I was supposed to be at the start of the trip of a lifetime. Instead, I was sitting on a metal bench, sobbing, having just been rejected by Maldives’ airport customs officers…for the second time.
Let’s back up to before I was put on the Maldives' "never let this girl into our country" list. As a writer and photographer for TripAdvisor and Oyster.com, my plan was to visit 25 hotels throughout the drop-dead-gorgeous Maldives over a three-week span; I would be photographing the resorts (free of charge for the properties) and later writing comprehensive reviews.
So a few days before my epic sob session, I boarded a flight traveling from New York City to the Maldives, with a layover in Dubai -- a 20-hour excursion. After watching three movies, reading several chapters of my book, and eating more airplane food than necessary, I began to fill out the requisite customs forms. Thinking nothing of it (and of course wanting to be fully within the law -- and assuming I was), I marked that I was there for business, while my boyfriend (who would be accompanying me for the first week) marked he was on holiday.
Hotels in this story
Arrival to the Maldives
We landed, and shuffled through the overhead for our jostled luggage. I couldn’t help but smile (we made it! I was in the Maldives!) as we walked along the tarmac and into the small airport where several customs officers were ready to stamp our passports. After we handed them over, along with customs papers, the attendant asked what business I was planning on doing and I explained. He then called over his boss, who walked off with my information to make a call. Several minutes later, he returned to say, “No, you can’t come in.” Then turning to my boyfriend, “Would you still like to enter?”
As I legitimately started to faint, the officer not-so-clearly “explained” that foreign photographers were not allowed in the country; I would later learn this new law was placed into effect just a few months before my visit. Despite that the photoshoots were free and I wouldn’t be paid by the hotels for it, I still wasn’t allowed.
While I sat crying, not able to get in touch with my boss since it was 6 a.m. in NYC, my boyfriend began to speak with the officers about what our options were. The officer said that we would have to leave, but if we came back in four to five days and said we were there on holiday, we’d be let in. Both relieved and apprehensive, we booked a flight back to Dubai to wait out our “suspension.”
Second Time's a Charm?
During the five hours we had until our flight to Dubai, we checked out the three restaurants — one of which was Burger King — and, more importantly, found an Emirates rep who spoke with a different customs officer who in turn confirmed that, if we came back in a few days under a tourist visa, we would be admitted. It felt a bit odd that the same people who said we couldn’t enter would be quick to say we could skirt the rules and return as tourists, but we were happy to receive good news. Finally, after a four-hour flight, we landed in Dubai at midnight and promptly passed out at our hotel — having not slept a wink since leaving New York.
Now, based off my lede, you know the story doesn’t have a happy ending — at least in regards to the Maldives. Four days later, we flew to the Maldives again — this time through Doha, Qatar — and marked my customs form as traveling on holiday. Well, we were flagged in their system and started to receive the third degree from a different head officer. I attempted to explain it was a misunderstanding last time and that I would not be working on the trip.
“Where are you staying?”
“Show me the confirmation!”
“You know if you’re caught working, you’ll receive a fine.”
“Go get your stuff! We’ll see if you’re carrying camera equipment.”
Sure, he was doing his job, but you’d think I had been caught with a weapon and not a DSLR camera. Long story short, I was rejected — again. A part of me had been preparing for that outcome all along, but I was still back on that bench in tears.
The officer wouldn’t even listen to me and turned his head when I tried to talk to him, but he would talk to my boyfriend. He said we could either book a flight out of the country immediately, or we could spend the night in their airport jail cell; for obvious reasons, we chose the former. My plan all along was to fly to Sri Lanka after the Maldives, so we decided it was the best course of action.
While I understand that the customs officials were only following orders, it all seems like a poor decision on their part for economic reasons. The largest economic industry in the Maldives is tourism, and I would be promoting tourism for the country through the largest travel company in the world. Note that when my colleague visited in 2014, she easily entered after telling them exactly what she was there for.
The Motivation for Banning Foreign Photographers
A Maldives online paper, the Sun Online, recently posted an article stating that a Ministry of Economic Affairs employee in the Maldives claimed he had received numerous complaints about foreign photographers and “that banning foreign photographers from working in Maldives was directly beneficial to the Maldivian youth.”
In a country of under 350,000, it’s hard to estimate how many Maldivian youths dream of becoming a travel photographer, but I at least hope that those who do are benefiting from this new law.
Still, even now (two-and-a-half months later), thinking about the trip gives me a gut-wrenching feeling that makes me want to curl up in a ball. Even if a future me wanted to take a trip to the Maldives for vacation, I’m too terrified of spending another six depressing hours in that airport after being turned away. Let’s just say, I’ll likely be choosing Bora Bora or Moorea for my overwater-bungalow fix.
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