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  Mauritian tourism target will prove damaging

      L'Express (Maurice) - Mercredi 16 avril 2008

The most flourishing tourist industry is an undeniable fact. However, the authorities must beware of overdeveloping, which could backfire and chase those looking for a paradise island.

Paradisiac spots like Flat Island would soon become rarities if the tourist industry is outstretched.

Paradisiac spots like Flat Island would soon become rarities if the tourist industry is outstretched.

In the last few years tourist numbers to Mauritius have been growing at 5 or 6 per cent annually with the sector earning around Rs 15 billion (£300 million), which accounts for 8.5 per cent of GDP. Revenue from tourism is the country’s second largest foreign exchange earner and around 50,000 people are directly and indirectly employed in the hospitality sector.

These are very good figures. So good that President Thabo Mbeki on a visit to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Mauritian independence last month asked if experts from the country’s tourist sector could help South Africa in the organisation of 2010 World Cup.

The Mauritian tourist industry is a wonderful success story. In many ways, it defines relations between the country and the rest of the world in a manner that other economic sectors like call centres, offshore banking and textile don’t or can’t. And it is no surprise to find that no one connected with the tourist industry wants to rest on their laurels.

Indeed, the Mauritian Tourist Promotion Authority has recently indicated that it wants to find ways to increase visitor numbers between 10 and 15 per cent annually. The idea is that a combination of growth in traditional tourism associated with beach and other hotels and the development of new segments like medical and wellness tourism as well as conferences staged, for example, at the Indian government-funded Swami Vivekananda International Convention Centre at Pailles will double the number of tourists coming to the island over the next decade.

But is this a good idea? From a narrow economic point of view – assuming that the basic infrastructure, especially the airport and roads, is able to cope with the increase in visitor numbers – it makes a lot of sense. The decline in revenues from sugar and textiles has put a squeeze on the Mauritian economy; it is very tempting, therefore, to try and expand an existing sector that is doing well to take up the economic slack and create additional growth.

From a marketing and brand point of view, however, it makes very little sense indeed. At the moment, Mauritius is positioned in the middle and top end of the tourist market – there are a good number of 3-star hotels and an equal number of 4, 5 and 5-star + hotels. There is also budget sector at the bottom end of the market but, by and large, someone would need local knowledge or be a frequent visitor (like those from nearby Reunion Island) to know how to access it. Most foreign tourists, especially those from mainland Europe who make up 60 per cent of visitors, are happy to pay for accommodation and service in hotels with 4 stars and above.

The Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority (MTPA) states that it wants to increase the number of hotels by a minimum of six each year with the aim of doubling room capacity to around 24,000 by 2015. On my calculation, this means a minimum of an extra 42 hotels in the not too distant future. Many will be built in coastal areas. So the big question is: what effect will this increase in hotels have on the existing tourism market and brand Mauritius?

Around 20 years ago, I was working in Tanzania for a short time and, like many other visitors, I was struck by how attractive the coastal area around Dar-es- Salaam was – large white sandy, palm-fringed beaches that went on for miles. The area was also massively undeveloped in terms of tourism – in fact, there was only a handful of beachside hotels in and around the city. Of course, this absence of a well developed hospitality sector reflected the condition of the Tanzanian economy at the time – the tourist industry was undeveloped because almost everything in the country was undeveloped.

By contrast, the same could not be said of Tanzania’s northern neighbour Kenya which had (and has) a well-developed tourist sector both in coastal and inland areas. But in my mind somehow neither Kenya (with hotels) nor Tanzania (without hotels) could match Mauritius in the quality of its coastal resorts (safaris are, of course, a different matter).

In many ways, small tropical and subtropical islands have an advantage in terms of consumer perception over continental mainland countries with similar coastal attractions. Why? Well, the answer to this question lies in the realm of historical and cultural representations.

An island like Mauritius – as well as other locations like Bali, the Maldives, the Seychelles and Tahiti – conjures up images of a romantic idyll for people brought up in Europe and North America. This explains why island destinations have traditionally been popular with honeymoon couples and, increasingly nowadays, as places for foreign visitors to get married. For example, the London-based company Bespoke Weddings Abroad offers couples the choice of a beach wedding in Mauritius – “You can exchange vows on a white sandy beach, with crystal blue ocean as a backdrop and the palm trees swaying in the distance or an island wedding. Imagine getting married on your own private island!” as well as the opportunity to tie the knot on board a catamaran or even under the ocean waves in a submarine. Something for everyone who wants to get married in an exotic location, really.

And from my observations of tourists in Mauritius the image of a romantic idyll strongly associated with marriage and partnership is able to stretch to include other stages of the life-cycle like that associated with family groups, especially if the adults who are paying for the holiday like to play golf, enjoy being pampered in spas or appreciate fine dining.

But it is clear that the image of Mauritius as an island paradise rests very much on visual cues – note, for example, the references to “white sandy beaches” and “crystal blue ocean” in the Bespoke Weddings Abroad promotional text. This reveals something very important about how Mauritius’ essence is defined and perceived by tourists (and tourist agencies). Other features like excellent service in plush hotels can support but cannot replace these attributes.

In fact, an analysis of reviews of Mauritius by the travel correspondents of European newspapers over the last 25 years will come up with a list of phrases similar or identical to those used by Bespoke Weddings Abroad expressing the idea of Mauritius as a “paradise island”. This suggests that the strength of the Mauritian brand as a tourist destination relies heavily on the absence of significant amounts of development along the coastal areas – in practical terms this means that the beaches and sea must be visible to visitors from most vantage points on the coastal roads. (This also benefits locals as well, of course.)

But eating up increasing amounts of the coastline for new hotels – even those offering 4-star accommodation and above – and other developments like the Integrated Resorts Scheme, which allows wealthy foreigners to buy permanent resident status might well have serious consequences for the future health of the island’s tourist sector. My guess is that the top end of the hotel market – undoubtedly the most lucrative segment in the industry – will be badly damaged.

“New development along the
coastline would present other Indian
Ocean island destinations like
the Maldives and the Seychelles with
a golden opportunity to promote themselves
(...) as “unspoilt” paradise islands.”

Further, new development along the coastline would present other Indian Ocean island destinations like the Maldives and the Seychelles with a golden opportunity to promote themselves — relative to Mauritius – as “unspoilt” paradise islands. The Mauritius tourist industry would then be obliged to rely more on mid-sector and budget sector to make up for any shortfall in overall revenue. The expansion of the mid- and lower end of the market would only further damage Mauritius as an “exclusive” destination.

American marketing expert Laura Ries warns that the desire to milk a successful brand often leads to a critical loss of focus. Inappropriate expansions and add-ons which seem plausible enough at the time can spell disaster in the long term. Ries goes on to say that the best way to manage brands – the lesson is applicable to countries as well as companies – is very “… much like you would manage a stable of racehorses. Don’t over-train, over-race or over-feed.”

A Mauritian tourist sector bent on doubling its capacity by 2015 is in danger of making precisely these sorts of mistakes.