The Maldives has observed a significant transformation in its tourism sector, with changes in source markets for visitors amidst evolving diplomatic relations, Economic Minister Mohamed Saeed said in an interview with TRT World on Wednesday. Despite recent reports highlighting a sharp decline in tourists from India, Saeed contests that these narratives are exaggerated. This shift comes as China reclaims its position as the top source market for tourists to the island nation, a status it held prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Historically, India has been a major contributor to the Maldives’ tourism industry. However, recent months have seen a dwindling number of Indian tourists, coinciding with the Maldivian government’s pivot towards closer relations with China. This realignment follows President Dr Mohamed Muizzu’s administration’s request for India to withdraw its troops, citing sovereignty concerns, despite maintaining that the relationship with India remains friendly.

Saeed, in his discourse, emphasised the Maldives’ openness to all nations, stating, “We are a tourist country and open to the world.” He highlighted the importance of both Chinese and Indian markets to the Maldives’ economy, especially in terms of tourism and trade. The decline in Indian tourists has been partly attributed to a boycott sparked by derogatory comments made by Maldivian government officials towards India and its Prime Minister, which resulted in a sharp decrease in visitors from India.

Despite these challenges, the Maldives tourism sector anticipates strong growth, buoyed by an increase in flights from various parts of the world, including newly introduced routes from China and services by major airlines such as Malaysia Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Emirates, and Qatar Airways. Saeed projects that the nation will meet its target of 2.4 million tourist arrivals this year, despite the impact of global crises such as the war in Ukraine and Israel’s onslaught in Gaza.

The downturn in Indian tourists is seen against a backdrop of a broader diplomatic manoeuvring, with the Maldives navigating its relationships with regional superpowers. The administration’s efforts to maintain neutrality and foster tourism and trade with multiple countries reflect the complexities of international diplomacy and economic strategy in the Indian Ocean region.

In 2023, India led as the top source of tourist arrivals to the Maldives, marginally surpassing Russia. However, the recent decrease in Indian tourists, exacerbated by a social media-fuelled boycott, poses a significant challenge to the Maldives’ tourism industry, potentially resulting in losses. Yet, the resurgence of tourists from China offers a counterbalance, underscoring the dynamic and fluctuating nature of global tourism markets.