A Taste of Vir: Tourism and the Diplomatic Dispute between India and the Maldives

I first heard about the Maldives in 1988. A group of mercenaries had arrived in the country by sea and tried to overthrow the government. The then President of the Maldives, Abdul Gayoom, a great friend of India, telephoned Rajiv Gandhi, who was then Prime Minister, and asked him for help. Could India send the Indian Air Force to repel the invasion, he asked.

Contrary to what we think now, India never became a big source of tourists for the Maldives. There weren’t even enough flights to begin with. And because hotel prices were so high, Indians preferred to vacation elsewhere. (Instagram/@discoversoneva [Representation Image])

I was wondering how this would go. By all accounts, the mercenaries were largely successful, and Gayoom was holed up in his palace, clinging desperately to the only international phone line that was open, talking to Delhi.

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But Gayoom insisted that an air force operation would not pose a problem as the airport is on a different island from the capital. And his government still controlled the airport island.

A different island?

At this stage, few of us knew that the Maldives was not a single land mass, but a collection of many small islands. The capital Male was on an island. The airport was on another. And each resort hotel occupied an entire island. All the mercenaries achieved was to seize control of most of the island where Male is located.

Rajiv agreed to help. Indian forces entered. The mercenaries fled. The coup failed. And Gayoom was safe again.

In those days, the Maldives was not the luxury destination it later became. There were resorts, but they were mostly low-end and catered to European tourists. Few Indians went there on holiday, although the Taj group operated two resorts there.

In the early 1990s, my curiosity about this island nation became so strong that I finally took an Indian Airlines flight from Trivandrum (there were very few flights from India to the Maldives), was met at the small airport by an employee of Taj, who turned around, boarded a speedboat and proceeded to spend a week at one of the Taj resorts.

The resort, it must be said, was pretty basic. It was all inclusive which meant everyone had to eat the same awful food from a rubbish buffet. I eventually gave up and started eating the food from the staff canteen (dal, sabzi and rice) which was much better.

But none of that mattered. The islands were so beautiful and the water so clear that you could see the bottom of the ocean. So the quality of the food seemed irrelevant. Faced with so much natural beauty, who needed gourmet food or luxury accommodation?

Since then I haven’t stopped going to the Maldives. And I saw firsthand how much everything had changed. Hotelier of Indian origin, Sonu Shivdasani, opened the first luxury resort (Soneva Fushi) and launched the Maldives as a global destination. It now has some of the most beautiful resorts and the highest room rates in the world. Obviously, many people like natural beauty more when it comes to luxury.

When I first went, almost all the resorts were a boat ride away from the airport. But as the number of hotels has increased, you need seaplanes to reach them. Eventually, the Maldivian government established a network of domestic airports and domestic flights to other major islands. He built a bridge connecting the airport island with the city of Male. And Malé itself, which was a very small town (once I walked from end to end in 20 minutes), has become a big city with lots of reclaimed land and tall buildings.

Contrary to what we think now, India never became a big source of tourists for the Maldives. There weren’t even enough flights to begin with. And because hotel prices were so high, Indians preferred to vacation elsewhere.

All this began to change during the pandemic, when European tour groups stopped coming to the cheaper and more average resorts. The Maldives desperately turned to India, our tourists flocked there, took advantage of special prices, and soon every bikini-clad Bollywood star wanted to pose for a photo shoot at a Maldives beach resort.

After the pandemic, the number of flights has finally increased and more Indians are flying to the Maldives. Most still go to the cheaper resorts, but a significant number of high-profile, wealthy people (including movie stars like Akshay Kumar, a regular visitor to the Maldives) vacation at the top resorts.

While all this is happening, political events are happening in parallel, but are largely overlooked by tourists. While Gayoom, who was considered the father of the nation, was a great friend of India, his successors explored other options. The Chinese have cultivated successive Maldivian governments, not because they like to snorkel or hang out on the beaches, but because they want a naval base and also because they want to surround India.

The Chinese have tried this before, with Sri Lanka for example, with disastrous results for Sri Lanka, but there are many politicians in the Maldives who seem keen on China anyway. There are pro-India and pro-China factions in Maldivian domestic politics.

None of this affects tourists who fly directly from the airport to the resort islands, bypassing Male and its politics. But this has ramifications for Maldives-India relations. Low-key statements made by some Maldivian ministers last week have been condemned by other Maldivian politicians, and even the current government (which is generally pro-China) has taken action against those who spoke out of turn.

The Indian response is calibrated. The official statements were high-handed, but we unleashed trolls and got film stars tweeting against the Maldives. The idea is believed to be to maintain official denial but still irritate hostile Maldivian politicians.

From a purely tourism point of view, the campaign is noisy, but may have little effect in the long run. The lack of Indian tourists will hurt the cheaper resorts, but by next season they will find other target groups.

More significant is the diplomatic conflict. I doubt if any small nation in India’s sphere of influence can afford to make an enemy of the biggest power in the region. China may be more powerful than India, but it is far.

That is why the Maldivian government is now committed to damage control. But yes, there is always the danger that politicians who are not used to governing will say something stupid that will further worsen relations.

We hope that New Delhi and Male will resolve this unnecessary squabble. Relations between India and the Maldives are deep and long-standing. It would be a shame if inexperienced politicians ruined these ties.

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