Social media uproar may cost the Maldives millions, as feud with India intensifies

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

“We are seeing a 40% drop in bookings over the last two days,” Ankit Chaturvedi, vice president and global head of marketing at the India-based travel software company Rategain, said Tuesday.

“Most people book on weekends, and therefore the drop seems more significant because ideally [bookings] should have gone up,” he told CNBC Travel.

Travel bookings to the Maldives tumbled following a diplomatic row that erupted last week after a series of posts appeared on X, formerly known as Twitter, on India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s account.

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

Amid reports that thousands of Indian travelers have canceled trips to the Maldives, one prominent Indian travel booking website, EaseMyTrip, announced it is suspending flight bookings from India to the Maldives.

Some travel agents in India say they are canceling bookings to the Maldives, scrubbing their websites of its photos, and recommending travelers go to the Indian archipelago of Lakshadweep, the Andaman Islands, Nicobar Islands or Sri Lanka instead, according to The India Express.

The dispute has thrust a global spotlight on the little-known Lakshadweep, which like the Maldives, is a scenic chain of sandy atolls, coral reefs and crystalline water.

The Maldives, located some 340 miles to the south, is the preferred playground for India, however. In 2023, more than one in 10 arrivals were 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 nearly twice as many Italians — have visited the Maldives in the first week of January, compared to those from India, which fell to fourth place in terms of visitor arrivals.

In the absence of Chinese international travelers, Indians emerged as the region’s travel powerhouse in 2023 and are set to be the fourth largest global travel spenders by 2030.  

If calls to #BoycottMaldives continue, millions could be stake.

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

The posts that kicked it off

Some blamed Modi’s posts for setting off the debacle even though they did not mention the Maldives, which has lost favor in India following the 2023 election of Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu.

Muizzu campaigned on an “India out” policy — in contrast to the Maldivian Democratic Party’s “India First” policy. He also broke with long-standing tradition by choosing China for his first official state visit this week, widely viewed as a snub to India.

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

However, others say Maldives supporters, bristling at online comparisons to Lakshadweep, kicked off 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 lobbed various insults at Modi on X, calling him a “clown,” “terrorist” and “puppet of Israel,” according to Reuters.

Maldives’ Minister of Foreign Affairs Moosa Zameer sought to distance the country from the comments, writing on X that the remarks “are unacceptable and do not reflect the official position of the Government of the #Maldives.”

The three officials were suspended for their social media posts over the weekend, according to the news agency.

But the furor has only intensified since, underscoring the travel industry’s exposure to local geopolitical affairs, as well as the on-going conflict in the Middle East.

An inadvertent push?

As to whether Indian travelers are rescheduling their trips to Lakshadweep, it’s hard to say, said Chaturvedi.

“We cannot track this as there are not enough operations,” he said. According to TripAdvisor, there are just 13 hotels in the archipelago.

Given the mercurial nature of social media outrage, Chaturvedi said he expects the boycott will “pass quickly.”

But a national rallying cry to travel domestically will have much greater staying power, he said. Trending hashtags, like #ExploreIndianIslands, are being pushed online from everyday travelers to Bollywood celebrities, like Akshay Kumar.

Chaturvedi said calls to travel inside India “will last longer — it’s a big agenda of the government.”

An agenda which likely received a bigger push than those behind Modi’s serene photographs by the sea ever imagined.