Maldives is grappling with a potential tourism crisis as one of its primary sources of income, Indian tourists, contemplates a boycott following derogatory comments made by three Maldives officials about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The controversy unfolded after Modi shared images on social media showcasing his time snorkeling and walking along the beaches of Lakshadweep, a southern Indian island chain. Although Modi did not explicitly mention the Maldives in his post, the effusive praise for Lakshadweep’s scenic beauty raised eyebrows, potentially diverting attention away from the popular Maldivian destination.
In response to Modi’s post, three Maldives officials, identified as deputy ministers with the Ministry of Youth Employment, Information, and Arts, described him as a “clown,” “terrorist,” and a “puppet of Israel,” according to Reuters. The Maldives government swiftly distanced itself from these comments, suspending the officials and emphasizing that their opinions were personal and did not reflect the government’s stance on the matter.
The incident comes at a delicate time, coinciding with Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu’s five-day visit to China, his first as president since winning the election in October. President Muizzu, known for his pro-China stance, aims to strengthen ties with Beijing and sign key agreements for trade, professional, and socioeconomic development during his visit. However, maintaining positive relations with India, Maldives’ closest neighbor and a crucial contributor to its tourism sector, remains essential.
Maldives heavily depends on tourism, with India being the largest source of tourists in recent years. In 2023, Indian tourists accounted for 11% of the country’s tourism market, making more than 209,000 trips to the Maldives. The officials’ disparaging remarks have triggered a backlash from Indian tourists, who have taken to social media to announce cancellations under the hashtag #BoycottMaldives. Prominent figures, including Bollywood actors and cricket players, have also encouraged travelers to explore local destinations, with the hashtag #ChaloLakshadweep gaining traction.
Bollywood star Akshay Kumar, known for his patriotic roles, condemned the Maldivian officials’ remarks as “hateful and racist” and urged people to support domestic tourism. He said, “We are good to our neighbors, but why should we tolerate such unprovoked hate? Let us decide to #ExploreIndianIslands and support our own tourism.”
In a significant move, Indian travel site EaseMyTrip announced the suspension of flight bookings to the Maldives, expressing solidarity with the nation. Nishant Pitti, CEO and co-founder of EaseMyTrip, stated, “In solidarity with our nation, @EaseMyTrip has suspended all Maldives flight bookings.” The Confederation of All India Traders, a prominent trade body, also called on its members to suspend business with the Maldives until an apology is issued or remedial measures are taken.
Maldives Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer denounced the officials’ remarks as “unacceptable” and emphasized the archipelago’s commitment to fostering positive and constructive dialogues with its partners. The Indian High Commission in the Maldives has reportedly raised concerns with the Maldivian Foreign Office over the issue.
Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, noted that the swift action taken by the Maldives government to suspend the officials and disavow their comments underscores the importance it places on maintaining strong relations with India. Kugelman suggested that while challenges may arise, the new leadership in the Maldives aims to balance its relationships with both India and China, emphasizing the significance of preserving ties with its immediate neighbor.