By Chris Lau, Heather Law, Manveena Suri and Vedika Sud, CNN
New Delhi (CNN) — Maldives is facing a boycott from one of its biggest sources of tourism income after three of its officials mocked India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sparking calls from Indian citizens and celebrities to shun the sun-kissed getaway for domestic beaches instead.
The controversy erupted after Modi posted images to social platform X of himself snorkeling and walking along a beach in Lakshadweep, a southern Indian island chain in the Laccadive Sea, off the coast of Kerala.
Modi did not mention India’s picturesque neighbor Maldives in his post, but his effusive praise of the beautiful scenery of the lesser-known archipelago may have been seen as a charm offensive to draw people there for vacation rather than Maldives.
Three Maldives officials responded to his post, describing Modi as a “clown,” “terrorist” and a “puppet of Israel,” according to Reuters.
The Maldives government moved quickly to distance itself from their comments, suspending the three officials – deputy ministers with the Ministry of Youth Employment, Information and Arts – a senior Maldives official told Reuters on Sunday.
In a statement, the Maldives government said it was aware of “derogatory” comments made on social media but stressed the “opinions are personal” and do not represent its views.
“The government believes that the freedom of expression should be exercised in a democratic and responsible manner, and in ways that do not spread hatred, negativity, and hinder close relationships between the Maldives and its international partners,” it said.
The incident comes at a sensitive time, as Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu embarks on a five-day visit to China, his first as President following his election win last October.
Muizzu is known for his pro-China stance and pledged to end his predecessor’s “India first” policy in a region where New Delhi and Beijing vie for influence.
During the trip, he’s expected to meet Chinese officials and sign “key agreements to improve trade, professional, and socioeconomic development,” according to a government statement.
But while Muizzu will be keen to tighten ties with Beijing, the tiny Indian Ocean archipelago – home to around half a million people – can’t afford to alienate its closest neighbor.
Maldives relies heavily on tourism and a large slice of that income comes from India – last year the world’s most populous country accounted for the largest group of tourists visiting its tropical beaches, according to Maldives’ tourism website.
Indian tourists made more than 209,000 trips to Maldives in 2023, making up 11% of its tourism market, statistics released last week show. Russia contributed about the same amount, and China wasn’t far behind, providing 187,118 visits, or 10% of the total.
But the officials’ remarks angered some Indian holidaymakers, who posted screenshots on social media to show they had canceled their trips to the island chain under the hashtag #BoycottMaldives.
Prominent figures, from Bollywood actors to cricket players, also urged fans to turn to local destinations instead, with another hashtag #ChaloLakshadweep – meaning “Let’s go to Lakshadweep,” where Modi visited – gaining traction.
Among them was Bollywood star Akshay Kumar, known for playing the lead in movies with a patriotic theme. He called the Maldivian officials’ remarks “hateful and racist.”
“We are good to our neighbors but why should we tolerate such unprovoked hate? I’ve visited the Maldives many times and always praised it, but dignity first. Let us decide to #ExploreIndianIslands and support our own tourism,” he said.
Indian travel site EaseMyTrip said on Monday it had suspended bookings for flights to Maldives.
“In solidarity with our nation, @EaseMyTrip has suspended all Maldives flight bookings,” Nishant Pitti, CEO and co-founder of EaseMyTrip said in a post on X.
The Confederation of All India Traders, one of the biggest trade bodies in the country, also called on members to suspend business with Maldives.
“Until the Maldives tender an apology or ensure remedial measures, the trading community in India will refrain from doing business with them,” said Praveen Khandelwal, Secretary-General of the group, which represents thousands of traders and trade associations in India.
In a post on X, Maldives Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer called the officials’ remarks “unacceptable,” adding that the archipelago is committed to “fostering a positive and constructive dialogue with our partners.”
A source told CNN on Monday that the Indian High Commission in Maldives had “strongly raised and expressed concerns” to the Maldivian Foreign Office.
Michael Kugelman, director of South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, said the Maldives government’s quick action to suspend the officials and denounce their comments showed how much it values Indian relations.
“This dispute that’s been playing out in recent days suggests that there will be some challenges ahead, but I would argue that at the end of the day the new leadership in Maldives does not want to risk losing its relationship with India,” he said.
“I would contend that this government in Maldives is going to want to balance its relations with both India and China.”
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