Bask under the golden sun, build castles in the sand, swim in the crystal clear waters or gaze at the picturesque strokes of a bright sunset while lazing at a captivating beach is how anyone would visualize the Maldives.
Been a member of the Couchsurfing community since 2013, I have had the pleasure of surfing in Singapore, participating in CS meetups in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and meeting locals in Bangalore and Goa. I have always enjoyed it, loved the platform about how it really connects people. For a moment I never imagined such a wonderful hospitality exchange and its unfavorable effects for Couchsurfers coming to the Maldives – reality was far from my expectations.
One Saturday afternoon, two years ago, it was a half-day at work when I received an unexpected call from the border control agents at the airport, I was asked to come to the airport to answer a few questions with regard to two Chinese nationals who arrived early the same day, one of whom arrived directly from China with Mega Maldives airlines, and the other from India with Air India.
I rushed to the airport jetty and took the earliest possible ferry to the airport, the two Chinese nationals were my guests, I agreed to host them at my home as Couchsurfers. Upon arriving at the airport, I was escorted to the local immigration office where I was questioned by two immigration officials about the two Chinese nationals. I was asked about previous visits from travelers who were from different other nationalities, and why they were entering the country as tourists and staying at my home. I explained them about the concept of Couchsurfing and how the platform works, one them was familiar with it but he explained me a few complications; while a thirty day free visa is issued on arrival for all Nationalities arriving Maldives subjected for the tourist(s) to posses a valid passport and; a valid air-ticket to continue the journey out of Maldives and; sufficient funds to cover expenses for duration of stay in Maldives. (US$100 + $50 dollars per day) or a confirmation of reservation in a tourist resort, guest-house or a hotel.
The problem seemed to be that, while such travelers/Couchsurfers indicate holiday as their purpose of stay in Maldives and provide a native’s house address as the place of stay, while filling up the arrival/immigration forms, the situation takes a surprising turn when the Immigration officer finds it difficult to decide whether to grant the traveler a tourist visa or a sponsored visa.
While the immigration authorities have in place a set of policies and procedures for travelers arriving Maldives to visit a friend, the native or local with whom the traveler is staying in Maldives is required to file and provide the sponsorship letter and formal requirements to the Maldives Immigration prior to the arrival of the traveler, which seems a bit of a challenge for a local seeking to host and offer hospitality to a foreign national or Couchsurfer visiting the Maldives.
The immigration officials only allowed my friends to leave to Malé with me after they booked their stay at a guest-house accommodation and produced the confirmation voucher. The Immigration officials told me that the Border Control System (BCS) in the country is gifted by the U.S government since Maldives cannot afford its own, hence every time a traveler provides my name and address, I was potentially building a profile of myself in a system for a country that is placed on Tier 2 Watch List for the vulnerability to human trafficking and labor exploitation. The immigration officials also advised me to inform my hospitality exchange friends not to write my name or address in the arrival or immigration forms in the future to prevent such inconvenience.
I don’t know how to judge these border control policies and procedures, but they are very contradicting of one another. What do you think?