Beijing, Jan 9 (PTI) Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu on Tuesday appealed to China to “intensify” efforts to send more tourists to his country, amid a spate of cancellation of reservations by Indian tourists after a diplomatic row erupted over the derogatory remarks by his ministers against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
On the second day of his five-day state visit to China, Muizzu in his address to the Maldives Business Forum in Fujian Province on Tuesday termed China as the island nation’s “closest” ally.
“China remains one of our closest allies and development partners,” he said.
He praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2014, saying that they “delivered the most significant infrastructure projects witnessed in Maldivian history”, according to his speech.
He urged China to bolster the flow of its tourists to the Maldives.
“China was our (Maldives’) number one market pre-Covid, and it is my request that we intensify efforts for China to regain this position,” according to a readout posted on his official website.
Also, Maldivian media reported that the two countries have signed a USD 50 million project to develop an integrated tourism zone in the Indian Ocean island.
Muizzu’s appeal for more Chinese tourists came amid a diplomatic row following the derogatory remarks by some Maldivian ministers against Prime Minister Modi after he posted a video of him on a pristine beach during his recent visit to Lakshadweep.
Muizzu’s government suspended three deputy ministers for their derogatory posts on social media.
Also, the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) strongly condemned the derogatory comments.
According to data released by the Maldives Tourism Ministry earlier, India has remained the largest tourist market for the country in 2023.
The highest number of visitors to the Maldives were from India, with 209,198 arrivals, followed by Russia in second place with 209,146 arrivals, and China in third place with 187,118 arrivals.
In 2022, India remained the top Maldives tourism market, with 240,000 arrivals. Russia followed closely in second place with 198,000 tourists, and Britain ranked third with over 177,000 arrivals.
Before COVID, China held the top spot with over 2.80 lakh tourists but is currently struggling to revive its domestic and foreign tourism due to a nearly four-year lockdown policy and the continued slowdown of its economy.
As a result, Chinese tourists who travelled abroad for holidays in millions before COVID are now restricting themselves given the economic slowdown.
Regarded as a pro-China politician in the Maldives, Muizzu told the Forum that his administration is focused on diversifying Maldives’ economic base and ensuring economic security while continuing to strengthen and drive the tourism industry and boost visitor numbers.
He also said that his administration is committed to the quick implementation of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed with China, describing it as a symbol of the close commercial ties between the two countries.
Maldives and China signed the FTA in December 2014 during the pro-China President Abdulla Yameen administration. However, his successor, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s administration did not implement the agreement, according to Maldives media reports.
He said the FTA is a symbol of the close commercial ties between the two countries.
“The FTA’s aim to boost bilateral trade and investments, especially increasing our export of fish products to China is a key priority for us through the FTA,” he said.
China-Maldives bilateral trade in 2022 totalled to USD 451.29 million of which China’s exports constituted USD 451.29 million against USD 60,000 of exports from Maldives.
Muizzu also sought investments from Chinese companies for 11 projects at the Maldives Investment Forum.
The projects included the relocation of the Male Commercial Port to Thilafushi, the Velana International Airport development project, the construction of 15 more airports, and the expansion of SEZ, Maldives web portal edition.mv reported.