.
On the other hand, phone numbers are readily shared and text messaging is widely practiced, from Ministers down. Texting is much more likely to receive a response - as are, inexplicably, calls from landlines.
Standards vary wildly and there is no concept of medical malpractice. For anything serious, you are advised to escape to Sri Lanka, India or Singapore. Don't leave home without travel insurance.
Nearly every resort has a resident doctor, or at least a nurse capable of dealing with assorted traumas. The country’s two decompression chambers for diving accidents are located at Bandos near Male’, and Kuramathi.
Beyond general low-level harassment and catcalls from bored teenagers, foreign women should feel comfortable walking around the city until late in the evening, although the constant drone of propositions does tend to put them on the defensive.
Several nearby resorts also welcome expats for the evening/day visits, although this is irregular, must be prearranged and transfers can be steep. The cunning expat can dodge transfers by enquiring about a hotel’s regular (and free) staff transfers from Male’ - just don’t miss the last one and get stuck on the island.
There is no licensing system for foreigners to use either commodity, as in most other Islamic countries. A system did exist, but it was phased out in favour of licensing the service of alcohol in hotels with more than 100 beds. However anti-liquor riots in February 2010 put paid to that, forcing the government to withdraw the new regulations, and leaving the matter in sober limbo.
Alcohol is available on the blackmarket, but the prices are extortionate (think Rf 1800 / US$160 for a bottle of Smirnoff vodka) and absolutely not worth bothering with.
Police are surprisingly tolerant of clueless foreign drunks found to staggering around after a session at a resort or the airport hotel, and are more likely to offer a lift home than to throw them in a cell. However, possession of liquor will be treated as crime.
8pm-11pm is peak shopping time and the streets become very congested. The dress code also noticeably becomes more casual, particularly among young people.
In the professional sphere the pageantry of suits and ties is highly competitive, but foreigners are allowed a little more liberty given their propensity to sweat bucketloads in the tropical heat.
Men have somewhat more liberty to strip off and go swimming wearing trunks, but women are expected to go in fully clothed. Bikinis will get you arrested - usually after a thorough visual investigation. For more, check out some of our Travel Tips.