Uncertain future for Mauritius' tourism sector
afrol News, 12 August - The tourism industry, one of the principal economic sectors in Mauritius, is running into troubled waters. A slow start to this year's season and the possible arrival of international low-budget operators is shaking up Mauritian stakeholders, fearing that times may change.
So far, the 2004 tourist season in Mauritius has had a very slow start. Mauritian authorities talk about a fall in the number of tourist arrivals this year - a trend that seems likely to be strengthened as the seasons nears its end.
Mauritius has always been marketed as a high-class destination with a price level scaring off most potential visitors. This year's drop in arrivals in many ways reflects the trend of European tourists desiring to reach destinations with a good value for their money. While Mauritius now can count on several low and medium price hotels, there are no licensed carriers taking tourists to the island at a favourable rate.
Ironically, new developments that could turn these negative trends are met with great concern among Mauritian tourism stakeholders. Mauritian authorities are currently negotiating with the German airline company and budget tour operator LTU. If an agreement is reached, Mauritius could for the first time open its air space to a normal-priced tour operator.
LTU plans to offer reasonable - not low price - flights from Germany to Mauritius and to use the Indian Ocean island's free medium class hotel capacity. These possible organised tours would, for the first time, make Mauritius a holiday destination for middle class Europeans. Further, it would better exploit the growing capacity of medium class hotels on the island.
Finally, the possible Mauritian deal with LTU would increase the arrivals of German tourist to the island. According to data from the Statistics Unit at the Mauritian Tourism Ministry, Germans are the already third largest national group of tourist arriving the country, after French and British nationals. Four out of five tourists going to Mauritius are Europeans and German nationals constitute one eighth of this group.
Despite these obvious benefits to the Mauritian tourism sector, the proposed deal is met with scepticism from within the sector. The Mauritian newspaper 'L'Express' reports from Port Louis that "some stakeholders that Mauritius might lose its specificity as a high-class destination" as a result of the possible LTU deal.
Decades of tourism policies and infrastructure building in Mauritius have created a fame of luxury and an image of a paradise island where the rich and famous can avoid the charterloads of "ordinary tourists". The government has thus so far refused air access to any charter company and budget airliners. May Mauritius now start to ruin its image, stakeholders therefore ask.
The Ministry of Tourism and the official Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority however see things different. LTU does not plan to run classic low budget charter tourism to Mauritius but will market the island for the upper end of its middle class clients. Mauritius needed to "adapt to the international environment," the national tourism authority told 'L'Express'.
Further, observers saw a need to improve the correlation between the national hotel strategy and the airline strategy. While many medium class hotels had been built lately, there were no medium priced airliners to transport foreigners to Mauritius. The hotels therefore remain empty, thus scaring off investors in the national tourism industry.
For Mauritian Tourism Minister Anil Kumarsingh Gayan, a possible deal with LTU represents a normal adjustment of the country's tourism sector. The government gives high priority to the survival of its national carrier, Air Mauritius, which is committed to government policies regarding the destination. This means a continued profile of Mauritius as a high-class destination.
Minister Gayan recently stated that his government would stick to this strategy. Under no circumstances, Mauritius should start "depending on other airlines to service the tourist industry," which the Minister holds "is fraught with grave dangers and uncertainties." A possible deal with LTU will therefore only be an addition to Mauritian high-class tourism policies.
The Ministry nevertheless is in a position where it urged to act rapidly to turn the negative trends in the tourism sector. Mauritius cannot afford a detraction of this important sector as the general economic outlook for the island currently is bleak.
The two main sectors of Mauritius' economy, sugar production and the textile industry, are currently showing signs of a crisis. Sugar prices are falling due to EU and US subsidies to their own sugar producers and Mauritian textile producers are disengaging workers. Prime Minister Paul Bérenger this week met with private sector representatives and pointed to the tourism industry as the best bid to repair the economy.