In the first week of January 2024, India and Maldives found themselves in an unexpected diplomatic spat as prominent officials in Maldives made derogatory remarks against PM Modi. Data reveals that the number of Indian Tourists to Maldives was at an all-time high in 2021 while other popular island destinations such as Indonesia, Thailand are yet to recover from the impact of COVID-19.
In the first week of January 2024, India and Maldives found themselves in an unexpected diplomatic spat as prominent officials in Maldives made derogatory remarks against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The war of words soon escalated, with prominent celebrities urging Indians to explore Lakshadweep, coupled with people cancelling existing reservations and trending #BoycottMaldives on social media. A travel portal named EasyMyTrip followed the path by cancelling travel bookings for Maldives.
But what do numbers reveal about international travel by Indians? In today’s story, we look at trends related to the outbound departures of Indian nationals from India and the recovery of domestic tourism in India.
The primary data source for today’s story is the annual publication, titled ‘Indian Tourism Statistics’, released by the Ministry of Tourism, with the latest one being released in 2022. The Ministry compiles the statistics related to tourism in India based on a wide variety of sources- respective tourism departments of the Indian States, the Bureau of Immigration (BoI), the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), and the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
Further, this report defines outbound travel by Indians as any person with an Indian passport going abroad irrespective of their purpose and destination.
International travel by Indians from India on path of recovery post COVID-19
The Bureau of Immigration (BOI) compiles the total count of Indian nationals leaving the country based on Embarkation cards. In 1991, the departures of Indian nationals were recorded at 1.94 million, and by 2000, this figure had surged to 4.4 million. This further grew to 26.91 million in 2019, reflecting a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.5%. The departure figures thereafter fell to 7.29 million in 2020. The global COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the subsequent lockdown in India in 2020, significantly impacted tourism, leading to a drastic decrease in various parameters that year. However, there was a noteworthy recovery in 2022, with Indian nationals’ departures experiencing a positive growth of 190% over 2020, compared to a substantial decline of 72.9% in 2020 over the figures from 2019.
UAE and Saudi Arabia remain top destinations for Indians even post-pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted the tourism sector. With severe lockdown restrictions and a variety of requirements among nations, the tourism sector registered a decline across the globe in 2020 and 2021. In 2022, the tourism sector did recover partially.
In the Indian scenario, Indians travelling abroad registered an increase to 21.1 million in 2022, up from 7.3 million in 2020. With the pre-pandemic highest figures being 26.9 million in 2019, it can be said that India’s outbound travel domain has recovered decently.
In terms of the destination country, UAE and Saudi Arabia remained the top destination countries for outbound departures of Indian nationals. With Abu Dhabi and Dubai being ‘hub airports’, UAE recorded 5.89 million Indian arrivals in 2022, almost reaching the pre-pandemic level of 6.39 million in 2019. Saudi Arabia also recovered impressively, recording 2.42 million Indian arrivals as compared to 2.92 million in 2019.
Interestingly, the United Kingdom recorded 0.92 million Indian arrivals in 2022, the highest ever since 2011. This could partially be due to long visa waiting periods for other countries such as the USA. Island nations such as Singapore and Thailand witnessed recovery, but the numbers are significantly lower compared to the pre-pandemic levels.
India emerged as the number one market for Maldives tourism in 2020, and retains the same in 2021 & 2022.
With Europe and the Asia-Pacific jointly accounting for over 90% of total arrivals to the Maldives, the majority of the top ten markets for the country emerge from these regions. The reopening of borders ushered in a significant shift in the travel landscape, reshaping the leading markets for the Maldives.
As per the statistics of the Maldives tourism ministry, for the very first time, India claimed the leading spot in the Maldives’ top ten list, contributing 62,960 tourists, marking an 11.3% share in 2020. This is also the first time the Indian market accounted for a double-digit chunk of the market share. India is closely followed by Russia with an 11.1% share, and the United Kingdom with a 9.5% share. In absolute terms, the number of tourists travelling to Maldives from India was highest in 2018, before the surge in 2019 with approximately 90,474 people. Yet, its share in the total Maldives tourists remained at a mere 6.1%.
Further, as per the Ministry of Statistics of Maldives, Indian tourists rose from 10,616 in 2000, with a meager share of 2.5% to a highest of 2,91,787 in 2021, accounting for 22% of the total, indicating the increasing preference to visit this island nation. The following year 2022 witnessed a slight decline, with 2,41,382 Indians visiting Maldives (14.4% of the total).
Delayed weddings, simplified visa process, ease of restrictions, and the concept of ‘one-island-one-nation’, could be some of the prime reasons behind the surge in the inflow of Indian nationals to Maldives post-COVID-19.
(Note: The data of Indian tourists’ arrival in Maldives as per both Indian and Maldives tourism is the same from 1999 to 2018. From 2019, there is a significant divergence in the data published by these two agencies.)
Other popular-island nations yet to reach pre-pandemic inflow levels of Indian nationals.
With tourism being the biggest contributor to GDP, small island nations were badly hit by the pandemic. While Maldives recorded impressive recovery figures, other popular island nations are yet to achieve the pre-pandemic levels. Thailand and Singapore almost recorded more than 15 lakh Indian arrivals before 2020. In 2021, these countries received a meager less than 1 lakh Indian arrivals in 2022.
How is domestic tourism recovering?
Post the pandemic, one of the anticipated transformations in the tourism sector is an increasing preference to travel domestically. Domestic tourism is playing a role in alleviating the impact of the pandemic, to some extent, and with governments incentivising and promoting domestic tourism, domestic tourism is only expected to grow.
A domestic tourist visit is defined as below.
The data on domestic tourism in India show that domestic tourist visits rose to a highest of 2321 million in 2019, up from 236 million in 2001. During the pandemic, domestic tourist visits decreased significantly to 610 million in 2020 and 677 million in 2021. In 2022, domestic tourism recovered to 1731 million, registering a growth of over 150% from 2021 levels.