Promoting Mauritius tourism in an economic downturn: less is more
— Sean Carey
Mark Twain famously quoted a local inhabitant in his 1897 travelogue, Following the Equator: “You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then heaven; and that heaven was copied after Mauritius.” Any visitor lucky enough to fly to the Indian Ocean island will understand something of why this sentiment was recorded. The view as the plane starts its descent to the airport is stunning — the mountains look as if they have been cut from some dark grey and green material with some very sharp scissors. Towns and small villages dot the landscape. As the plane comes into land at Plaisance on the south-east coast you see a patchwork of green sugar fields, which contrasts with the azure water gently rippling within the coral lagoon.
Little wonder, then, that with these physical attributes the Mauritius tourist sector, which started in a small way in the early 1970s, has expanded greatly. Even with the current global economic downturn around 915,000 visitors are expected in 2010. In fact, the country’s tourist sector often referred to as one the “pillars” of the $10 billion economy — the others are sugar, textiles, ICT, offshore banking and luxury property — has for some years been the island’s main source of foreign exchange.
There can be little doubt that travel journalists love to visit Mauritius, because it produces such good copy. In the last few years I have yet to see a bad review in the mainstream press. Indeed, Mauritius is often referred to as a “paradise island” which is easy enough to conclude if you are paid to stay in some of the big five-star hotels that punctuate the coastline — Trou aux Biches, Le Touessrok and the Royal Palm are good examples — and are waited on hand and foot. For example, a recent article by Erin O’Dwyer in the Sydney Morning Herald is typical of its kind:
“If what people want most in a holiday is good food, great beaches and a glimpse of local culture, then Mauritius has it all… Golf and snorkelling are island mainstays, though most resorts have a hectic schedule of activities — from archery and bocce to yoga and tai chi — and the spa is never far away, either.”
“To eat, it’s fish done all ways. In less than a week, I have it sashimied, sushied, tatared, curried, pan fried, flame fried, baked, roasted and grilled. The highlight is the curried clams and sea urchins peppered with Tabasco and lime. Little touches make Mauritian hospitality shine. Fruity highballs served with intricate frangipani garnishes; main meals served to the women first…”
Not surprisingly, with such an enviable reputation, the Mauritius government is keen to expand the tourist sector in order to deliver more growth for the national economy. The stated aim is to more than double the number of visitors to 2 million by 2015. However, the economic turbulence in the Eurozone, from where two thirds of tourists Mauritius originate, means that the feasibility of this project has been called into question.
In the last couple of years, bookings from Britain, France and Germany have been down and deep discounts were required to keep the numbers up. In turn, this has affected the amount of revenue coming into the country – a reduction from 9.4 percent of gross domestic product in 2007 to 8.7 percent in 2008 and 7.4 percent in 2009. In order to make up the shortfall, there are now plans to target other markets like the fast growing economies of China, India and Russia. This is a good idea.
But expansion cannot be done overnight. An initiative to further promote cruise tourism in cooperation with neighbouring countries like Madagascar, Reunion and the Seychelles has also recently been announced. If agreement is reached between the different tourism promotion authorities at meetings to be held in Mauritius and the Seychelles in the next few months, the region will soon be marketed as the “Vanilla Islands.” While this plan looks promising, will it work? Doubts prompted me to write an earlier article for Mauritius Times on the perils of cruise tourism which typically promises a lot but often delivers much less.
Mauritius, which has a population of 1.3 million, is one of Africa’s great economic and political success stories. It has come top of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance for the last three years, for instance, confounding the prediction made almost 40 years ago by the Indo-Trinidadian writer, V.S. Naipaul, that it was an “overcrowded barracoon” and a “half-made society” destined for economic disaster and social mayhem.
Indeed, successive governments can take credit for generating economic growth and maintaining social cohesion (though undoubtedly much more can be done). Moreover, the new Coalition Government is doing its best to keep the wheels on the economic wagon and maintain the approval of the country’s sophisticated and well-informed electorate. This is no easy task in an era of unprecedented globalization, where economic power is moving from west to east (and elsewhere) with consequences
which are impossible to predict.
So, how best to market Mauritius to overseas tourists in these turbulent times? It is important to recognise that almost all semi-mature and mature service sectors are bound to suffer to a greater or lesser extent in a severe economic downturn (and provision should be made for this inevitability). It is all too easy, then, in an attempt to leverage growth at the low point in the economic cycle to make a fundamental marketing error by stretching the brand to areas where it has no business going—for example, cruise tourism. The danger is that if inappropriate strategies are pursued, the unfortunate result will be the erosion of Mauritius’s brand equity. Research suggests that once a country’s international reputation is damaged it is immensely difficult to repair.
In addition, it should always be remembered that Mauritius currently possesses a world-class tourist brand, which I suggest is key to promoting other sectors in the economy. Preserving the marketing focus by continuing the promotion of the island as a high-end visitor destination and some creative development –for example, around heritage tourism and innovative leisure forms – is the way forward. If this course is followed, Mauritius will be well-positioned to take advantage of the forthcoming global economic recovery. Above all, the temptation to do too much should be resisted. In this context, less is very definitely more.
A version of this article was published on anthropologyworks.com, the blog of Barbara D. Miller, Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs, The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University.
Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM), Roehampton University.