In the poll “Has the coup affected your holiday plans in the Maldives?” hosted on a Chinese website on February 12, a little more than one third of the 8,107 votes chose “it has affected them more or less”, while one third of Chinese voters indicated “it has no influence on them”. Less than one third were unaware of the political situation.
Following the abrupt resignation of former president Mohamed Nasheed early last week China’s embassy in the Maldives, which opened in November, 2011, notified Chinese agencies and media outlets in an unofficial advisory that capital Male’ is currently unsafe for tourists and advised tourists to make only necessary trips to Male’.
“We have been trying our best to ensure Chinese nationals’ personal safety. Tourists reach the international airport and then can directly go to the resort. They will be safe on the resorts,” said Sun Jianbo, Second Secretary of China’s Embassy in Male’.
“As far as I know, no harm to Chinese tourists has been caused by these political events yet,” he added.
In 2011, China rose to become the No.1 source of tourism, surpassing the Maldives’ traditional European market with over 700,000 arrivals last year. The jump in business has re-shaped the industry- local travel agencies and resort staff are now keen to hire Mandarin speakers and are working to stay current on Chinese cultural habits.
Although many have projected that China will remain a stable, even growing partner in tourism, the Chinese market was quick to respond to what Nasheed’s government has called a coup d’etat on February 7.
A few Maldivian travel agencies who work closely with the Chinese market told Minivan News that the current politics has started to influence their bookings. “Quite a lot of Chinese customers are very concerned of this situation. Some of them are hesitant to make reservations now,” said Emy Zheng, a Chinese national working at Villuxa Holidays. She noted that only a few bookings have been cancelled, while several others have tried to postpone their holiday.
Zheng suggested that most Chinese nationals responded well to explanations of the situation, and assurances that the Maldives one-island one-resort mantra guarantees vacationers distance from local events.
“I told guests about the real life in Male’, which is more reliable than news they get from media in China. Some friends in China are very worried about my life here after seeing news on TV, but personally I don’t feel threatened living in Male’ as my friends and I just stay at home after work,” Zheng explained, adding, “I don’t think many Chinese have the access to know the real life here.”
Like Zheng, many Chinese national workers in Male’ have stuck to their routines. For them, the tourism industry has only been minimally affected. In China, however, travel agencies say the market is taking a heavy hit.
Shanghai travel agent Sun Yi said she was faced with many cancellations just two days after the coup. ”It has seriously affected our business. Many guests cancelled the Maldivian holiday package which used to be very popular,” she explained.
Yi continued that her company has also decided to suspend its plan to hold a commercial event at a Maldives resort this spring.
Although a Chinese tourism industry professional on the marketing of holiday destination Maldives, Yi has not yet visited the country. She said she is very worried about the current state of affairs.
Social media suggests that the average Chinese traveler is barely informed.
Before most Chinese media outlets had reported news of the Maldives’ change of government, travelers-to-be noticed a post in WEIBO (Chinese version of Twitter) by Maldives resort-based Chinese diving instructor Jai He.
Mr. He received the news of Nasheed’s resignation while watching national television during his lunch hour on Male’. After posting the news on WEIBO he was immediately contacted by a few Chinese media.
But now, a WEIBO search for “Maldives” yields only a few incomplete statements of the actual events; most posts voice poetic concerns of a tainted dream holiday or honeymoon, or an exaggerated description of the current situation in paradise.
One forum user wrote, “Fires of war are burning through the country. The country I want to go most eagerly is not safe anymore.”
Among the posts the word “democracy”- a concept politicians on both sides of the divide are using as weapon and shield – was uncommon.
WEIBO has undoubtedly become a platform for some Chinese to enjoy a moderate amount of free speech. While the Maldives is a definite topic of conversation, WEIBO users are more concerned with the damage to their holiday dreams than the threats on Male’s streets- or the connection between the current change of government and China’s own so-called “democratic centralisation”.
But the government is more cautious.
While the US and India have recognised the Maldives’ new regime under former Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, China has not officially expressed any political leaning.
Second Secretary Jianbo told Minivan News he had no idea what would happen to the regime, but “things seem to gradually be calming down now as the new government has appointed new officers today.”
In spite of the uncertainty, the Chinese tourism board has not issued a travel alert for the Maldives.
“We are not able to release anything now towards the current situation until the Chinese
foreign affairs department speaks,” Sun said, indicating that more information would be available in a few days’ time.
“The Embassy’s most important function is to maintain and deepen the two countries’ relationship,” Sun explained. Asked whether China will continue to foster a close relationship with the new government, Sun said, “No comments”.