By Sean Carey
Even though three male employees of Legends Hotel were quickly arrested and provisionally charged with the murder of Michaela McAreavey, Mauritius will have its work cut out to regain its reputation as a safe honeymoon and wedding destination for visitors journeying from the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. Given the way folk memories work in Irish society, it is probably an impossible task – at least in the short-term. As one Irish journalist put it bluntly: “Honeymooners being murdered is bad for business.”
Undoubtedly, Mauritius has a much bigger and deeper brand as a tourist destination in the UK and some other European countries than it does in Ireland. The number of Irish people – both from the Republic and the North of Ireland – going to Mauritius is relatively small. Compared with those from mainland Britain, France and Germany they are also relatively recent visitors.
In fact, Irish tourists only began arriving in Mauritius after the Irish Republic attained its “Celtic Tiger” status in the mid-1990s, and some of its newly affluent citizens were willing to venture further afield than the conventional European tourist hotspots of France, Greece, Italy and Spain. This had a knock-on effect on the choice of holiday destination amongst those living in Northern Ireland.
But there are at least four factors that need to be taken into account in assessing the likely consequences of Mrs McAreavey’s murder on the reputation of Mauritius as a tourist destination. The first is her high profile in her homeland. In 2004, she represented Ulster in the annual Rose of Tralee pageant held in the Republic (which taps into the Irish Diaspora of around 80 million people), and later had a stint as a TV presenter on a Gaelic-language children’s sports show in 2006 and 2007. More recently, she was working as a secondary school teacher in the Irish department of St Patrick’s Girls Academy in Dungannon, County Tyrone. An outgoing and fun-loving young woman, it is clear that her pupils and their parents adored her. Simply put, she was a model citizen, which was evident in the generous tributes paid to her by the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, and his deputy, Martin McGuinness.
The second is that her father, Mickey Harte, to whom she was very close, is a legendary figure in Gaelic football having won the all-Ireland championship for Tyrone, one of the six counties that form Northern Ireland, on three occasions. The loss of his only daughter, which was dramatised at the funeral that was held on Monday, at St Malachy’s Church, Ballymacilroy, where she was married on 30 December.
The third factor is that the Irish President, Mary McAleese, and Catholic Primate of all-Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, attended the Requiem Mass. This ensured that an already high profile event had an even bigger impact.
Finally, comparisons between the death of Michaela Harte and another young honeymoon bride, Anni Dewani, who was shot in a car hijack in Cape Town in November have already been made and I am sure that more will be forthcoming.
But why should the killing of a honeymooner generate so much public interest? According to anthropological analysis, marriage is best viewed as a rite de passage, traditionally a movement between childhood and adulthood. The honeymoon period is part of the ritual of reintegration (the opposite of the ritualised chaos and disorder of the “hen night”, which in societies like Ireland, the UK, Australia and New Zealand is a ritual of separation). But like all rituals of transition, the honeymoon is accompanied by all sorts of taboos and prohibitions and has a “sacred” status (even in secular societies). A smooth passage is required – any sort of disruption will provoke comment and widespread public interest.
Indeed, the details of the McAreavey case have been widely reported since a large number of journalists from Europe – especially the Irish Republic and the UK — descended on Mauritius last week. Stories recounting events surrounding the death and its aftermath have been coming through in the international media – newspapers, TV, radio and online — at a steady rate.
Inevitably, there have also been several features in UK and Irish newspapers with the theme of “paradise lost”. One article published in The Independent last Saturday had the headline, “The Dark Side of Mauritius” (changed to “The Dark Side of Paradise” in later editions) and then went on to claim that violent crime on the island, fuelled by drink, drugs and poverty, had increased significantly in the last 15 years.
Mauritians working in the tourism industry will be concerned, therefore, that reports of Mrs McAreavey’s death will have an impact on the country’s global reputation as a high-end destination, not only in the Eurozone but also the new markets in China, India and Russia that are currently being targeted.
That said, my guess is that the effect on most international audiences will be much less than that in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. In any case, a lot will depend on the volume and type of coverage in the media provided by travel and other journalists over the next year or so. The Mauritius Tourist Promotion Authority will be hoping that most writers will follow the example of Susie Freeman, founder of Susie Freeman Travel, which provides packages to Mauritius and other Indian Ocean destinations, who told The Guardian: “I always emphasise what a safe destination this is, and hope that this is a deeply tragic and one-off incident.” (Incidentally, the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office also shares Freeman’s view.)
A final point. The late Ernest Gellner, a social anthropologist, rightly observed that the transition to modernity and affluence (of which he broadly approved as long as an inclusive welfare state was guaranteed by the state) is often a painful one. Rapid economic growth of the sort Mauritius has experienced, especially in the last 20 years, has generated social mobility for significant sections of the population (although others have been left behind) at the same pace as it has caused disruption to the social structure and its accompanying cultural and moral frameworks. As the social controls traditionally exerted by the extended family and community weaken, it is to be expected that there will be an increase in petty criminality of the sort that seems to have led to Mrs McAreavey’s premature death.
Last Friday, Prime Minister Ramgoolam called for the reintroduction of the death penalty. It was an understandable response given that emotions were running high and it was felt that Mauritius’ international reputation was on the line. But is the death penalty really the answer to a highly complex social and economic problem?
Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, Roehampton University.
* Published in print edition on 21 January 2011