Social media uproar could cost Maldives millions as row with India intensifies

Social media posts by Maldivian officials could cost the country millions in tourism revenue as they intensify calls from Indian travelers to boycott the island nation.

“In the last two days, we have seen a 40% drop in bookings,” Ankit Chaturvedi, vice president and global head of marketing at Indian travel software company Rategain, said on Tuesday.

“Most people book on the weekends, so the drop seems more significant because ideally (bookings) should be up,” he told CNBC Travel.

Travel bookings to the Maldives plummeted after a diplomatic spat broke out last week after series of posts appeared on X, formerly known as Twitter, the account of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The posts showed him snorkeling, sitting by the water and meeting people in Lakshadweep, which some saw as a veiled attempt to siphon off visitors from the island nation.

Amidst reports of thousands of Indian travelers canceling their trips to the Maldives, a prominent Indian tour booking website EaseMyTrip made the announcement. suspends flight bookings from India to Maldives.

Some travel agencies in India say they are canceling bookings to the Maldives, deleting their websites with photos of them and advising travelers to visit India’s Lakshadweep archipelago, the Andaman Islands, the Nicobar Islands or Sri Lanka instead, according to The India Express.

The dispute has thrown global attention on the little-known Lakshadweep, which, like the Maldives, is a picturesque chain of sandy atolls, coral reefs and crystal clear waters.

However, the Maldives, located about 340 miles to the south, is the preferred playground for India. In 2023, more than one in 10 arrivals came from India, making it the country’s largest source market, followed by Russia and China, according to Maldives tourism statistics.

But more British travelers – and almost twice as many Italians – visited the Maldives in the first week of January compared to those from India, which dropped to fourth place in terms of visitor arrivals.

Due to the absence of Chinese international travelers, Indians emerged as the travel powerhouse in the region in 2023 and are expected to be the world’s fourth largest traveler by 2030.

Millions could be involved if calls for #BoycottMaldives continue.

Exact losses in the Maldives are hard to estimate, Chaturvedi said, but “India drove $380 million worth of tourism into the Maldives last year, which is significant.”

Posts that started it

Some blamed Modi’s posts for starting the debacle, although he did not mention the Maldives, which has lost favor in India after the 2023 election of Maldives President Mohamed Muizza.

Muizzu campaigned on ““India out” policy – unlike the “India first” policy of the Maldivian Democratic Party. He also broke with long-standing tradition by choosing China, widely seen as an insult to India, for his first official state visit this week.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs did not immediately respond to CNBC’s requests for comment.

But others say supporters of the Maldives, who bristled at online comparisons to Lakshadweep, started the row by writing negative comments about India’s ability to compete with its resorts and hospitality.

Maldivian Deputy Ministers Malsha Shareef, Mariyam Shiuna and Abdulla Mahzoom Majid lobbied at Modi on X with various insults, calling him a “clown”, “terrorist” and “puppet of Israel”, according to Reuters.

Maldivian Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer tried to distance the country from the commentswho wrote on X that the comments “are unacceptable and do not reflect the official position of the #Maldives government”.

According to the news agency, the three officials were suspended over the weekend for posting on social media.

But the uproar has only grown since then, underscoring tourism’s exposure to local geopolitical issues, as well as ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

Unintentional nudge?

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