In the midst of a diplomatic dispute between the Maldives and India, official figures released on Monday reveal a significant shift in tourist demographics, with Chinese visitors surpassing Indian holidaymakers in the archipelago nation. According to the latest statistics from the Maldivian Ministry of Tourism, as of February 4, China claimed the top spot with 23,972 tourists, marking an 11.2% market share in 2024—up from the third position in 2023.
India, which held the top position in 2023, has now fallen to fifth place, recording 16,536 tourists and a 7.7% market share in 2024. This shift is speculated to be a consequence of the backlash against the Maldives following derogatory remarks directed at India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on social media by three Maldivian ministers. These remarks followed Modi's sharing of photos and videos during his visit to the pristine Lakshadweep Islands in January.
The negative impact on the Maldives' tourism industry was exacerbated by a viral campaign calling for a boycott of travel to the Maldives. Many social media users, including celebrities, urged the exploration of domestic destinations instead. Some travel companies even reported cancellations of planned trips to the Maldives amid the diplomatic tensions.
President Muizzu, known for his pro-China stance, assumed office on November 17 and formally requested the withdrawal of 88 Indian military personnel from the Maldives by March 15. This request followed his victory over the India-friendly incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in the presidential runoff held in September.
During Muizzu's visit to Beijing in January, discussions with Chinese leaders focused on increasing Chinese tourism to the Maldives, including plans for additional direct flights between the two countries. China's announcement of a "comprehensive mutual visa cooperation" agreement with 23 countries, including the Maldives, further solidified their commitment.
In 2023, the Maldives welcomed over 17 lakh tourists, with Indians comprising the largest group at 2,09,198, followed closely by Russians (2,09,146) and Chinese (1,87,118). Notably, China was the leading source of foreign tourists before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019.
As of February 4, 2024, Russia secured the second spot with 21,898 tourists (10.2% market share), Italy rose to the third position with 21,321 tourists (9.9% market share), and the UK retained its fourth position with 18,078 tourists and an 8.4% market share.
Despite the recent challenges, President Muizzu outlined ambitious plans for the tourism sector in his inaugural speech on Monday. Proposals include the establishment of 20 new resorts, the addition of 2,800 beds, and the completion of undeveloped resorts. A specific focus on the "Asseyri Tourism" project for Addu City, incorporating a seaplane hub, demonstrates the administration's commitment to tourism expansion. President Muizzu expressed optimism about the sector's future, projecting a milestone of welcoming 2 million tourists in 2024 and anticipating a sustained annual growth of 10.3%. This optimism is driven by developments such as the completion of Velana International Airport and the introduction of new flight routes.
(With Agency Inputs)