By Nita Chicooree-Mercier
To make up for the loss of Chinese tourists, Air Mauritius lowers its fare on Réunion-Mauritius route. Nothing new, just the same marketing strategy to lure customers from the neighbouring island to withdraw euros from their bank accounts and spend them in Mauritius when far-away skies look bleak. Business as usual when it comes to fill the coffers of the national airline and raise the spirits of the hotel industry which has reaped huge profits generated by tourism for decades.
The wildcat capitalist success story of sugar barons’ investment in the hotel industry, and in any new promising sector which guarantees a free flow of fortunes, real estate development and commercial centres with the blessing of the political class is no fresh news. Miles ahead in the race for amassing wealth and securing the best deals with low taxes makes of them a class of businessmen apart, one which benefits from the generosity of banks in terms of low interest rates. Customer service itself has become a minor financial activity for bank companies which invest more energy and finance in lucrative businesses. We end up with a class of business tycoons who run full speed in any race which promises gold medals to the winners.
To strike a balance between staggering high incomes which fall into the lap of top bosses of the private sector, government authorities oversaw the more than doubling of their salaries some ten years ago. Subsequently, it created a bourgeoisie d’Etat by granting a substantial rise to functionaries in the Civil Service. The end result remains unchanged, though: a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.
The tourism sector is so dominated by the hotel industry that any mention of lower inflow of tourists evokes empty rooms in luxury hotels that dot the coasts of the island. In the late 80s and early 90s, with an increasing number of private-owned restaurants cropping up in coastal areas, hotels responded by offering full boarding to their western customers, a strategy to prevent tourists from eating out and keep the profits in the coffers of the hotel industry.
Sharing benefits of tourism industry
The sector provides a livelihood to those employed in transport, taxis, food outlets, restaurants, shops and the cottage industry. Can it be improved? Can the sector be more flexible and inclusive to accommodate minor stakeholders? Views have been aired to suggest that the tourism industry be democratized but, up to now, these have fallen on deaf ears.
Reportedly, attempts to set up structures to provide alternative accommodation in ordinary folks’ private homes have drawn little response from the Ministry of Tourism for years or altogether ignored. To please lobbies of hotel barons? For decades, the policy has focused on upmarket tourism to sell the island as a high-class destination with luxury hotels where a plethora of staffers and waiters dote on visitors and pamper them throughout their stay. The trend was to look down on lower-income visitors defined as touristes sac à dos. Except in times of crisis, when gates are flung wide open to one and all, and week-end packages are offered to Mauritians.
The argument put forward to polish the brand of the top luxury destination was that open-gate tourism puts off high-income foreign visitors and they will fly away to other attractive islands. This is questionable. Canary Islands, Baleares off the coast of Portugal which are about three hours flight from main European cities still attract all classes of visitors, not only the super rich. Bali is another destination where a wide range of accommodation is available to visitors.
Logically, why should it be an issue for rich visitors who choose luxury hotels if their less fortunate compatriots are accommodated in common people’s houses? It seems that the real issue is that the capitalist hotel industry is too greedy to share tourism income with the population. And successive governments have kow-towed to their wishes.
The model of tourisme chez l’habitant exists in many countries. With lower prices, it brings money directly to common folks’ pockets. The benefits can be doubled if catering and other services are offered to visitors. Is there any reason why lower-income people in any country should be deprived of travelling and spending some time abroad because of high fares? There is a category of travellers who want to have a direct ground experience of a country and its culture by close contact with locals. They are not all overworked private sector executives or professionals who look forward to lying all day on the beach, taking a cocktail at sunset and relaxing in soothing massage parlours. There are those who want to have direct exposure to the local way of life, customs and languages.
Tourism authorities can provide counsel for decent and hygienic conditions to families who wish to rent their rooms. Airbnb and other such sites are foreign-owned companies which get a percentage of the business. Mauritius can have its own site and keep the profits in the country.
Societies abroad are also changing. A quest for authenticity has been gaining ground. The number of vegetarians is on the rise in affluent countries in the West. India has always been the main country which has culturally promoted vegetarianism, being centuries ahead of the rest of the world in this respect. China has no choice but to cut down on consumption of meat. So do many countries due to high awareness of the devastation done to the planet to rear animals for meat.
The cultural aspect
Oriental languages and English are assets which are likely to interest a category of visitors in Reunion. There are people from Reunion who stay in private family homes in Rose-Hill or Quatre-Bornes to study Hindi, for example. And they are surprised to see that oriental languages are taught, written and understood but folks in Mauritius are eager to speak French! Others leave the tourist resort with hotels and plenty of restaurants in the North and opt for a two-week experience of village life in Mahebourg, Chamarel and Grand Gaube. Not only native Reunionese, but also French and inhabitants of North African descent, Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians who show interest in Indian languages and cultural influence in Mauritius. Many people from Reunion find no point in staying in hotels and mixing with Europeans.
There are no organized tours for tourists on religious festivals with well-documented guides who can give full explanation on meaning and purpose of rites. Visitors do show curiosity in religious festivals that are unfamiliar to them.
Any regular traveller to Mauritius tells you that there is glaring lack of cultural activities to make their stay interesting. Pamplemousses Garden, Chamarel coloured earth, imported animals in Casela – a quite artificial place – what else? Walks in Plaine Champagne and hiking in Ferney, etc., are dwarfed by the gorgeous landscapes that Reunion Island offers.
Are there any music and dance shows like Bali offers to visitors? Forget sega, it is appreciated for its value as an undeniable cultural feature. But it does not satisfy the thirst for profound expression of art. Has any Minister of Culture given any thought to the promotion of cultural activities to boost tourism industry? Many of our policymakers are stuck in old ways of thinking and show no signs of innovating.
Are there enough sitar players, ghazal singers, Chinese music players or oriental dancers to offer an evening out to visitors? And to Mauritians, too. The ethnic diversity in Reunion will appreciate that. Many women can earn a living from massages. It is a common phenomenon in China, Bali, Thailand, etc. Over here, women learn fast and are quite gifted. Massages should be a regular cultural feature in common folks’ life, and offered to visitors at affordable prices. It has huge benefits on health. It is non-existent in most people’s lives despite the cultural background that should promote its development at national level.
Leave beaten tracks. Innovate and make tourists’ stay attractive. Will officials in charge of tourism wake up?
* Published in print edition on 28 February 2020