India-Maldives row escalates, agency suspends flight bookings to islands

COLOMBO: One of India’s largest travel platforms suspended flight bookings to the tourism-dependent Maldives on Monday (Jan 8) after disparaging social media posts against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embittered relations between the South Asian neighbours.

India and Russia send the largest number of visitors to the Maldives, a chain of sun-kissed islands in the Indian Ocean that is home to many luxury resorts. Tourism accounts for almost one-third of its economy, according to the World Bank.

EaseMyTrip co-founder and Executive Director Prashant Pitti said bookings to the Maldives were suspended “indefinitely”.

Even though New Delhi and Male have traditionally had close ties, relations have been tense since President Mohamed Muizzu came to power in November winning the election on an ‘India Out’ campaign.

The controversy over comments by three Maldivian now-suspended-ministers about Modi comes just as Muizzu embarks for China on his first state visit from Jan 8-12, breaking from the convention of most Maldivian leaders choosing New Delhi to be their first international port of call.

Both Beijing and New Delhi vie for influence in the Indian Ocean nation.

“We decided to take this step because any self-respecting nation should do this. The statements which we heard from the representatives of the Maldives government were extremely derogatory to the country,” Pitti told Reuters.

Pitti said EaseMyTrip is the second largest online travel booking platform in India with a 22 per cent market share.

The Maldives government suspended deputy ministers Malsha Shareef, Mariyam Shiuna and Abdulla Mahzoom Majid for calling Modi a “clown”, “terrorist” and “puppet of Israel” on social media platform X, in response to a video of him visiting the Indian islands of Lakshadweep, north of the Maldives, to promote local tourism.

Pitti said his company will promote Lakshadweep over any foreign location, even though EaseMyTrip might witness a “temporary dip in international tourism”.

Many Indians, including some celebrities, shared social media posts promoting domestic destinations over the Maldives.

New Delhi has summoned Maldivian envoy Ibrahim Shaheeb, a day after India’s mission in Male “strongly raised and expressed concerns” with the Maldivian foreign ministry on Sunday, a source aware of the matter said.

Indian High Commissioner to the Maldives Munu Mahawar also held a “pre-arranged” meeting with the Maldivian foreign ministry on Monday, the Indian mission said on X.

Tourism is the largest foreign exchange earner for the Maldives, with India and Russia sending the most visitors, around 209,000 each last year.

Maldives is targeting 2 million arrivals for 2024.

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