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SOURCE: PTI

Amidst a diplomatic row between the Maldives and India, Chinese tourists have overtaken Indian holidaymakers visiting the archipelago nation, according to official figures released here on Monday.

According to official statistics from the Maldivian Ministry of Tourism, as of February 4, China, with 23,972 tourists occupied the number one slot (11.2 per cent market share in 2024); it was on the number three spot in 2023.

India, which was on the number 1 slot in 2023, has slipped down to 5th position as of Sunday with 16,536 tourists (7.7 per cent market share in 2024) coming to this island nation.

The development could be a fallout of a full-blown backlash directed at the Maldives following the derogatory remarks against India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on social media by three Maldivian ministers after Modi posted photos and video on X of his visit to the pristine Lakshadweep Islands on India’s west coast earlier in January.

Soon after the remarks against Modi went viral, hundreds of social media users, including celebrities, protested with calls to boycott tourism in Maldives and instead explore domestic destinations. Several social media users and even some travel companies claimed Indians are cancelling their scheduled trip to the Maldives following the diplomatic row.

Soon after taking oath as the President of Maldives on November 17, Muizzu, widely seen as a pro-China leader, formally requested India to withdraw 88 military personnel from his country by March 15, saying the Maldivian people have given him a “strong mandate” to make this request to New Delhi.

In the presidential runoff held in September last year, Muizzu, 45, defeated India-friendly incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

During his visit to Beijing in January, President Muizzu met Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang and discussed ways to increase the number of tourists from China to his tourism-dependent country, including increasing the number of direct flights between the two countries.

China on January 31 said it has worked out a comprehensive mutual visa cooperation agreement with 23 countries, including the Maldives.

According to the Maldives Tourism Ministry statistics, over 17 lakh tourists visited the island nation in 2023, out of which more than 2,09,198 were Indians followed by Russians (2,09,146) and China (1,87,118).

China used to be the top source of foreign tourists before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in that country in 2019.

The number of Indian visitors was more than 2.4 lakh in 2022 while over 2.11 lakh Indians flew to the Maldives in 2021. The Maldives was also one of the few countries open for international tourists during the pandemic and nearly 63,000 Indians visited that country during that period.

Even the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) had admitted then that India has been a consistent and significant contributor to the tourism industry of the Maldives.

A contributor that has greatly assisted our recovery efforts during COVID-19, right after we re-opened our borders, since then, India has continued to remain as one of the top markets for the Maldives, MATI had said in a statement as it strongly condemned the derogatory comments made by the three ministers.

Now, in 2024, as of February 4, Russia with 21,898 tourists (10.2 per cent market share) was in the second spot, continuing its 2023 ranking. Italy, which was on spot six in 2023, rose to the number three position in 2024 with 21,321 tourists (9.9 per cent market share) while the UK, with 18,078 tourists and 8.4 per cent market share retained its number four position, the official data showed.

Meanwhile, in his first Presidential speech on Monday, President Muizzu announced a pioneering plan to expand the tourism sector, including establishing 20 new resorts this year, adding 2,800 beds, and completing the development of undeveloped resorts.

The President additionally remarked on the Administration’s ambitions to expand tourism services in the Maldives and highlighted the Government’s efforts to further tourism to the atolls, detailing plans to launch an “Asseyri Tourism” project for Addu City, which includes a seaplane hub, a statement from his office said.

Muizzu said the outlook for the country’s tourism sector “appears promising.” “The future, indeed, appears promising. The Maldivian tourism sector, the cornerstone of our productivity, is poised to reach a significant milestone by welcoming 2 million tourists this year, for the first time.

“Projections indicate that this growth trajectory will persist, with an average annual increase of 10.3 per cent in the medium term, propelled by the completion of Velana International Airport and the introduction of new flight routes,” he said.