Maldives: India catching up on tourism, China will still remain a ‘monumental’ development partner

Observers of the Maldivian scene have been noticing a steep increase in tourism-related reportage targeting the Indian holidaymakers.  

N Sathiya Moorthy  24 July 2019   

In what could be a trendsetter for the future, Indian tourists have become the second largest holiday-makers in Maldives in the current year, pushing traditional European markets down the rung. China, however, continues to be the leader, with equitable additions to the numbers, all of it attributable to political stability after a decade and more of ‘democracy readjustments’ in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

According to official figures released by Maldivian Tourism Minister Ali Waheed, as many as 82,140 Indian tourists have visited the country in the first six months of the year 2019, as against a total of 90,474 for the whole of 2018. The 2018 figure too was 16,000 more compared to a decade earlier, indicating an emerging trend early on.

Minister Waheed pointed out that the current figures amounted to 10 percent Indian share in the total tourist arrivals in the first six months. It should be even more encouraging when the minister pointed out that they expected the figure to increase two-fold by the year-end.

Observers of the Maldivian scene have been noticing a steep increase in tourism-related reportage targeting the Indian holiday-makers, especially over the past few months.

Observers of the Maldivian scene have been noticing a steep increase in tourism-related reportage targeting the Indian holiday-makers, especially over the past few months. Weekly news reports, put out on tourism websites and other social media outlets, highlighted increasing frequency with which Bollywood celebrities have been holidaying in Maldivian resorts.

China, the topper

In recent weeks, there have also been occasional reports about such holiday-making involving South Indian film personalities like Trisha Krishnan. Indications are that such sustained efforts seemed to have paid off. This is not to leave out the road-shows organised by the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) in Indian cities like Mumbai and Kolkata, Delhi and Chandigarh.

Given the high-spending nature of Maldivian tourism, European markets were the traditionally favoured lot. The end-2004 Boxer Day tsunami, coupled with the global economic downturn since 2008 changed all that. The latter occurred even as Maldives was recovering from the loss and destruction caused by tsunami. The nation’s imaginative tourism managers turned to untapped neighbourhood market, like China and India.

China, which responded in double quick-time, continues to be the tourism-topper as far as Maldives is concerned, to the present-day. As the Maldives Independent observed: “Bucking the down-trend since 2015, the number of Chinese holiday-makers grew 10 percent and reached 140,265 by the end of June, continuing growth recorded during a strong first quarter.”

It remains to be seen if the Indian holiday-makers, overall, become high-spenders, which is the back-bone of Maldivian tourism industry as also the nation’s economy — or, if they would remain low-end spenders like their Chinese counterparts have been.

It remains to be seen if the Indian holiday-makers, overall, become high-spenders, which is the back-bone of Maldivian tourism industry as also the nation’s economy — or, if they would remain low-end spenders like their Chinese counterparts have been. However, MMPRC chief Thoyyib Mohamed said, “We are working closely with the industry partners to promote Maldives as the ideal holiday destination among luxury-travellers.”

Mutually beneficial

Unrelated to India relations, talking to the Chinese Xinhua news agency, Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid also highlighted the fact that China has been the biggest market for Maldivian tourism for the past 10 years. As he pointed out, China in 2019 comprised of 14.7 percent of all tourist arrivals in the current year.

Minister Shahid said that China would remain an ‘important development partner’ of Maldives. “Bilateral relations were built on a historic friendship as well as respect harboured by both nations for the other’s sovereignty,” The Edition quoted Shahid as telling Xinhua, adding “monumental partner in Maldives” socio-economic development, guaranteeing that both countries have mutually beneficial diplomatic relations.”

At one instance, Minister Shahid said: “China is the fastest-growing economy in the world. All our neighbours are engaging themselves with China. The largest economies in the world are engaging with China. We will not be left behind in engaging with China.” In this context, he referred to Maldives Economic Development Minister Fayyaz Ismail attending the recent meeting of China’s ‘Belt and Road Forum,’ saying: “This shows how much importance our government gives to the BRI project.”

‘Gratitude’, no agenda

Deviating clearly from the poll-time rhetoric and later-day observations of his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) chief, Mohammed Nasheed, Minister Shahid expressed gratitude to China, for development projects, including Sinamale Bridge, capital Male’s Velana International Airport’s runway and housing schemes.

Nasheed, Speaker of the MDP-majority Parliament, had often reiterated his charge that the Government of erstwhile President Abdulla Yameen, may have over-paid China for various project-funding, and also promised separate investigations into the real cost, and funds-diversions, if any.

However, Chinese Ambassador Zhang Lizhong had denied Nasheed’s charges/claims that Maldives owed China $3.4 billion as repayment against the popularly-held $ 1.5 b, and said that China had no agenda other than aiding Maldives’ development efforts.

No military presence

Independent of Minister Shahid’s recent reiteration of President Ibrahim Solih’s poll-time promise of not upsetting the China-funded development apple cart, Chief of Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), Maj-Gen Abdulla Shamaal had ruled out Chinese military presence in his country. And this he said in the Indian capital of New Delhi, during a multi-city visit, where his delegation also called on Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, recently.

However, to what looked like a well thought-out Maldivian response to questions, doubts and suspicions of the kind, Gen Shamaal had stated that his country had established trade and “business ties with India as well as China.” Likewise, common neighbour Sri Lanka had also established business relations with China, which had helped the nation improve its economy drastically.

In response to questions regarding rumours of the establishment of a Chinese military base in Maldives, Shamaal said, “Maldives must work in collaboration with other countries for several purposes. We cannot stay isolated.”

As Shamaal had said on the occasion, Maldives was dependent on several countries, which is a matter of national security that is unavoidable. However, he noted that it was important for Maldives to attain aid from other countries in securing our country from threats.

In response to questions regarding rumours of the establishment of a Chinese military base in Maldives, Shamaal said, “Maldives must work in collaboration with other countries for several purposes. We cannot stay isolated.” He had previously declared that there are no plans to allow opportunity for foreign countries to establish military headquarters.

It may be recalled that the advent of the Solih presidency, Defence Minister Mariya Didi had declared that there was no chance of having military ties with China. As she told an interviewer not long after taking over, “continued military relations with China is contingent on allowing them to establish a headquarters in Maldives.” She, however, affirmed that the incumbent administration does not have any such plans, The Edition had reported at the time.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

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