Econ Minister: Decline in Indian tourists ‘blown out of proportion’

Economic Minister Mohamed Saeed (C) is appointed to President Dr. Mohamed Muizzu's cabinet on November 17, 2023. (Photo/President's Office)

Certain headlines regarding the decline in Indian tourist numbers in recent months have blown things out of proportion, says Maldives’ Economic Minister Mohamed Saeed.

Saeed made the remark in an interview with Turkey-based news outlet TRT World on Wednesday.

Tourist arrivals from India – once the top source market for visitors to Maldives – have dwindled in recent months.

Meanwhile, China has regained its spot as the top source market for tourist arrivals to Maldives.

These changes are seen as a reflection of a shift in Maldives’ ties with the regional superpowers, with the new administration fostering closer relations with China, causing friction with India.

During Wednesday’s interview, Saeed was asked whether Maldives can be friends with both China and India.

He responded that Maldives is a friend of all countries, not just two.

“I think the Maldives is a friend of all the countries, not only two countries. We are a tourist country and open to the world. As a holiday destination, we are appreciated by both Chinese and Indians,” he said, adding that as far as trade is concerned, both markets are important to the Maldives.

President Dr. Mohamed Muizzu’s administration, after it took office in November 2023, asked India to withdraw its troops from the island nation, deeming it a threat to Maldives’ sovereignty.

But Saeed stressed that Maldives still considers India a friend.

“Of course, we are friends with both. What our president, our government and the people reject is the presence of foreign soldiers here,” he said.

Saeed also commented on the decline in tourist arrivals from India in recent months.

“On the question of the decline in the number of Indian tourists in recent months, I think certain headlines have blown things out of proportion,” he said. “Tourism arrivals from certain countries decline while they grow from others.”

“For example, China was in the number one spot before Covid. But now it has bounced back. We have flights coming from India on a daily – almost hourly – basis,” he added.

Saeed also acknowledged the impact of global crises such as the war in Ukraine and Israel’s war on Gaza on the Maldivian economy. But he said that the country expects good growth in the tourism sector despite the challenges.

“But despite chaos across the globe, we expect good growth in the tourism sector. This year until now, we have seen more than 500,000 visitors, which is a major leap over the past trend,” he said.

“So, we are expecting to meet the target of 2.4 million arrivals this year.”

Saeed said that Maldives has more flights coming in from different parts of the world.

“Recently, we had about three or four new flights from China. Malaysia Airlines, too, started flights, while Virgin Atlantic, Emirates and Qatar Airways offer connections to Europe and elsewhere,” he said.

With 209,198 visitors, India had ranked the top source market for tourist arrivals to Maldives in 2023, after edging out Russia, which produced just 52 less visitors.

But in January, Maldives faced a boycott campaign originating from India after three Maldivian government ministers posted derogatory remarks against India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the social media platform X.

The deputy ministers were suspended, the Maldives issued a statement saying the remarks do not reflect the official view of the government.

However, Maldives has seen a sharp decline in visitors from India since then. Some tourism industry experts and analysts project the decline will result in losses upwards of up to USD 2 billion.

But while arrivals from India have declined, visitors from China have seen a sharp rise. Since the country reopened its borders after the Covid-19 pandemic, it quickly regained its spot as the top source market for tourist arrivals to the Maldives.