Sitting in the Indian Ocean, The Maldives form an archipelago of 1,192 low-lying coral islands in 26 atolls; of these, only 200 are inhabited, with around half designated as private resorts. The capital Malé is crammed onto a tiny island and is a strictly Islamic city. Elsewhere, this is a tropical paradise of white sand beaches fringed by palms, surrounded by coral reefs and sheltered lagoons. The seas swarm with dolphins, whales, and turtles.
The laid-back lifestyle and array of watersports available, from kayaking to scuba diving, combined with the welcoming generosity of the local people, make this country a satisfying and worthwhile choice for volunteers. But a fragile ecosystem badly affected by global warming means that the future is not assured for the low-lying Maldives.
You’ll find many practical volunteering opportunities in The Maldives, from working with disadvantaged families to recording the life cycle of white sharks or introducing new hygiene systems in local hospitals.
Many of the opportunities for volunteering in The Maldives center around the conservation of its fragile ecosystem, and you’re likely to find yourself immersed in the local communities on non-resort islands. There are also social projects available in Malé, the capital city, and on some of the larger islands.
Get the chance to swim alongside endangered white sharks for a month as you research their environment on a conservation project based on Dhigurah in Alif Dhaal Atoll, or help with the rehabilitation of sea turtles on Naifaru in Lhaviyani Atoll. Short volunteering options include two weeks aiding efforts at coral-reef conservation on Hoadedhdhoo in the southern Maldives atoll of Huvadhoo.
If you’re proud of your people skills, spend up to three months teaching local Maldivians to speak English or support disadvantaged youngsters in developing marketable skills to improve their job prospects. If you’re sports mad, work with communities to improve their fitness through sporting programs, and if you’re chasing a medical career back home, volunteer in a local hospital to help improve healthcare standards and hygiene.
If you’re exercise mad, keep fit as you work alongside communities to improve their fitness through sporting programs. And if you’re chasing a medical career back home, volunteer in a local hospital to help raise local standards of healthcare and hygiene.
Working with Youth
Disaffection among Maldivian youth is increasing as unemployment becomes an issue across the islands. Why not support the community at grassroots level by helping disadvantaged youngsters to develop marketable skills and improve their job prospects?
If you want to hone your people skills, spend up to three months teaching local Maldivians to speak English. You’ll find that your local language skills were quickly rocket skywards and you’ll also get satisfaction from knowing you’re helping people to increase their job prospects.
Planning Your Trip
Known the world over for its tropical beauty, The Maldives is a string of 26 low-lying atolls (chains of coral islands) fringed with coral and glass-clear seas. Like any paradise, however, the country comes with issues; its highest point is in Addu Atoll and is a mere eight feet above sea level so it’s extremely vulnerable to climate change. The survival of its spectacular marine life is also an ongoing battle and many volunteer programs involve conservation work.
Where to Volunteer
Volunteering in The Maldives usually means being immersed in nature on beautiful coral islands but these can be remote and spartan in their facilities. However, you’ll have the chance to meet, work, and socialize with the local communities, known for their generosity and open hospitality.
If island life is not for you, head to pocket-sized Malé, the world’s most densely populated capital city, where you’ll find opportunities to volunteer in education, housing development, or community support.
Housing & Accommodation
As a volunteer in The Maldives, your accommodation may be part of the package on your program. Homestays offer you the chance to live with a local family for a full immersion in the country’s famously laid-back culture. While many people speak English, you’ll also find that you pick up the local language, Dhivehi.
You may prefer to house share with other volunteers or pay for private accommodation. Either way, don’t expect too much in the way of luxury; your home is likely to be basic.
Language Requirements & Tips
The local language of Dhivehi is a complex mix of English, Arabic, Sinhalese, Hindi, and Urdu. There are several Dhivehi dialects spoken in The Maldives but, thanks to international tourism, all the main languages such as English, Spanish, and Chinese are widely spoken.
The temperatures are a sunny and tropical 75°F–86°F year-round in The Maldives, so leave your winter coat at home and pack lightweight, loose-fitting cotton clothes, sun cream, and plenty of mosquito repellant. This is a Muslim country, so dress conservatively, and cover up completely when visiting Malé.
Women should be prepared to swim in shorts and t-shirts as a mark of respect to the locals on non-resort islands.
Take US adaptors as electrical sockets in The Maldives are three pointed. The voltage is 220-240 volts, which is higher than in the USA.
Your passport (valid for more than six months), a 30-day visa, and a return ticket are required when entering The Maldives. Forms are provided on your flights and the visas are issued on arrival at the airport.
Wi-Fi coverage now includes all the inhabited islands.
US citizens with valid passports can spend 30 days in The Maldives. If you’re staying for longer, you’ll need to enter the country on a business visa, confirming that you’re a volunteer and which program you are working on. After that, you have the option to extend your visas to 90 days at the immigration department in Malé. The price is US$46. Chances are your program provider will provide the necessary visa, but if you’re going it alone, required paperwork includes a letter confirming your program, a medical report, a valid passport and copies of passport-sized photos, health insurance, and a completed application form.
There’s a departure tax of US$25 per person payable at the airport when you leave The Maldives.
Health & Safety
There’s little to concern volunteers when traveling in The Maldives beyond the strength of the sun and the ocean currents, but it pays to be vigilant at all times.
You’ll not encounter any serious health issues traveling around The Maldives, but it’s recommended that you ‘re up to date with vaccinations including polio, tetanus, typhoid, and hepatitis. Dengue fever is prevalent in the capital city Malé and on several other non-resort islands, so protect yourself against mosquito bites from the time you arrive in the country.
As The Maldives is on the equator, the sun is correspondingly strong, with year-round temperatures around 80°F. Use sunscreen daily (SPF 30 at minimum) and pack sun hats and sunglasses. If you’re fair skinned, snorkel and swim wearing a T-shirt to prevent sunburn while you’re in the water.
Tap water is safe for cleaning teeth and making hot drinks, but on the islands, water is made through desalination and often has a disagreeable taste. Bottled water is better for drinking.
The Maldives is one of the best countries in the world for snorkeling and scuba diving, but please ensure that you don’t step on the coral or break it. Only swim over reefs if you have sufficient depth of water for clearance. And tempting though it may be, don’t touch any of the marine life.
Make sure you have travel insurance before traveling to The Maldives, especially if you’re planning to scuba dive. If you do fall ill or have an accident, you’ll need expensive seaplane or speedboat transport to hospital in Malé.
The Maldives is a generally safe nation underpinned by a strict Muslim faith, but be alert if you’re traveling Malé, where there have been incidents of political unrest. Western women have also been involved in incidents of non-physical harassment. Always dress modestly whenever you’re on non-resort islands – this means everyone should dress by covering your shoulders and legs. And remember that alcohol is illegal in Malé and all non-resort islands, so save your drinking for days off from volunteering, at the resorts.
Away from Malé, The Maldives has a very low crime rate and you shouldn’t have any problems volunteering on the atolls. Petty theft does occur, so don’t leave bags and valuables unattended on the beach while you swim and always use safes or deposit boxes where provided at your accommodation.
The Maldives is in the Indian Ocean and sea currents can be strong. Always follow local advice. If there’s a sign telling you not to swim, don’t go in the water.
Scams to Be Aware Of
While The Maldives is largely crime free, there have been reports of scammers using fraudulent websites offering non-existent live-aboard boats to visitors and collecting their money, leaving them stranded without accommodation when they arrive in the country.