Beijing, Jun 26: A senior Maldivian minister on his maiden visit to China on Wednesday spoke of President Mohamed Muizzu's recent visit to New Delhi and the importance of India to his country's tourism-dependent economy.

The comments by Minister of Economic Development and Trade Mohamed Saeed came as Male seems to have re-oriented ties with New Delhi following President Muizzu, known for his pro-China leanings, attending Prime Minister Narendra Modi's swearing-in ceremony earlier this month.

“President Muizzu reiterated that India remains our closest neighbour,” Saeed, who is attending the 15th World Economic Forum (WEF) at Dalian, told CNBC International TV in an interview.

“India and Maldives have a long relationship. India is one of the most important tourism destinations for us, especially in terms of inbound tourism. There are a lot of Indian investments in Maldives, especially in the tourism sector,” he said answering a question about “strained” ties between Maldives and India.

On his return to Male from New Delhi, President Muizzu described his official visit to India to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Modi as a "significant success" for the Maldives.

Muizzu also emphasised that the strong ties between the two nations would bring prosperity to the Maldives and Maldivian citizens, and he expressed optimism for a successful bilateral relationship in the future.

Saeed is the first Maldives minister to visit China after Muizzu visited Beijing in January which made headlines as it took place in the backdrop of his demand for the withdrawal of over 80 Indian military personnel operating two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft gifted by India.

During that visit, he met Chinese President Xi Jinping and signed a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership with Beijing besides 20 agreements. Later, his government also signed a deal with China's military for the supply of 'non-lethal' weapons to the Maldives free of cost.

Around the same time, prompted by the controversial remarks by three officials after Modi posted a photograph of Lakshadweep Islands, scores of Indians, including many celebrities, ran a #BoycottMaldives campaign that continues to impact and has seen a huge drop in number of Indian tourists to the archipelagic nation.

As per statistics from the Maldives Ministry of Tourism, the total number of tourists' arrival in 2024 as on June 25 was 9,93,328. Of these, with 1,15,815 tourists, China -- number 3 last year -- topped the list (11.7 per cent).

It is followed by Russia at 1,02,317 (10.3 per cent), UK at 91,712 (9.2 per cent), Italy at 79,287 (8.0 per cent) and Germany at 77,155 (7.8 per cent) while India, which was at number 1 position last year, was at sixth position with only 61,770 (6.2 per cent) tourists.

However, soon after New Delhi started replacing Indian military personnel with civilians, Muizzu appeared to be re-orienting ties with India.

In March, he announced that India “without a question” will continue to remain the Maldives' “closest ally” and urged New Delhi to provide debt relief.

Meanwhile, Saeed on Tuesday held talks with Chinese Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao on trade and economic cooperation on the sidelines of the WEF.

The two ministers discussed expediting preparations to implement the particulars of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the Maldives and China.

“Saeed and Wentao discussed establishing a currency settlement system to enhance robust trade and commerce between the two countries,” the Maldivian media reported.

“Had a constructive meeting with the Minister of Commerce of PRC. Reflected on the meeting between President Xi Jingping & Pres Dr MMuizzu & discussed options for deepening trade & investment co-operation between our two countries,” Saeed said in a post on X after the meeting.

There was, however, no reference to any talks between the two ministers about Maldives' requests to China to restructure debt.

Last month, Chinese envoy to Maldives Wang Lixin told the media in Male that China has no plans to restructure the debt owed by Maldives to Beijing because it will hinder Male from securing new loans.

According to official figures as of 2023, the Maldives' foreign debt was stated to be over USD four billion, of which it owes about USD 1.5 billion to its biggest lender China.

Observers say without restructuring of debt, Maldives could face a similar situation as Sri Lanka leading its sovereign default in 2022. PTI