Indian Leader’s Beach Tweets Spark a Backlash in the Maldives

Indians made up the biggest share of tourist arrivals in the Maldives last year but they are now threatening to boycott the beach destination.
Indians made up the biggest share of tourist arrivals in the Maldives last year but they are now threatening to boycott the beach destination.

Summary

After citizens and officials in the nation trolled India and its prime minister, Indians are vowing to forgo vacations to the beach destination.

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted pictures of himself relaxing on the pristine beaches of a tiny Indian archipelago this month, he triggered a spat with a favored destination of Indians seeking an island break: the Maldives.

The images came days after Indian media reported that the newly elected president of the Maldives would visit Beijing instead of giving priority to New Delhi, which traditionally has closer diplomatic ties to the Maldives.

Modi’s posts from Lakshadweep were read as a signal by some Indians to choose the homegrown vacation spot nestled in the Indian Ocean over the luxury tourism offered by the Maldives, a string of 26 atolls close by. In recent days, Indians have taken to using hashtags such as #BoycottMaldives and #ExploreIndianIslands.

India and China have been tussling for influence in the Indian Ocean and South Asian region, where China’s infrastructure investments have made inroads with countries long closely allied with New Delhi. In the Maldives, Mohamed Muizzu campaigned for president successfully last year on a platform of reducing India’s sway, after five years of a pro-India government. He arrived in Beijing on Monday for a five-day visit.

China’s Foreign Ministry has said relations with the Maldives are at “a new historical starting point."

Modi, who is rarely pictured on a beach, didn’t mention the Maldives in his tweets, but many in the Indian Ocean nation were affronted by his getaway.

Scores of social-media users in the Maldives, including at least three junior officials in the government, made derogatory remarks about India and Modi. A deputy minister described Modi as a “clown," while another politician mocked the idea that tourism in India could compete with the Maldives as “delusional," saying the country’s hotel rooms smelled.

The reaction has bolstered a nascent boycott of the Maldives by wealthy Indian travelers. EaseMyTrip, an Indian online travel-booking platform, has said it wouldn’t offer bookings for the Maldives. Searches on the site for flights this week didn’t offer the Maldives as an option, while searches for hotels there resulted in an error message. MakeMyTrip, a major Indian travel platform, said that searches on its platform for Lakshadweep have soared since Modi’s visit.

A significant drop in Indian arrivals would hurt the archipelago, which relies on tourism for nearly 30% of its gross domestic product. Last year, Indians made up the biggest share of tourist arrivals in the Maldives, or just over 209,000 of the more than 1.8 million tourists that visited the Maldives in 2023, followed closely by Russians and Chinese.

Some Maldivians, including Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the former pro-India president who lost to Muizzu last year, called on the Maldives to take steps to prevent ties from deteriorating further. Tourism industry associations have distanced themselves from the critical tweets, issuing long statements expressing appreciation for India.

The Maldives government suspended three deputy ministers who posted derogatory remarks, according to news reports. The suspensions couldn’t be independently confirmed. The Maldives government said, “Freedom of expression should be exercised in a democratic and responsible manner, and in ways that do not…hinder close relationships between the Maldives and its international partners."

Many in the Maldives, where India has a longstanding but small military presence, say the country leaned too far toward India while Solih was in power. During his five-year term, India based a radar surveillance system in the archipelago, tracking vessel movements and feeding into an Indian Navy maritime security-information hub.

India’s growing closeness to Israel also appears to have vexed the Maldives, which is a Muslim nation. Modi was quick to express strong support for Israel in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, and some Hindu nationalist leaders have amplified anti-Muslim rhetoric in the months since. Israel’s embassy seemed to wade into the troubled waters with a tweet on Monday about the “pristine and majestic underwater beauty" of Lakshadweep. It pledged its readiness to begin an infrastructure project there.

It is unclear how much of an impact this boycott campaign will have.

Online fact-checkers suggested some of the posts from Indians in recent days vowing to cancel Maldives vacations were inauthentic or coordinated, sharing screenshots of posts from different handles that used identical language. But celebrities, including Bollywood actors and a former cricket champion, also weighed in, backing the idea of going to Indian destinations.

That will be easier said than done, at least in the case of Lakshadweep, since there are few direct flights between the Indian mainland and the territory.

The head of an Indian tourism industry association said it was unlikely that any Indian traveler who had paid money upfront for a Maldives vacation would pull out.

“They won’t get a refund," said Rajiv Mehra, president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators.

But he expects a drop in new bookings, meaning arrivals in the Maldives would decline a few weeks from now.

“It will make an impact until there is some diplomatic understanding," said Mehra. “No one has the right to abuse our prime minister."

If Indians do follow through on the boycott threat, China may come to the rescue.

Speaking at an investment forum in China’s Fujian province on Tuesday, the Maldives’ president sent a message: Send more tourists.

“China was our No. 1 market pre-Covid, and it is my request that we intensify efforts for China to regain this position," said Muizzu.

Write to Tripti Lahiri at tripti.lahiri@wsj.com

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