Colombo, Jan 9

Even as several social media users in India continued amplifying the “#boycottMaldives” campaign online, amid recent tensions between the neighbours, President Mohamed Muizzu, currently on a five-day state visit to China, urged the Asian giant to reclaim its top spot in tourist arrivals to the island nation. 

Addressing the ‘Invest Maldives’ Forum held in China’s Fujian Province, President Muizzu spoke of his government’s plans to diversify the country’s popular tourism sector and “offer new experiences”. “China was our number one market pre-Covid, and it is my request that we intensify efforts for China to regain this position,” he said, according to a statement issued by the President’s office Tuesday morning. 

In the last two years, Indians topped the Maldives’s tourist arrival charts, followed by Russia and China.  Official figures showed that 2,09,198 Indian tourists visited the Maldives in 2023. However, the recent campaign among many in India asking potential tourists to cancel their plans and bookings has caused concern among some in the Maldives. 

Triggered by three junior ministers’ controversial public positions on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Lakshwadeep, the row could have a serious economic cost for the scenic Indian Ocean archipelago’s crucial tourism industry, they fear. While the Muizzu government suspended the three deputy ministers following their remarks, the controversy escalated with certain online users on both sides sharing hateful content attacking each other’s country and leaders.  

“The Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) strongly condemns the derogatory comments made by some Deputy Ministers on social media platforms, directed towards the Prime Minister of India, His Excellency Narendra Modi as well as the people of India,” the Association said in a statement in Male on Monday. Further, it called India “a significant contributor” to the tourism industry that “greatly assisted” the island nation’s recovery efforts during COVID-19, right after it re-opened its borders. “Since then, India has continued to remain as one of the top markets for the Maldives,” the MATI said, calling for restraint in speech and action “that may have any negative impact on our good relationship”.            

FTA and development partnership 

Meanwhile, President Muizzu in his address said China remains one of “the closest allies and developmental partners of Maldives” and commended the Belt and Road initiative for delivering “significant infrastructure projects” to the Maldives, while stating that his government is keen to “explore [more] partnerships under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative”. 

He said the Free Trade Agreement, signed by the two countries in 2017 — it was the Maldives’s first bilateral FTA with any country — would be swiftly implemented, to “boost” bilateral trade and investments, particularly by increasing the export of fish products to China.

Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s correspondent in Colombo