We visited India and the Maldives (wikipedia, flickr) over the 2009 winter holiday.
The idea was to visit family in India for a few days, relax in the Maldives for five days, and then return to India for a few days of last minute scurrying around before finally returning to the United States.
The first part of our trip started off as busy and delightful as could be expected. We flew into Bombay from the US, ran around town visiting family and shopping for a few days and then flew to South India to do more of the same.
Our plan was to leave from Chennai (in the South), connect in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and then carry onwards to Male, the capital of the Maldives. After reaching Male, we still needed to take a sea plane in order to reach the Noonu Atoll where our resort is located.
While attempting to clear the Immigrations section of the Chennai airport so that we could travel to the Maldives we were informed that there was a change in the rules that governs multiple entries into India:
Irrespective of foreign nationality or visa type, one is no longer allowed more than one entry into India within a two month period.
That means that we could not return to India after leaving for the Maldives. We were stunned. Our plans that were made many months in advance were on the verge of being ruined.
The change to the rules was made in November 2009 just a month before we arrived in India. I have been flying to India since I was 6 years old on multiple entry visas. There’s no way we would have known about the change by the Indian government — we would only learn of the change by surprise. What’s worse, as is typical of confident lacking bureaucratic governments, is that they retracted the rule for a week before reinstating it again.
We left considerable amounts of luggage with our hotel in Bombay. We still had purchases that needed to be retrieved. We had return tickets booked from Bombay back to the States. We have had hotels booked in the Maldives for months.
The only way to return to India would be to get the permission of the Indian High Commissioner in the Maldives. And then we would need to register with the FRRO. The FRRO is a place where historically only certain foreign nationals deemed potentially hostile to India need to register after arriving.
The rules changed thanks to David Headley. He is an American national with (partial) Pakistani descent accused of surveying targets in India for potential attacks. His surveillance in Bombay lead to the Indian Hotel and Railway attacks of November 27, 2008 where hundreds of people were killed and injured by Pakistani terrorists.
Headley was using a multiple entry Indian visa on a US passport. He apparently frequently left and returned to India under the guise of business that we was conducting.
So the Indian government, in a classic knee-jerk move, decided that all people with multiple entry visas were no longer able to enter India more than once within a two month period. It’s not going to keep the terrorists out — they’ll just find a workaround. All it will do is punish the honest folks who genuinely need to travel to India more than once within a two month period. And it will only serve to increase the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Indian system of writing everything down — found frequently throughout government institutions and elsewhere. Much of the country still operates using very manual processes.
To hell with it. We were going to try our luck. We deserved a vacation and damn it — we were going to carry on with our plans as originally intended.
We left Chennai to continue onward to the Maldives. We reached the Noonu Atoll and instantly began to worry. Here we were on one of the most beautiful places on earth and we were now worried about if we could leave.
We called the US Embassy in India about the matter as soon as we arrived. I explained that we were Americans and the situation was rather dire. The kind woman there was nothing she nor the US government could do for this is the policy of India.
The Indian High Commissioner in Male was closed that day because of an Indian holiday (of which there are many). We would have to wait until the next day to contact them.
We decided to engage the resort management, explain the situation, and solicit help to get the permission of the Indian High Commissioner in the Maldives. This certainly proved to be the right move in the end.
The Hilton Maldives management mobilized a small team of people to get the right forms and documents from Male. All this needed to be sent via sea plane back to the island where the hotel was located.
The High Commissioner in the Maldives initially told us that they would not be able to give permission for re-entry to India in time based on our return trip. We literally might be stuck in the most beautiful place on earth. Well, we would be stuck there until we bought return tickets to the US. But the former assertion was certainly more dramatic.
We got the right forms from Male. The hotel staff, on a remote atoll somewhere out in the Indian ocean, managed to get 5 sets of passport photos each made on an island where there were no cars to be found. This was all sent back to Male via sea plane to the High Commissioner along with our passports. They would try to get us permission to return to India. And if they did, a hotel employee in Male would hand all of this including our passports back to us after we arrived Male to return to India.
High drama. Again, there was total uncertainty of whether we would get permission or not. Until that morning before we left the Noonu Atoll when a senior member of the Hilton staff informed us that all was well. Our permission papers and passports were waiting for us back in Male. So it was okay. But our entire trip to the Maldives was spent worrying as to whether or not we could even leave to return to India.
We returned to India and immediately began the process of registering with the FRRO office in Bombay. Thankfully it was open on New Year’s Day. Certainly it would not have been opened on a Saturday, the evening that we were leaving to return to the US. The FRRO office was located in South Bombay — quite a distance from where we were staying in Juhu.
When we asked our driver to take us there he questioned what our nationalities were — asking where we were from and why we had to register there. Typically only Pakistanis, Afghanis, Iraqis, and other such nationals have to register with the FRRO in India. Americans have never been under any such mandate to register under normal circumstances.
Bright and early in the morning, we were now in the FRRO office in Bombay along with other compatriots caught in the same illogical rules. A group of Indian Americans had visited Bali using India as a base. Some Canadians were visiting the Seychelles and were also flying in and out of India — almost certainly to see family just as we had planned. But then there were also Pakistanis and others deemed potentially hostile to India waiting to register because of the nature of their nationality, etc.
A few hours after of registering and then waiting at the FRRO, we were instructed to leave and return after 2:00PM. Incidentally, the FRRO office is not far from The Taj hotel, one of the sites that was held at siege by Pakistani militants. While we were in the area we decided to visit the hotel. And in a way, I was able pay respect to the people who lost their lives there. It felt very strange walking the exact same halls that the militants walked.
We returned to the FRRO office, sat for some questioning individually, more forms were filled out manually, documents were authorized with by multiple signature from seemingly different levels of management. And we were free to go.
Lesson learned for travelers: don’t plan on visiting India more than one time within a two month period. If you need to do so have specific permission from the Indian embassy where you live.
Lesson learned for countries: knee-jerk reactions won’t stop terrorism. And terrorists certainly won’t take the time to register with the FRRO.
And thanks really goes to the Hilton Maldives staff that rescued us. Actually, it was on particular employee, Dean, that really helped drive this forward to completion for us. I have had hotels give me great service on some occasions, but never have I had a hotel prevent me from being detained in a foreign country.