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Chinese tourists, diplomats make a splash in the Maldives

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    Hotel guides wait for Chinese tourists as they walk out of the international arrivals hall at the Male International Airport on September 5, 2013. The travellers pouring off flight LV199 from Shanghai into the international airport of the Maldives, many dressed in designer labels, are an unmissable sign of China's interest in the far-flung archipelago. (AFP/File)

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    Chinese tourists relax as they wait to be escorted at a hotel in the Male on September 6, 2013. The travellers pouring off flight LV199 from Shanghai into the international airport of the Maldives, many dressed in designer labels, are an unmissable sign of China's interest in the far-flung archipelago. (AFP/File)

The travellers pouring off flight LV199 from Shanghai into the international airport of the Maldives, many dressed in designer labels, are an unmissable sign of China's interest in the far-flung archipelago.

Their arrival -- Chinese visitors are now the biggest group of tourists to the Indian Ocean islands -- has been accompanied by greater diplomatic engagement in the Maldives by Beijing, which is investing widely around South Asia.

Recently married Chen Hui and Fang Ye, 20-something business executives from near Shanghai, are returning for their second trip and heading to a resort by speed boat where over-the-water bungalows start at $500 a night.

"Most of our friends come here on their honeymoon," Fang told AFP, who said they were looking forward to doing some fishing and posing for photos on the sun-kissed white sands that draw nearly a million visitors a year.

The Maldives has been promoted as a destination in the Chinese media, she said, with the Islamic republic benefiting from its status as an "approved destination" by the Communist Party government.

Chinese now comprise nearly a quarter of all tourists annually, triggering a recruitment race for Mandarin-speaking hosts, waiters and diving instructors at five-star hotels.

Across the water from the airport island lies the cramped capital Male, where Chinese aid paid for the foreign ministry, a waterfront building built in the shape of sails that evoke the nation's sea-faring character.

In the Sultan Park neighbourhood stands the two-storey national museum, another gift from China that opened in 2010. It hit the headlines two years later when Islamist rioters broke in and smashed invaluable Buddhist artefacts.

Around the same time, Beijing opened an embassy, giving it a permanent diplomatic presence -- and better access to the frequent Chinese swimming casualties who underestimate the dangers of the country's turquoise waters.

"I think we will do our best to develop our friendship and cooperate in the economic field," Chinese ambassador in Male, Yu Hongyao, told AFP in an interview when asked about Beijing's vision for relations.

"Gradually we will give aid to Maldives," he added.

He said that bilateral trade volumes remain "very small" but that talks were on for future joint projects, including possible road construction and education schemes.

China's interest in the Maldives fits a pattern of investments around the Indian Ocean, referred to by some analysts as a "string of pearls" strategy to contain India's rise.

The Maldives consists of more than 1,100 islands scattered across the equator, which sit aside the world's most important shipping channel on which goods from the East travel to markets in the West.

Its strategic location was appreciated by former colonial master Britain, which ran a military base here until 1976, and China was once rumoured to be eyeing an uninhabited atoll as a submarine base.

Ambassador Yu laughs off what he calls alarmist reporting in the Indian media and stresses that the Maldives is an independent country with a diplomatic relationship with Beijing stretching back more than 40 years.

India continues to be by far the biggest foreign influence in the country, but its uncontested hegemony has waned recently -- as it has in other historically pro-India neighbours Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal.

Outgoing president Mohamed Waheed dispatched ministers to Beijing after taking power in 2012 and visited himself later in the year. Most significantly, he alienated New Delhi by ejecting Indian firm GMR, which was running the national airport.

The second round of presidential elections, due to be held on September 28, will therefore be critical for the future trajectory of the country and its eagerness to embrace Chinese aid.

Mohamed Nasheed, who was ousted as president in February 2012 by mutinous police officers and replaced by Waheed, has overcome his sense of betrayal by New Delhi for failing to prevent his overthrow.

"Our foreign policy is 'find a friend, be good to that friend and don't play the friend off against any other'," he told reporters on September 5 shortly after visiting India, where he met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

His opponent in the run-off, Abdullah Yameen, would be likely to take a balanced approach but has personal family reasons to be grateful to India.

His half-brother, long-time autocrat Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled until 2008, was saved from a coup by late Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who dispatched paratroopers in 1988.

Out at the Anantara holiday resort where tourists Chen and Fang are beginning their holiday, such thoughts seem a world away as they are welcomed at the jetty by a traditional drummer and staff bearing cold face towels.

Employees such as spa attendant Huang Jing Fang are on hand 24 hours a day to cater for their every need.

"Maldives is like a dream place for Chinese people, and me also," Huang told AFP. "That's why I came to work here."