Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Will India and Maldives Weather the Stormy Seas?

The island-nation, once ruled by the Cholas and that shares cultural ties with India, is in the eye of a storm following derogatory remarks against PM Narendra Modi

Published: Jan 10, 2024 02:36:02 PM IST
Updated: Jan 10, 2024 02:44:30 PM IST

Will India and Maldives Weather the Stormy Seas?India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a beach in Lakshadweep. Image: @NARENDRAMODI/X

Imagine sinking your toes into the powdery white sand, feeling the gentle caress of turquoise waves as the sun warms your face. This was, and still is, the magic of the Laccadive-Chagos ridge—1,200 islands strung like pearls across 19 atoll tapestries in the Indian Ocean.  

Back in the 10th century, the Chola Empire under Raja Raja Chola I ruled many of these islands, including the Lakshadweep and the Maldives. The Chola stood as pioneering tourists, venturing into the expanses of the Indian Ocean, revelling in the seclusion of these far-untouched islands. Their kingly odyssey resonated through the ages, transforming remote escapades into a pursuit of trade and leisure. Over the past few decades, these trade hubs evolved into an Instagram-worthy scene of blue lagoons, pink-hued sunsets, coral reefs, and luxurious indulgence at the water villas.

The landscape of travel itself has undergone a dramatic shift post-Covid, with a widespread desire for exploration evident across the globe. India, in particular, has witnessed a surge in the number of travellers. As per CEIC data reported by the ministry of tourism, within India itself, the number of tourists has grown to 173.1 crore in 2022 from 67.76 crores in 2021. When it comes to global travel within Asia, the tie between India and its bordering neighbours surpasses mere geographic closeness; it's a narrative steeped in cultural harmony. Consider, for example, the Maldives, where the roots of the Maldivian language, Dhivehi, can be traced back to Sanskrit and Pali—shared origins it holds with numerous languages spoken in southern India.

As per the World Bank, tourism stands as the largest sector within the Maldivian economy, contributing to over one-third of its gross domestic product (GDP), with the highest influx of visitors originating from India and Russia. According to the Maldives tourism ministry statistics, over 209,000 Indians explored the island nation in 2023. The previous year recorded over 240,000 visitors, while in 2021, more than 211,000 Indians travelled to the Maldives.

In recent years, the Maldivian government has expressed its gratitude towards India for permitting Maldivians to travel to India for medical reasons during the pandemic, a privilege denied by other countries. It has also highlighted various other forms of assistance. These include India's support during critical events such as thwarting a coup in November 1988, aiding in the recovery following the devastating tsunami in December 2004, and addressing recent challenges like shortages of drinking water. The government emphasises that these instances stand as evidence of India's generosity and goodwill towards the Maldives.

Also read: Explained: The India-Maldives controversy

However, recent developments following the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Lakshadweep islands to promote tourism have sent ripples through this relationship. As per the CEIC, Lakshadweep had reported 22,800 tourists in 2022—this was an increase from the 13,500 in 2021. The numbers appear comparatively lower due to the stringent entry requirements. To set foot on these islands, an entry permit sanctioned by the Lakshadweep Administration is mandatory. This is implemented to safeguard the islands' rich natural habitat and ecological balance. 

Will India and Maldives Weather the Stormy Seas?Bangaram island lakshadweep. Image: Shutterstock

Obtaining an entry permit involves acquiring a clearance certificate from the local police station. If you're on a guided tour, the tour operator typically handles these procedures, while your friends can manage the paperwork if you are visiting them. However, irrespective of the purpose, access to the islands is contingent on completing this process unless one holds residency or a valid work permit. Additionally, in contrast to other Indian states, a trip to Lakshadweep is relatively expensive, averaging between Rs 50,000 to 60,000 per person, including airfare. Notably, Lakshadweep has garnered considerable interest following Modi's recent visit to the island, with MakeMyTrip noting a remarkable 3,400 percent surge in on-platform searches. Similarly, Ixigo experienced a surge of 2,900 percent in travel search queries for the island.

However, Modi’s visit raised concerns among some Maldivian ministers, perceiving it as an effort to divert tourists away from their country, which is heavily reliant on its tourism-driven economy. Abdulla Mahzoom Majid, Malsha Shareef, and Mariyam Shiuna, employed in the Maldives' ministry of youth empowerment, information, and arts, respectively, referred to Modi as a "terrorist", “puppet of Israel”, and a "clown" in their social media remarks. In India, a considerable number of people have pledged to boycott travel to the Maldives in response to these comments, which were condemned by former Maldivian Prime Minister Mohamed Solih as "hateful". 

“Sorry Maldives, I have my own Lakshadweep. I am Aatmanirbhar,” wrote Akshit Singh who cancelled his trip right after the derogatory remarks against Modi were posted on X.

India's foreign ministry has summoned the Maldivian envoy on Monday following the disparaging remarks. Maldives, on the other hand, has suspended the ministers and its foreign ministry has clarified that these comments, later deleted, were made in a personal capacity and did not reflect the official stance of the government. “The government believes that the freedom of expression should be exercised in a democratic and responsible manner, and in ways that do not spread hatred, negativity, and hinder close relationships between the Maldives and international partners,” the Maldives government said in a statement.

The relationship between India and the Maldives has grown more turbulent following the election of Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu in September, who won the elections on an ‘India Out’ campaign. President Muizzu is perceived to have fostered stronger ties with China and ran a campaign centred on reducing India's influence over the archipelago. He pledged to diminish Indian presence, including the withdrawal of numerous Indian army personnel stationed there. While Muizzu has embarked on a five-day visit to China this week, he has yet to conduct an official visit to India since assuming office—a departure from prior norms that many interpret as a slight. This absence of an official visit is likely to be viewed unfavourably in Delhi, which regards the strategically-positioned Maldives as crucial in countering China's growing influence in the Indian Ocean region.

Will India and Maldives Weather the Stormy Seas? Tropical aerial seascape with jetty, water bungalows villas at sea lagoon beach in Maldives paradise island. Image: Shutterstock

Reportedly, more than 8,000 hotel bookings and 2,500 flight bookings to the Maldives have been cancelled following the derogatory remarks made by the Maldivian ministers about Modi. Prashant Pitti, the co-founder and executive director of EaseMyTrip, announced an indefinite suspension of bookings to the Maldives following the social media posts. In an official statement by Pitti to the media, he said, “We decided to take this step because any self-respecting nation should do this. The statements which we heard from the representatives of the Maldives government were extremely derogatory to the country.”  

EaseMyTrip is the second-largest online travel booking platform in India, commanding a 22 percent market share. Pitti stated that his company is a homegrown, made-in-India company which will prioritise promoting Lakshadweep over foreign destinations, even if EaseMyTrip experiences a “temporary dip in international tourism”. Several Indians, including celebrities, shared social media posts advocating for domestic destinations over the Maldives.

Furthermore, the Indian Chamber of Commerce (ICC) has urged all Indian trade associations to boycott the Maldives. Subhash Goyal, who leads the ICC’s aviation and tourism committee, said, “Please divert all queries to Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar Islands, which are even better than Maldives in many ways. Other destinations that can be promoted in the Indian Ocean region are Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Bali, Phuket, etc.” Goyal's STC Travels has halted the sale of Maldives packages and tickets.

These differences haven't merely altered the landscape of tourism patterns but have also presented challenges for the Maldives. It serves as a reminder of how a single tweet can potentially disrupt the entire economy. If such incidents were to escalate beyond control, it would pose a substantial risk, carrying potentially high repercussions.