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Maldives

Executive Summary

The Republic of Maldives comprises 1,190 islands in 20 atolls spread over 348 square miles in the Indian Ocean. Tourism is the main source of economic activity for Maldives, directly contributing close to 30 percent of GDP and generating more than 60 percent of foreign currency earnings. The tourism sector experienced impressive growth, from 655,852 arrivals in 2009 to 1.7 million in 2019, before a steep decline in 2020 resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Tourism began to recover in late 2020 and reached 1.3 million in 2021. This recovery in tourism will likely continue to drive the economy. Following the COVID-19 outbreak, the government re-emphasized the need to diversify, with a focus on the fisheries and agricultural sectors.

GDP growth averaged six percent during the decade through 2019, lifting Maldives to middle-income country status. Per capita GDP is estimated at USD 6,698 in 2020, the highest in South Asia. However, income inequality and a lack of employment opportunities remain a major concern for Maldivians, especially those in isolated atolls. Following the COVID-19 outbreak, GDP fell 33.5% percent in 2020. With the tourism industry’s recovery, GDP grew 31.6 percent in 2021.

Maldives is a multi-party constitutional democracy, but the transition from long-time autocracy to democracy has been challenging. Maldives’ parliament ratified a new constitution in 2008 that provided for the first multi-party presidential elections. In 2018, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party was elected president, running on a platform of economic and political reforms and transparency, following former President Abdulla Yameen whose term in office was marked by corruption, systemic limitations on the independence of parliament and the judiciary, and restrictions on freedom of speech, press, and association. The MDP also won a super majority (65 out of 87) seats in parliamentary elections in April 2019, the first single-party majority in Maldives since 2008. President Solih pledged to restore democratic institutions and the freedom of the press, re-establish the justice system, and protect fundamental rights. Corruption across all sectors, including tourism, was a significant issue under the previous government and remains a concern.

Serious concerns also remain about a small number of violent Maldivian extremists who advocate for attacks against secular Maldivians and may be involved with transnational terrorist groups. In February 2020, attackers stabbed three foreign nationals – two Chinese and one Australian – in several locations in Hulhumalé. ISIS claimed responsibility for an April arson incident on Mahibadhoo Island in Alifu Dhaalu atoll that destroyed eight sea vessels, including one police boat, according to ISIS’ online newsletter al-Naba. There were no injuries or fatalities. Speaker of Parliament and former President Mohamed Nasheed was nearly killed in a May 6, 2021, IED attack motivated by religious extremism. Nasheed sustained life threatening injuries and several members of his security and bystanders were also injured. Nine individuals have been charged in connection with the attack, with one already convicted.

Large scale infrastructure construction in recent years contributed to economic growth but has resulted in a significant rise in debt. The Maldives’ debt-to-GDP ratio increased from 58.5 percent in 2018 to an estimated 61.8 percent in 2019 according to the World Bank (WB); this further increased to 138 percent in 2020 according to the Ministry of Finance (MoF), an increase driven by a sharp drop-off in government revenue.

Maldives welcomes foreign investment, although the ambiguity of codified law and competition from politically influential local businesses act as deterrents. U.S. investment in Maldives has been limited and focused on the tourism sector, particularly hotel franchising and air transportation. In 2021, construction, transportation, fisheries, and renewable energy also benefited from increased FDI.

On December 28, 2020, Maldives submitted an updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) which includes an enhanced ambition of 26 percent decrease in emissions and carbon neutrality by 2030, conditioned on receiving financial, technological, and technical support.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2021 85 of 175 http://www.transparency.org/
research/cpi/overview
Global Innovation Index 2021 N/A https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/
analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2020 N/A https://apps.bea.gov/international/
factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita 2020 $6,490 https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/
NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

3. Legal Regime

4. Industrial Policies

6. Financial Sector

8. Responsible Business Conduct

There is limited but growing awareness of responsible business conduct (RBC) or corporate social responsibility (CSR) among the business elite and tourism resort owners.  All new government leases for tourism resorts contain CSR requirements and individual resorts often implement their own RBC programs.  However, the government does not have a consistent policy or national action plan to promote responsible business conduct. As of March 2022, the Ministry of Economic Development is in the final stages of drafting an Industrial Relations bill and an Occupational Health and Safety bill. Both bills are scheduled to be submitted to Parliament during the first session of 2022.

Several workers’ organizations monitor and advocate for RBC regarding workers’ rights, the most active of which is the Tourism Employees Association of the Maldives (TEAM). Further, many NGOs advocate for RBC in environment-related issues. Civil society organizations (CSOs) often work together to campaign for the introduction of new laws such as an Industrial Relations Law and an Occupational Health and Safety Law. These CSOs can function without harassment from the government, though COVID-related restrictions during the pandemic made conducting their activities difficult.

10. Political and Security Environment

Maldives is a multi-party constitutional democracy, but the transition from long term autocracy to democracy has been challenging.  Maldives gained its independence from Britain in 1965.  For the first 40 years of independence, Maldives was run by President Ibrahim Nasir and then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was elected to six successive terms by single-party referenda.  August 2003 demonstrations forced Gayoom to begin a democratic reform process, leading to the legalization of political parties in 2005, a new constitution in August 2008, and the first multiparty presidential elections later that year, through which Mohamed Nasheed was elected president.

In February 2012 Nasheed resigned under disputed circumstances. President Abdulla Yameen’s tenure, beginning in 2013, was marked by corruption, systemic limitations on the independence of parliament and the judiciary, and restrictions on freedom of speech, press, and association.  Yameen’s tenure was also characterized by increased reliance on PRC-financing for large scale infrastructure projects, which were decided largely under non-transparent circumstances and procedures. External debt rose rapidly during his tenure.

In September 2018, Solih won his campaign for president running on a platform of economic and political reforms and transparency.  His party, the MDP, then won a super majority (65 out of 87) seats in parliamentary elections in April 2019, the first single-party majority since the advent of multi-party democracy.  President Solih pledged to restore democratic institutions and the freedom of the press, re-establish the justice system, and protect fundamental rights.

There is a global threat from terrorism to U.S. citizens and interests.  Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners and “soft targets” such as restaurants, hotels, recreational events, resorts, beaches, maritime facilities, and aircraft.  Concerns have increased about a small number of potentially violent Maldivian extremists who advocate for attacks against secular Maldivians and are involved with transnational terrorist groups.  For more information, travelers may consult the 2020 Country Reports on Terrorism at https://www.state.gov/reports/country-reports-on-terrorism-2020/maldives/.

U.S. citizens traveling to Maldives should be aware of violent attacks and threats made against local media, political parties, and civil society.  In the past there have been killings and violent attacks against secular bloggers and activists. For more information, travelers may consult the State Department’s 2020 Human Rights Report at https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/maldives/ and https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International-Travel-Country-Information-Pages/Maldives.html.

Maldives has a history of political protests. Some of these protests have involved use of anti-Western rhetoric. There are no reports of unrest or demonstrations on the resort islands or at the main Velana International Airport.  Travelers should not engage in political activity in Maldives. Visitors should exercise caution, particularly at night, and should steer clear of demonstrations and spontaneous gatherings.  Those who encounter demonstrations or large crowds should avoid confrontation, remain calm, and depart the area quickly.  While traveling in Maldives, travelers should refer to news sources, check the U.S. Mission to Maldives website and https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International-Travel-Country-Information-Pages/Maldives.html for possible security updates, and remain aware of their surroundings at all times.

The U.S. Mission to Maldives is based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. There are no U.S. diplomatic personnel resident in Maldives, constraining the U.S. government’s ability to provide services to U.S. citizens in an emergency.  Many tourist resorts are several hours’ distance from Malé by boat, necessitating lengthy response times by authorities in case of medical or criminal emergencies. For more information, visit https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International-Travel-Country-Information-Pages/Maldives.html.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

Expatriate labor is allowed into Maldives to meet shortages.  Maldives Immigration reported approximately 200,000 registered expatriate workers in the country in 2019, mostly in tourism, construction, and personal services.  The government reported 63,000 unregistered expatriate migrant workers, but non-governmental sources estimate the number is even higher.  During May 2020, President Solih announced that the government would repatriate unregistered Bangladeshi nationals in the Maldives, following which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Economic Development and the Bangladeshi High Commission collaboratively began a repatriation exercise, with the assistance from the Bangladeshi government. Close to 9,000 unregistered migrant workers were repatriated under the program as of March 2022.

Notwithstanding the labor shortage, unemployment in Maldives is high, as many youths leaving lower secondary school have few in-country avenues to pursue higher secondary education.  Although resorts may offer employment opportunities, locals are less likely to take advantage of these jobs as resort employment practices require employees to live and work on the island for long stretches of time, away from family.  Religious and cultural reasons also discourage women from seeking employment on distant islands.

The Law on Foreign Investments requires Maldivian nationals to be employed unless employment of foreigners is necessary.  See section on “Performance and Data Localization” for more detail.

The 2008 the Employment Act and a subsequent amendment to the Employment Act recognize workers’ right to strike and establish trade unions; however, current law does not adequately govern the formation of trade unions, collective bargaining, and the right to association.  While the constitution provides for workers’ freedom of association, there is no law protecting it, which is required to allow unions to register and operate without interference and discrimination.  As a matter of practice, workers’ organizations are treated as civil society.

A regulation on strikes requires employees to negotiate with the employer first, and if this is unsuccessful, then the employees must file advance notice prior to a strike.  The Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act effectively prohibits strikes by workers in the resort sector, the country’s largest money earner.  Employees in the following services are also prohibited from striking: hospitals and health centers, electricity companies, water providers, telecommunications providers, prison guards, and air traffic controllers.

Maldives became a member of the International Labor Organization in 2008 and has ratified the eight core ILO Conventions.  Maldives has not ratified the four priority governance ILO Conventions.  In 2019, the ILO called on the Government to take the necessary measures to eliminate child labor, including through adopting a national policy and a national action plan to combat child labor in the country. In November 2019, President Solih ratified the Child Rights Protection Act, which prohibits child labor. On August 2020, the government published the General Regulations under the Child Rights Protection Act.

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