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Maldives Bans Israeli Tourists, Then Rethinks Decision

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Maldives Bans Israeli Tourists, Then Rethinks Decision

The government announced that the ban is unlikely to be a “blanket;” it will address concerns over Arab Muslim and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Maldives Bans Israeli Tourists, Then Rethinks Decision

Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu at a fundraising telethon for Palestine, June 12, 2024.

Credit: The President’s Office, Republic of Maldives

A ban on Israeli tourists announced by the Maldives is unlikely to be a “blanket ban” on all Israeli citizens, Attorney General Ahmed Usham indicated on June 13.

Earlier on June 10, the Maldives Parliament moved ahead with a bill to amend the immigration law to bar entry to both Israeli passport holders and Israelis with dual citizenship. It was accepted unanimously and sent to a committee for review.

However, the government has decided to amend the bill to address concerns over Arab Muslim or Palestinian citizens of Israel, Usham told the press. “There are a lot of Palestinian citizens who hold the Israeli passport, counting in the millions. So what would happen if we do a blanket ban like that, these are matters we should think about a little,” the Attorney General said.

The bill was proposed by the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) Member of Parliament Meekail Naseem before the June 2 announcement that President Mohamed Muizzu has “resolved to impose a ban on Israeli passports.”

In lieu of waiting for government-sponsored legislation, the ruling People’s National Congress (PNC) decided to move forward with MP Meekail’s bill as the first order of business for the newly sworn-in 93-member house.

Pressed by journalists on Thursday, Usham denied that the government has reversed its stand. But the Maldives could face legal “complications” if the bill is passed in its current form to prohibit entry to Israelis with dual citizenship or diplomatic passports, he said.

The proposed ban appears to reflect the popular will of the Maldivian people, an ostensibly 100 percent Sunni Muslim population that has long sympathized with the plight of Palestinian refugees. The government’s decision came after months of fundraising efforts and demonstrations calling for a ban on Israeli tourists.

As public anger intensified over the rising civilian death toll in Gaza, protesters gathered outside Parliament in mid-November to demand the ban. A day later, Parliament’s foreign relations committee advised the president to ban Israeli tourists and imports. A non-binding resolution to the effect was passed unanimously in early January.

But after assuming office on November 17, the Muizzu administration insisted that the president could not unilaterally ban Israeli tourists, contending that it was up to the opposition-controlled Parliament to approve the necessary legal changes.

Pressure mounted after Muizzu’s PNC won a supermajority in April’s parliamentary election. The eventual announcement came amid a growing outcry over the president’s spokeswoman and the new Majority Leader of Parliament evading questions about the government’s stand.

Despite the strong consensus in favor of the ban, concerns have been raised over the impact of the unprecedented action on the tourism-dependent economy. Resort operators have expressed fears that the ban will undermine the Maldives’ reputation as a welcoming destination that offers on-arrival visas to tourists from all countries.

“The Maldives is famous as a very hospitable country where everyone can spend their holiday very peacefully and safely. But such actions [as banning nationals of certain countries] are diametrically opposed to that. So travel agents will be hesitant and we are getting questions about what’s happening,” a tourism industry veteran told local outlet Dhauru on the condition of anonymity.

An unnamed industry source told Sun that the Maldives’ brand as a safe haven for people of all faiths and nationalities could be damaged. The ban could foster a perception that antisemitism or religious extremism poses a threat to foreign tourists, the businessperson warned.

A few voices on social media, including a state minister and a local tour operator, also criticized imposing a blanket ban, suggesting instead that Israeli leaders should be directly targeted. But supporters countered that the 1.5 million Palestinians with Israeli citizenship could still visit the Maldives with other travel documents.

Israeli tourists predominantly surfers started visiting the Maldives after a previous ban was lifted in the early 1990s. But Israel is not a significant market for the Maldives. Israeli tourists represented just 0.58 percent of arrivals last year. According to official figures, some 10,966 Israelis visited the Maldives in 2023, down from a peak of 15,748 tourists in 2022. During the first four months of 2024, just over 500 tourists from Israel visited the Maldives

After the Maldives government’s announcement, Israel’s Foreign Ministry advised Israeli tourists to leave the Maldives and urged its citizens to avoid traveling to the country “because if they find themselves in distress for any reason, it will be difficult for us to assist.”

International media widely covered the imminent ban, earning praise for the country from some quarters. But it also drew critical coverage and accusations of bigotry.

The announcement prompted a U.S. member of Congress to push legislation to cut off American aid to the Maldives. A day later, a local artist spray-painted “terrorists” and “child killers” on the wall of the American Center in Malé. Protests have also continued outside the local outlets of Pizza Hut and KFC as part of a boycott campaign.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Muizzu launched a fundraising telethon dedicated to aid for Palestinians and appealed for Maldivians to display an abundance of generosity.” The 15-hour telethon organized by state media raised nearly $650,000. The government is also planning a nationwide rally under the slogan Maldivians in Solidarity with Palestine.”

During Monday’s debate in Parliament on the immigration bill, Deputy Speaker Ahmed Nazim from the ruling PNC advised the committee reviewing the bill to carefully assess the potential consequences for the economy and national security.

Parliamentarian Qasim Ibrahim, owner of the Villa resorts, opposed the ban on the grounds that a Muslim nation should not bar entry to Jews, referring to their status in Islam as followers of a previous revelation of Allah.

“There are lots of Islamic countries in the world aside from the Maldives. But this might be the first Parliament where taking such a step has been proposed,” the leader of the Jumhooree Party said, urging MPs to “think deeply” before approving the ban.