On Sunday 23rd of September, voters in the Maldives head to the polls in a contentious election. Whatever the outcome, there is a chance of protests and the declaration of a state of emergency.

We pulled together travel advice and information for people who are in or who are headed to the islands in the coming days and weeks.

What is going on?

Political upheaval at the start of 2018 resulted in the authorities imposing a state of emergency for 45 days. This move has been seen as part of a wider attempt by President Yameen to consolidate his power. This piece we wrote back in the spring explains how his political rival was forced into exile, and how the authorities arrested two senior judges and stifled opposition.

There have been multiple accusations that this election – the nation’s third multiparty presidential election – is unfair. The government of current President Yameen has been accused of ‘crushing dissent, corruption and jailing electoral opponents on flimsy grounds.’

The Human Rights Watch director for South Asia, Meenakshi Ganguly, said: “There are serious concerns that President Yameen wants to cling to power by any means, whether by getting rid of the competition in politically motivated criminal cases, by locking up anyone who comes in the way, even judges, or by interfering in the election process itself.”

There has been no polling, so it is difficult to project the outcome of the vote. If the results are disputed, people may return to the streets of the capital to protest. While President Yameen has so far been backed by China and Saudia Arabia, but the EU and US has raised the possibility of sanctions if the election is ‘not free and fair.’

Election monitors from the European Union declined an invitation to oversee the elections ‘fearing they might be used as a tacit endorsement to Yameen if there are voting irregularities.’ There will be local election monitors, but changes to the rules have made their role more challenging.

What might happen

If President Yameen wins the election, protests are likely. It is unclear whether this would impact the international airport and the resort islands. Based on previous demonstrations, the authorities would likely respond to protests with tear gas and an increased security presence.

If President Yameen loses, he is not expected to leave gracefully. Experts expect him to declare a state of emergency and to use his powers to either extend his term or to nullify the election results.

What travellers should know

The good news for tourists is that the government has a vested interest in maintaining the tourism sector, and security on tourist islands will be a priority. There have been no reports of unrest impacting Ibrahim Nasir International Airport or the resort areas to date. However, this is no guarantee that protests will not happen in resort areas following this election.

We would strongly urge you to reconsider any excursions or trips to Malé. The capital was the centre of protests in the spring, and police responded to those and subsequent demonstrations with tear gas.

What you should do

There are links to government travel advice below that contains further information.

  • Talk to your travel agent, tour operator and/or staff at your hotel to discuss the situation and find out what you should do in a case of protests.
  • You should avoid demonstrations, large crowds of people and public events.
  • Review your travel risk management plan, so you know what to do in an emergency.
  • Make sure you have the contact information of your travel insurance company and your local embassy stored in a secure offline location.
  • Monitor local media.
  • If possible, set aside some supplies of food and bottled water.
  • Keep your devices charged.
  • Check in with friends and family.
  • If something does happen, contact the local embassy as soon as it is safe to do so.

While the political situation is in the headlines, one of the biggest issues facing visitors to the Maldives is its geographic remoteness. We have further information and advice on this from Global Rescue below.

Government travel advice

Links to travel advice on visiting Maldives from the following governments –

Please note that the travel advice varies – it is worth reading them all and reaching your own conclusion. Please also note that there are other risks to travellers beyond what is mentioned in this post. This includes terror attacks. There is a possibility terrorists could exploit the disarray after the election and use this time to launch a terror attack. 

Further travel advice

In March we asked experts from a couple of companies if it is safe to visit the Maldives. The following extracts are from Global Rescue’s response, and are still relevant today.

The significant effect of the current political situation that is mostly likely to affect travelers is the heightened presence of police, soldiers, and other security personnel nationwide. Authorities have erected checkpoints and may be more aggressive in demanding travelers’ passports and papers for verification. Travelers visiting areas outside of traditional tourist spots may face extra scrutiny, particularly if they are suspected of being foreign journalists. While there is a risk of encountering protests or clashes between opposition demonstrators and police, episodes of violent unrest have largely occurred away from tourist hotspots.

An often overlooked risk is that the Maldives’ remote location can make legal, security, and medical response difficult to access and expensive without the help of a facilitator like Global Recue. There are no US, UK, or Australian diplomatic missions in the Maldives, necessitating that travelers contact the embassy in Sri Lanka for assistance. The lack of consular and diplomatic services can delay response time in the event that travelers run into trouble with local authorities—a risk that’s elevated by the recent state of emergency that gives the police broad powers of arrest.

The recent unrest surrounding the measure has also sparked concerns about the cost and feasibility of a security evacuation from the Maldives in the event that the security environment devolves to the point where it’s unsafe to present in the country as a foreigner. Evacuation service providers that cover the cost of repatriation are a great investment for travelers to restive countries, particularly those as remote as the Maldives. Medical care and facilities are limited in the Maldives, and serious medical problems will require evacuation to the nearest qualified medical facility, often in Singapore. Two hospitals are located in Malé, and they do offer adequate services for routine medical problems. However, intensive care unit (ICU) capabilities are limited in these hospitals and they are located several hours away from the resort islands.

Sources and headlines

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