New Delhi- Male row: will Maldivian tourism suffer a blow India News Network 09 Jan 2024
The recent Maldives fiasco displayed strong Indian nationalism, the likes of which have not been seen in recent times. It commenced with PM Modi’s visit to Lakshadweep, during which he tweeted photographs of his walk on the beach, mentioning, ‘I am still in awe of the stunning beauty of its islands and the incredible warmth of its people. I thank the people of the islands for their hospitality.’ After snorkelling, he tweeted, ‘For those who wish to embrace the adventurer in them, Lakshadweep has to be on your list.’
His visit to Lakshadweep coincided with increased tensions with Maldives with its President, Mohamed Muizzu, who won his elections on an ‘India out’ campaign, insisting on return of unarmed Indian air force staff currently located in the island country, to maintain and fly Indian gifted air assets. To add insult, Muizzu made his initial visits to Turkey and China, ignoring India, which has historically been the first port of call by a Maldivian head of state.
The Indian public read between the lines that PM Modi was projecting Lakshadweep as an alternative to Maldives for tourism, after all, there is little distance between the two and the topography is also similar. Indian tourists are the largest numbers visiting Maldives annually, boosting their economy which survives on tourism. According to data from the Maldives tourism ministry, in 2023 alone, over 2 Lakhs Indian tourists visited Maldives following which was Russia and China.
PM Modi’s photographs of his visit to Lakshadweep, at the time of an ongoing diplomatic feud caused panic in Maldives. Maldivians also felt that PM Modi was discouraging Indian tourists from visiting their country. A few Maldivian junior ministers responded by insulting the PM on X (formerly Twitter) as also commenting on Indians and India’s tourist infrastructure. These tweets were subsequently deleted, but damage had been done.
Comments by members of the Maldivian government displayed thoughtlessness for a nation which has stood by them through history. Apart from being the first to recognize Maldives in 1965, India has supported it with aid through the years. It provided COVID vaccines on priority to enable Maldives tourist establishments to continue operations, moved 2000 tonnes of water when its salination plant caught fire and was the first responder when terrorists attempted to seize power in Male as also when the tsunami struck.
As per the MEA, under a bilateral agreement, India provides essential food items like rice, wheat flour, sugar, dal, onion, potatoes, eggs and construction material such as sand and stone aggregate to Maldives on favourable terms. India is also funding developmental projects as also providing it a line of credit. Maldivians receive medical treatment in India as also educational scholarships. Possibly Maldivians took Indian support for granted.
The fact is that India is their nearest neighbour, without whose support Maldives would find it difficult to survive. President Muizzu initially tweeted an apology which he subsequently deleted. Its former President, Mohamed Nasheed, who is pro-India, tweeted, ‘What appalling language by Maldives government official Mariyam Shiuna towards the leader of a key ally, that is instrumental for Maldives’ security and prosperity.’
Immediately thereafter, the Male government issued a statement mentioning, ‘The government of Maldives is aware of derogatory remarks on social media platforms against foreign leaders and high-ranking individuals. These opinions are personal and do not represent the views of the government of Maldives.’ The Maldives government acted by suspending those who tweeted against PM Modi, pending an inquiry.
The insult to a PM was unacceptable to most Indians. Indian social media influencers including film stars and sports personalities began tweeting on visiting tourist sites in India in lieu of Maldives. There were reports of Indians cancelling holiday plans in Maldives. Ease My Trip, an online travel solution provider, with an 8% market share announced it would suspend all Maldives flight bookings.
Its co-founder and CEO of the company Nishant Pitti tweeted, ‘In solidarity with our nation, @EaseMyTrip has suspended all Maldives flight bookings.’ Raj Rishi Singh, Chief Marketing and Business Officer, MakeMyTrip mentioned, ‘Lakshadweep has seen a remarkable 3400% increase in on-platform searches ever since PM’s visit.’ The company began providing favourable deals and discounts for those seeking to visit Indian beaches and tourist destinations.
Initially the Indian government did not respond to criticism by Maldivian ministers. However, rising nationalism and strong counter comments by the Indian community on social media criticizing Maldives resulted in the Indian External Affairs Ministry summoning the Maldivian Ambassador and conveying its displeasure. As with the Canadian High Commissioner, the Maldivian Ambassador spent under five minutes in the MEA.
Without the government intervening formally, the Indian nation has displayed its strength and power by joining hands to reduce inflow of tourists to Maldives. The ex-Maldivian sports minister, Ahmed Mahloof, understood the impact of the ‘boycott Maldives campaign and stated that it would have a huge impact on the Maldivian economy. He mentioned, ‘it would be hard to recover from such a campaign.’
While those with immediate bookings may not join the bandwagon, many who had planned in advance and have yet to make payment would choose alternate destinations. The impact will be felt by Maldives within a short time. The Indian Association of Tour Operators predicts that repercussions of recent events and the call for boycott will become apparent within the next 20-25 days.
Maldives may have been attempting to exploit the ongoing cold war between India and China, hoping to gain from both, but it failed to realize that India is the only nation which can keep the Chinese at bay. Further, ignoring its nearest neighbour, which has always been there to support it, would harm Maldives more than India. There is no doubt that Maldives strategic location is important to India but more than that is Indian prestige and nationalism on which Indians are currently priding themselves on.
Indians have stood together to prove to the world that Indian nationalism is there to stay and PM Modi remains the world’s most popular leader. Any nation insulting the PM will face the wrath of the Indian community.