Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to “those who wish to embrace the adventurer in them” to travel to Lakshadweep provoked an extraordinary personal attack on him by Maldivian government officials, and irate responses by Indians on social media — including announcements that they were cancelling visits to the Maldives — earlier this month.

The Maldives, an archipelago of 1,190 coral islands and sandbanks clustered in 20-odd atolls, sprawls over a patch of North Central Indian Ocean southwest of Kerala and Sri Lanka; Male, the capital, lies about 600 km southwest of Thiruvananthapuram.

Lakshadweep, which translates into Sanskrit and Malayalam as “hundred thousand islands”, is a group of 36 coral islands with a total area of only 32 sq km — India’s smallest Union Territory. The islands, which are at distances between 220 km and 440 km from Kochi, lie to the north of the Maldives.

Both archipelagos are part of the same chain of coralline islands that extends southward beyond the equator to the Chagos archipelago.

How many tourists visit Lakshadweep currently?

No updated data are available, but the numbers are negligible compared to other tourist destinations in India — a statistical zero share of the total, according to India Tourism Statistics 2019 published by the Union Ministry of Tourism. According to the data, 10,435 domestic tourists and 1,313 foreign tourists visited Lakshadweep in 2018; these numbers were 6,620 and 1,027 respectively in 2017.

Basic Statistics 2014, a publication of the Directorate of Planning and Statistics, Lakshadweep, says 5,277 Indians and 398 foreigners arrived in the islands in 2013-14, and 7,315 Indians and 437 foreign tourists visited in 2014-15.

How do these numbers compare with those for the Maldives?

Data on the website of the Maldives Ministry of Tourism show 1,01,626 tourists had arrived in the country until January 17 in 2024 — almost 6,000 arrivals per day on average. This was higher than the 92,848 arrivals until January 17 in 2023, and 76,155 arrivals until January 17, 2022.

More than 1.87 million tourists visited the Maldives in all of 2023, and more than 1.67 million visited in 2022, the data show.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, tourists from India have constituted the largest share of visitors to the country, Maldivian government data show. More than 2 lakh tourists from India visited the Maldives in 2023, accounting for 11.2 of arrivals in the country.

In 2022, 2021, and 2020 too, Indians had the largest share of arrivals at 14.4%, 22.1%, and 11.3% of the total respectively.

How did the Maldives become such an attractive destination for tourists?

The Maldives has long invested in tourism. The Maldives tourism master plan 1996-2005 notes that tourism, which started in 1972 with the development of 60 tourist beds on two islands, has been “the most important economic activity” in the country since the 1980s.

Today, the Maldives is an international tourism hotspot. Tourism directly contributes almost 30% of the country’s GDP, and generates more than 60% of its foreign currency earnings. The country is serviced by 40 carriers from around the world, including Air India, Vistara, and IndiGo that fly to Male from Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Kochi.

The Maldives offers visa-free arrivals to its major source markets, which include India, Russia, China, and Kazakhstan. As of January 17, there were 180 resorts, 15 hotels, 811 guesthouses, and 140 safari vessels offering a total of more than 62,000 beds, according to the Maldives tourism ministry.

In 2009, local island guesthouses started to pop up on the islands and atolls, after a change in the rules allowed tourists to stay among the local population, rather than only on privately owned resort islands. Often an entire island in the Maldives is occupied by a single resort, offering great privacy and luxury to wealthy visitors. Over the years, many of the resorts have gained a reputation for high standards of hospitality.

Why is there such a vast gulf between the Maldives and Lakshadweep?

The Lakshadweep occupies a far smaller area — only 10 islands are inhabited — and the scope for tourism is limited. However, India has never invested in its tourism potential, in part due to concerns over environmental damage and destruction of local livelihoods.

P P Mohammed Faizal, who has represented Lakshadweep in Lok Sabha since 2014, said the islands simply do not have the capacity and resources to host a large number of tourists, and that the recent calls by celebrities to head to Lakshadweep was the “wrong way”.

“We are not in a position to accept a huge influx of tourists because of the fragile ecology and sensitive environment,” he said.

In May 2012, the Supreme Court appointed a panel under Justice R V Raveendran (retd) to look into the environmental and developmental challenges on the islands. The committee recommended that all infrastructure development proposals should be in accordance with an Integrated Island Management Plan, and should be implemented in consultation with elected local self-government bodies.

The report noted the “fragile ecology of the islands and the need for conservation of the corals, lagoons and other ecosystems” and laid down the carrying capacity of each island. Bangaram, the uninhabited island that the Prime Minister visited, has the largest carrying capacity of 200 cottages. Among the inhabited islands, Kavaratti has a capacity of 243 cottages.

Faizal said that the people who have been living on the islands for generations, are opposed to the administration behaving “as if the land belongs to the government”. The Administrator, Praful Patel, has faced protests for his development initiatives, and local groups have obtained a stay on some of the works from the High Court.

“Even if you want to develop the islands, there is not much land available,” Faizal said.

What tourist infrastructure is available on the islands currently?

Bangaram currently has just 67 cottages. Many places in Kavaratti and Minicoy are yet to be renovated after they fell into disuse during the Covid-19 pandemic. “In Kavaratti, there could be 14 cottages… As of now there is no infrastructure to accommodate a rush of tourists,” Faizal said.

Entry to the islands is restricted. “One requires an entry permit issued by Lakshadweep Administration to visit,” the administration says on its website.

A small 72-seat aircraft flies between Kochi and Agatti, often only once a day, which caters to both tourists and the resident population. Only five of the seven passenger ferries that ply between Lakshadweep and Kochi are currently operational. “The passage takes 14 to 18 hours depending on island chosen for journey,” the administration website says.

“The ships together can carry 2,100 people, but not all the five ships are available every day. Only about 1,500-1,900 seats would be available at a time, and only a few ships have some seats reserved for tourists,” Faizal said. Local people complain this is inadequate even for their requirements.

Fareed Khan, a property developer and resident, said there has not been much follow-up action after the Lakshadweep Tourism Policy was published in February 2020. “As per the policy, private, public and PPP model was allowed in tourism development. Applications were invited from local entrepreneurs to develop tourist homes and resorts in Agatti and Kavaratti. Eleven applications were made, but no final approvals came. We still have to bring in tourists through the permit system, following a complicated documentation process,” Khan said.

However, both Faizal and Khan are optimistic, now that the Prime Minister has taken an interest himself. “It looks promising. I have learnt that applications will be invited for four islands, Bangaram, Thirunakkara, Suheli Cheriyakara, and Cheriyam. There could be big projects too,” Khan said.

Faizal said: “What we want is high-end tourism, but with low volumes.”