Opinion: In Row With Maldives, Lessons For India

The India-Maldives relationship has dived after three junior Maldivian ministers made derogatory remarks against Prime Minister Narendra Modi following his recent visit to the Lakshadweep islands.

PM Modi explored Lakshadweep's pristine beaches and posted the images on social media, raising massive interest in Lakshadweep among travel enthusiasts. Stung by the response to PM Modi's posts, the Maldivian ministers mocked them and said India could never compete with Maldives.    

Furious Indians are cancelling trips to Maldives amid an escalating diplomatic row. Comments on social media indicate that many Indians have shelved their Maldives holiday plans after the anti-Modi rant.

Lakshadweep has become a talking point globally since PM Modi's visit and posts. There is a steep surge in worldwide search interest in the archipelago, travel companies claim.      

Focus on Lakshadweep

One of the world's most spectacular tropical island systems, Lakshadweep is around 220-440 km off the Kerala coast and spans 36 islands spread over an area of 32 square km. The islands are distinctive because of coral reefs and a rich marine wealth and ecology. The Lakshadweep islands are linked to mainland India by ship, helicopter and a lone Allianz Airlines flight from Kerala's Kochi. More flights will start operating to Lakshadweep as the demand increases. The route is covered under the Regional Connective Scheme – Ude Desh Ka Aam Naagrik (RCS-UDAN) – for underserviced routes.   

The visuals shared by PM Modi highlight the island's beauty and breathtaking underwater sights. Like an ace tourist ambassador, PM Modi is seen walking on a white beach and diving or snorkelling in pictures.

"PM Modi's one-day stay in Lakshadweep has put the place on India's tourism map. That's what every citizen of Lakshadweep has wanted for a long time. If tourism develops, it will create employment for locals. Infrastructure needs to be developed. There are no private hotels. One hotel is almost 95 per cent ready," Mohammad Faizal, Lakshadweep MP, says.

"The demand for tourism is directly proportional to air connectivity. If the infrastructure is built, Lakshadweep can be developed as a wedding destination," Mr Faizal adds.

Develop and boost to India's tourism economy

The Indian coastline is one of the longest in the world, adding up to 7,516 km including the mainland, the islands of Andaman and Nicobar, and Lakshadweep. This vast coastline is dotted with beach destinations both popular and unknown. Popular destinations like Goa, Kerala, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands come to mind when we think about coastal locations in India. It is time to discover and develop the potential of undisclosed and unknown treasures of India's coastline.

Describing the hidden potential of domestic tourism, Rajiv Mehra, president, Indian Association of Tour Operators, says, "Beach tourism exists in Goa, Kerala, Andaman in our country but it can be improved at other places on the Indian coastline, along Bengal, Odisha, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, by improvising and building hotels, developing air connectivity and water sports."

Flights within India are not cheap. Last summer, a round trip from Mumbai to Srinagar in mid-June cost upwards of Rs 26,000, when flights to the Maldives and Dubai were relatively economical at Rs 18,000 and Rs 22,000. Anxious about the high domestic air ticket prices, tour operators have often requested the government to step in and cap domestic travel fare. Similarly, hotels across destinations have hiked tariffs by 15 to 20 per cent in the past year. This has driven many Indian tourists to destinations that are closer, like Thailand, Dubai and Maldives.

Maldives was considered an expensive destination by Indians earlier. During the pandemic and after it, when Maldives' tourism was badly hit, the country opened up its mid-market hotels and resorts to Indians at low rates. Bollywood influencers and stars were offered junkets to the Maldives on the condition that they would post photos. That did wonders for the tourism there.

Comparing Lakshadweep with the Maldives, Mr Mehra says, "Lakshadweep has poor infrastructure and connectivity. A lot needs to be developed there to match Maldives. There are other rules such as mandatory police clearance certificates, which take two weeks. These are not needed if one stays in the government hotels. The airfare too, is almost the same as the fare to the Maldives."   

According to the Maldives tourism ministry data, Indians were the highest among visitors to the islands until December. A total of 17,57,939 tourists arrived in the island nation till December 13, which is an increase of 12.6 per cent compared to the 1.5 million arrivals recorded in 2022. The largest number of tourists to the Maldives were from India, followed by Russia and China.

Aviation data also indicates the Maldives has been a popular choice for Indians for years. In the last three months of 2018, 51,000 passengers travelled between India and Maldives on direct flights. That shot up to a record 1.15 lakh passengers in the same period in 2021. Indian carriers have 48 weekly departures to the Maldives. There are 58 flights a week between India and the Maldives with 10 departures by Maldivian airlines.

Current India-Maldives relationship

India does not want to jeopardize its long-nurtured relationship with Maldives.

Maldives' new President Mohamed Muizzu was, however, chosen for his anti-India tirade during his election campaign.

Breaking with tradition, Muizzu, after taking oath in November, travelled to Turkey for his first official visit. Conventionally, Maldivian presidents have chosen India for their maiden official visit, giving importance to the bond between the two countries. He also made it clear that he wanted Indian soldiers out of the island nation. Around 70 Indian military personnel maintain New Delhi-sponsored radar stations and surveillance aircraft on the island. Muizzu is also not interested in renewing contracts for the ongoing infrastructure-related projects.  

PM Modi met Maldives President Muizzu in Dubai on the sidelines of the COP28 climate talks in December. Both agreed to set up a core group to discuss relations and deepen ties. Yet, there has been no change in Maldives' stand. President Muizzu is visiting China and New Delhi is worried about the Maldives emerging as a nation in China's 'String of Pearls' construct in South Asia.   

India has taken a tough stance over the Maldivian politicians' comments on PM Modi. The Maldivian envoy to India was summoned for the unsavoury conduct of the now-suspended junior ministers. A stern message was conveyed. Maldivian capital Male has acted swiftly by suspending the ministers.

(Bharti Mishra Nath is a senior journalist)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.