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The Maldives still considers India a friend, the tourism-dependent country’s economic minister has said while defending President Mohamed Muizzu’s stand against the presence of “foreign soldiers” in the archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean.

Within hours of taking oath last November, Muizzu, known for his pro-China leanings, asked India to withdraw its 88 military personnel from the country, saying their presence was a threat to Maldives’ sovereignty.

During an interview with Turkey-based news outlet TRT World on Wednesday, Maldives’ Economic Minister Mohamed Saeed was asked whether Male can be friends with both China and India, to which he responded that Maldives is a friend of all countries, not just the two.

“I think the Maldives is a friend of all the countries, not only two countries. We are a tourist country and open to the world. As a holiday destination, we are appreciated by both Chinese and Indians. As far as trade is concerned, both markets are important to the Maldives,” Sun.mv news portal quoted Saeed as saying.

Saeed also stressed that Maldives still considers India a friend as he said: Of course, we are friends (with both). What our president, our government and the people reject is the presence of foreign soldiers here. Muizzu has repeatedly affirmed that no Indian military personnel, not even those in civilian clothing, would be present inside his country after May 10.

While the first batch of Indian military personnel manning a helicopter has left the country, Muizzu said that the troops stationed on the second platform will be withdrawn within the current month.

The Indian military personnel operating the third aviation platform will be withdrawn by May 10, he has said. Muizzu, who assumed the presidency in November last year visited China in January and the two countries have inked several agreements in recent weeks, including that for the supply of non-lethal weapons and training.

Commenting on the dwindling number of Indian tourists visiting the Maldives, Saeed said, certain headlines on the issue have blown things out of proportion. On the question of the decline in the number of Indian tourists in recent months, I think certain headlines have blown things out of proportion. Tourism arrivals from certain countries decline while they grow from others, he said.

For example, China was in the number one spot before Covid. But now it has bounced back. We have flights coming from India on a daily almost hourly basis, Saeed said. These changes are seen as a reflection of a shift in Maldives’ ties with the regional superpowers, with the new administration fostering closer relations with China, causing friction with India, the news portal said.

The comments come amid reports of an overall increase in the number of tourists but decline in number of Indian tourists. According to the statistics by the Maldives’ Ministry of Tourism, as of April 3, of the total 6,20,358 tourists arriving, China continued to lead with 69,028, followed by Russia (63,272), United Kingdom (61,394), Italy (58,613), Germany (48,581) and India (35,378).

A full-blown backlash was directed at the Maldives following derogatory remarks against India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on social media by three Maldivian officials after Modi posted photos and video of the pristine Lakshadweep Islands on India’s west coast on January 6 on his X handle. Scores of Indians, including multiple celebrities, cancelled their reservations and dropped plans to visit Maldives, which is reflected in the tourism arrival statistics.

Notwithstanding the #BoycottMaldives campaign by Indians, there has been an overall increase in the number of tourist arrivals in Maldives, especially with more and more direct flights from additional destinations in recent months. Comparative statistics from the Maldives Tourism Ministry for January-March and up to April 3 showed that there were 4,47,581 tourists in 2022; 5,43,939 in 2023 and 620,358 in 2024, showing a 14 per cent increase in arrivals this year compared to 2023 during the same time.

According to the Maldives Tourism Ministry statistics, over 17 lakh tourists visited the island nation in 2023, out of which more than 2,09,198 visitors were Indians followed by Russians (2,09,146) and China (1,87,118). The number of Indian visitors was more than 2.4 lakh in 2022 while over 2.11 lakh Indians flew to the Maldives in 2021. The Maldives was also one of the few countries open for international tourists during the pandemic and nearly 63,000 Indians visited that country during that period.

However, for the first two months of 2024, India occupied the sixth spot in tourist arrivals, the Ministry’s statistics showed, compared to the consistent first spot since 2020 with Indian tourists visiting the island nation even during the pandemic time.

(This story has not been edited by News18 staff and is published from a syndicated news agency feed – PTI)

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