Colombo, February 2:
Alienated from India, the Mohamed Muizzu government in the Maldives has entered into deals with China and Sri Lanka to counter India’s bid to influence its policies.
For one, the Maldives is trying to attract Chinese tourists to fill the gap created by the loss of Indian tourists due to calls in India for the boycott of the Maldives for its anti-Indian and pro-Chinese stance.
For another, the Maldives and Sri Lanka have entered into an agreement for providing emergency medical evacuation in place of aservice so far provided by an Indian military aviation team.
The fifth meeting of the Joint Sino-Maldivian Mechanism was held in Male on Thursday to enhance the safety of Chinese tourists in the Maldives, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
The meeting was co-chaired by Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sheryna Abdul Samad and the Chinese Ambassador to the Maldives Wang Lixin.
The meeting was convened as a continuation of the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the two nations during President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Maldives in September 2014.
The primary focus of the meeting was to address the safety concerns of Chinese tourists visiting the Maldives. State Minister Sheryna, in her opening remarks, expressed satisfaction over the resurgence of Chinese tourist arrivals in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. She noted that China has ascended to the position of the third-largest tourism market for the Maldives.
She expressed optimism about a significant demographic shift in the Maldives’ tourist population with the commencement of direct flights from China, forecasting a substantial increase in arrivals.
Ambassador Wang expressed her gratitude to the Maldivian government for its coordination and cooperation in ensuring a safe environment for Chinese tourists in the Maldives.
This development aligns with the government’s ambitious plans to reinstate China as the top source market for tourism this year. Prior to the pandemic, China was recognised as the Maldives’ largest tourism market.
Despite currently ranking third, concerted efforts are underway to attract more Chinese travellers, with a positive growth trajectory anticipated.
As part of this effort, Hong Kong Airlines resumed direct flights to the Maldives two weeks ago. In addition to Hong Kong Airlines, three other Chinese airlines—Szechuan Air, China Eastern, and Beijing Capital Airlines—also operate flights to the Maldives, the website www.maldivesrepublic.mv reported.
In 2023, China was the third-top source market for the Maldives, with 187,118 Chinese tourists contributing 10% of the market share.
In 2023, India was first, accounting for over 200,000 arrivals. But in January 2024, India was fifth in the ranking due to the informal boycott call in India following some anti-Indian remarks made by three junior Maldivian ministers.
Maldives-Sri Lanka Pact
Meanwhile, the Maldives and Sri Lanka agreed to establish a framework for medical evacuation flights to replace the service thus far rendered by an Indian military team operating two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft.
The Muizzu government had asked India to withdraw the military personnel and the aircraft as it did not want foreign military boots on its soil. The government had given March 15 as the deadline, but the Indian government said that the issue would be sorted out by a joint core committee.
The agreement with Sri Lanka is that the evacuation flights will be between Malé and Colombo, The Sri Lankan Minister of Aviation Nimal Sripala de Silva announced that the air ambulance service would start on March 1, but the Maldivian Minister Mohamed Ameen would not commit himself to any date.
Minister de Silva also highlighted that the Maldivian government has decided to redirect patients requiring emergency medical care to Sri Lankan hospitals in the future in view of the superior quality of emergency care in Sri Lanka.
The Male-Colombo agreement marks a departure from the Maldives’ previous practice of sending patients to India for emergency medical care.
The Maldivian government intends to repurpose the De Havilland Canada DHC-8, commonly known as the Dash 8, a turboprop-powered aircraft operated by the national carrier, Maldivian, to provide air ambulance services.
Earlier this week, the government also announced plans to recommence Maldivian helicopter services for medical evacuation purposes.
During previous administrations, inter-island medical evacuations were conducted using two Indian navy helicopters and a Dornier aircraft provided by the India. But the administration under Mohamed Muizzu has discontinued the use of aircraft provided by India and requested that the Indian government withdraw its military presence in the Maldives.
India has reacted to the anti-Indian Maldivian moves by promoting, among Indians, Sri Lanka and the Lakshadweep islands as alternatives to the Maldives as tourist destinations.
In a recent remark, External Affairs Minister S.Jaishankar recommended Sri Lanka as a destination for Indians as the people there are friendly to India. Of course, he took care not to drag the Maldives as such into the controversy.
Likewise, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman said in her budget speech that the government of India would do all it can to promote Lakshadweep islands as a tourist destination, again without mentioning the Maldives.