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Maldivian president appeals to China to send more tourists amid spat with India

Maldives president’s visit to China is being seen as apparent snub to India amid diplomatic row

Shweta Sharma
Wednesday 10 January 2024 10:25 GMT
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Maldives resort allows visitors to sleep under the sea

Maldivian president Mohamed Muizzu has appealed to China to “intensify” efforts to send more tourists to the archipelago during his visit to Beijing amid a diplomatic row with India that threatened a potential tourism boycott.

Mr Muizzu is on a five-day visit to China where he is expected to meet president Xi Jinping and court investments in sectors ranging from infrastructure to tourism. The visit is being seen as an apparent snub to India.

During his speech at the “Invest Maldives” forum in the southern Chinese port city of Fuzhou, Mr Muizzu said China was a significant contributor to tourism during the pre-Covid period and their strategies would involve campaigns, or policies aimed at attracting Chinese visitors.

“The government has plans to diversify the tourism product and offer new experiences. Initiatives include a top-tier school of hospitality and exploring sports, medical and cultural tourism,” Mr Muizzu said.

“China was our number one market pre-Covid, and it is my request that we intensify efforts for China to regain this position.”

Mr Muizzu hailed the “close political ties” between the two countries, saying: “China remains one of our closest allies and development partners”.

The Maldivian president, who came to power in November after riding high on his “India Out” campaign in the Muslim-majority country, called New Delhi’s huge influence a threat to sovereignty.

After taking office, Mr Muizzu embarked on his first official visit to Turkey, which raised eyebrows in India as it was seen as a departure from the tradition of previous leaders visiting India on their first visit outside the country.

A diplomatic row erupted after three Maldivian government officials called names to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi for his visit to the Indian island Lakshadweep in the Indian Ocean.

His pictures from the beaches of the Lakshadweep went viral on social media and began a spat between Indian and Maldivian social media users as some viewed them as an attempt to draw tourists away from the nearby Maldivian islands.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi snorkelling in Lakshadweep (Narendra Modi/Twitter)

The three officials were suspended and India reportedly summoned Male’s envoy to India. A number of Indians on social media shared screenshots of their cancelled bookings of Maldivian holidays while Bollywood stars and cricketers promoted local tourism with the hashtag #ExploreIndianIslands.

One of India’s largest travel platforms, Ease My Trip, suspended flight bookings to the tourism-dependent Maldives on Monday.

Experts have told the Independent that Mr Muizzu’s visit to China is telling and an apparent signal to India and New Delhi could soon consider drawing red lines.

Mr Muizzu hailed Maldives’ relations with China dating back to “the ancient Maritime Silk Road” and said Male became part of Mr Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2014, delivering “most significant infrastructure projects”

His government was keen to explore partnerships under the BRI project, including the expansion of the country’s central airport and commercial port, he said.

China has invested heavily in Maldives with $1.37bn spent on various infrastructure projects, including the expansion of Velana International Airport in Male and the building of the cross-sea China-Maldives Friendship Bridge.

But China’s cosying up with Beijing could spell trouble for Male, the World Bank warned in October 2023, as $1.37bn it already owes the Asian giant represents around 20 per cent of its public debt.

Maldives also owes $124m to Saudi Arabia and $123m to India.

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