January 12, 2024
SINGAPORE – Sports physiotherapist Falak Joshipura was planning to celebrate her 24th birthday in February with her husband by enjoying the pristine white beaches and crystal blue Indian Ocean waters in the Maldives.
But she decided to alter her plans after three now-suspended deputy ministers – Ms Malsha Shareef, Ms Mariyam Shiuna and Mr Abdulla Mahzoom Majid – in the Maldives government made disparaging remarks against her prime minister, Mr Narendra Modi, and India.
In now-deleted social media posts, the three officials in different posts had called Mr Modi a “clown” and a “puppet of Israel”. They also criticised Indians, with one comparing India to cow dung.
The comments have led to a call to boycott holidaying in the Maldives, a popular beach destination among well-heeled Indians. India also lodged a diplomatic protest with the Maldives.
“It is solely because of my pro-nationalist sentiments that I cancelled planning for the Maldives,” Dr Joshipura told The Straits Times. “We should not give our share of money to them for mocking our nation and government. So I promptly told (my travel agent), I don’t want to go ahead with the plans.”
Dr Joshipura, who reckoned that the situation warranted an apology from the Maldives’ president, is now looking for alternative destinations to celebrate her birthday.
The comments by the ministers were reportedly a reaction to images and videos posted on social media site X on Jan 2 of Mr Modi walking on the beach and snorkelling in Lakshadweep, an Indian archipelago of 36 islands off the coast of Kerala.
While Mr Modi did not mention the Maldives, the post was interpreted in certain quarters there as an effort to woo Indians away from the Maldives.
The expected backlash against the remarks by the three ministers is now threatening tourism – a mainstay of the island nation – in the Maldives, noted those in the travel industry.
“For now, numbers are not down. There are hardly any cancellations since people have to pay huge cancellation charges. But it (bookings) will be affected in February and March. Beyond that, it is too early to say,” said Mr Ravi Gosain, vice-president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators, who noted destinations like Bali, Mauritius and Thailand would likely benefit.
“People will be scared to go, thinking there may be problems from local supporters of these ministers.”
Interest has spiked for Lakshadweep, which does not have the infrastructure to handle a large influx of tourists, amid the controversy. Indian media reports said Lakshadweep has only 150 hotels and once-a-week flights.
Still, Indian online travel company MakeMyTrip said in a post on X on Jan 8 that online searches for Lakshadweep had rocketed by 3,400 per cent and prompted an advertisement campaign for India’s “stunning beaches”.
Israel also jumped in, highlighting the “enchanting allure” of Lakshadweep, while announcing it is immediately launching a desalination project, which has been in the works, there.
The Maldives has been a popular destination for Indian tourists, who discovered its Instagram-ready beaches during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many countries had shut their borders. The island nation reopened in July 2020 after closing its borders for a brief four months to international tourists.
Tourism accounts for 25 per cent of its gross national product. According to the latest data released by its tourism ministry, around 1.8 million people visited the archipelago in 2023. Indians were the largest group at 209,198, followed by Russians (209,146), Chinese (187,118), Britons (155,730) and Germans (135,090).
Mrs Jyoti Mayal, president of the Travel Agents Association of India, said that the previous Maldives government had worked hard to woo Indians during the pandemic but it now stands to lose those gains.
“If you really see the numbers, it’s a big deal for them, not for us. Every country is wooing Indians. The loss is theirs. We miss a beautiful destination but there are alternatives,” she said.
She related how a friend who had been planning a wedding in the Maldives is now looking around for an alternative destination.
“Some people who are not going immediately are cancelling. They don’t know whether there is negativity (towards Indians),” she added.
Bollywood stars, major influencers in the country, have also joined the chorus for a boycott.
“Why should we tolerate such unprovoked hate? I’ve visited the Maldives many times and always praised it, but dignity first. Let us decide to #ExploreIndianIslands and support our own tourism,” tweeted Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar, who is a supporter of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and Mr Modi, on X.
What is expected to further add fuel to fire is that Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu on Jan 9 asked Chinese tourists, who made up the largest number of tourists to the Maldives before the pandemic, to return to his country. He has been on a six-day visit to China since Jan 7.
Already, there is speculation in India that the remarks against India were instigated by China, even as Dr Muizzu has maintained he is following an independent foreign policy.
Said EaseMyTrip co-founder and executive director Prashant Pitti: “They (Maldives government) have belittled us multiple times in the past. This (controversy) may have been instigated by China. There is a proxy war going on between India and China.”
He has indefinitely stopped bookings to the Maldives on his online travel portal.
“We wanted to be country first and profits later. In terms of revenue, it will impact the company overall, but we have to be on the right side of history and support our country against the unprovoked series of objectionable comments. We are not very happy to do business with the Maldives.”
The Maldives, with a population of 400,000, is strategically located in the Indian Ocean and has been at the centre of a campaign for influence between China and India.
The island nation has traditionally had an “India-first policy’’, reiterated by successive governments.
Maldivian presidents, after taking office, also usually make India their first overseas trip – a trend bucked by Dr Muizzu, who, after coming to power in November 2023, chose Turkey for this first visit.
Since coming to power on an “India out” campaign, he has sought the removal of 75 Indian military personnel and reviewed agreements with India, cancelling at least one.
The Muizzu government, in spite of distancing itself from the remarks and suspending the ministers, has also faced criticism from opposition leaders.
Former Maldives defence minister Mariya Ahmed Didi on Jan 8 called the current government’s foreign policy short-sighted, noting “we cannot deny that we share borders with India”, while Maldivian Democratic Party and opposition leader Fayyaz Ismail said the Maldives government had to come up with a stronger statement on the entire episode.
Meanwhile, Maldives hoteliers and tour operators have sought to assuage the concerns of Indian tourists.
The National Hotels and Guesthouses Association of the Maldives condemned the remarks by the three suspended ministers and noted that “we are a nation grateful for the enduring friendship between Maldivians and Indians”.
Not that it had much impact on Indian filmmaker and scriptwriter Rushik Rawal, 35, who had planned to complete his Bollywood film script on a three-week working vacation in the Maldives in February.
He cancelled his holiday and forfeited 35,000 rupees (S$560) in hotel bookings in a resort on Fulhadhoo Island, one of 1,192 islands in the archipelago.
“We had thought let us go to a beach destination and let’s try the Maldives. Then this happened,” said Mr Rawal.
“We were following the news (on India-Maldives ties) but when they started being racist about Indians, and abusing Indians and the prime minister, we said, ‘Okay, let us not go there, we are not welcome’.”