Do not make Mauritius another vanilla island

By Sean Carey

Mauritius has a fantastic tourist brand. Not for nothing is tourism referred to as one of the “pillars” of the country’s economy. Indeed, it is of some significance that the tourist sector, which started in a small way in the early 1970s, has been for many years the island’s main source of foreign exchange. According to the most recent statistics, receipts from the 464,604 people visiting the island for the first six months of 2011 increased to 21.3 billion rupees ($740 million) compared to 19.8 billion rupees ($690 million) in the same period last year.

Not surprisingly, it has been evident for some years that the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority (MTPA) has been keen to expand the tourist sector in order to increase national income. Indeed, it was not so long ago that the aim was to double the number of visitors to 2 million by 2015. However, the on-going economic turbulence in the eurozone, from where nearly two-thirds of tourists coming to Mauritius originate, means that this strategy is on hold.

Until recently, bookings from France, Germany, Italy and the UK were down and deep discounts were required to prop up the numbers of visitors holidaying in Mauritius. In turn, this affected the amount of revenue coming into the country. In order to make up the shortfall, other markets like the fast-growing economies of China, India and Russia were targeted. A good idea? Yes, as long as it is being rolled out in such a way that it preserves the attraction of Mauritius as a “classic” island paradise holiday destination, especially for couples and families.

However, the announcement last year that tourists from China would be encouraged to come to Mauritius as part of two-destination package — either Mauritius and Reunion or Mauritius and South Africa – makes little or no sense from a brand perspective. The initiative came on top of another one that aimed to market Mauritius, alongside Madagascar, Reunion and the Seychelles, as “Vanilla Islands” in order to attract a greater number of cruise ship and other visitors. The new minister for tourism, Michael Sik Yuen, welcoming a group of nine Scandinavian journalists to his office in Port Louis on Tuesday, announced that like his predecessor he was enthusiastic about the Vanilla Islands concept. “Rien ne change. Le concept des Iles Vanille reste,” he declared.

So will the Vanilla Islands’ initiative increase visitor numbers? Yes, almost certainly in the short-term. Will it enhance the Mauritius tourist brand? Definitely not. In fact, this measure will damage the country’s brand in the medium and long-term. The reason is simple. The most successful global brands, whether in goods and services, always have a narrow focus. Moreover, they tend to dominate their respective categories — think of Mercedes in luxury cars, Coca-Cola in colas, Microsoft in computer operating systems, Google in Internet search, Facebook in Internet-based social networking, and Twitter in micro-blogging, for example.

Interestingly, these brands do not go out of their way to forge links with their significant competitors unless they are involved in takeovers, or are compelled by law to rein in their competitive (or monopolistic) advantage. There is a further point. Successful global brands invariably get into trouble when they stray too far from their core identities and adopt “line extension” strategies into new categories. For example, IBM copiers, Xerox computers, Levi’s kids clothing and Volkswagen luxury cars have all been disastrous excursions for the companies concerned. 

The same successful brand logic – maintaining a clear focus, in other words — applies to various categories of tourist destinations, whether countries, cities or other types of locations. So in which tourist category is Mauritius? This is very easy to answer as Mauritius won the “World’s Best Island Destination” in the prestigious 2010 World Travel Awards held in London last November beating off some pretty fierce competition from locations including Bali, Barbados, Crete, Jamaica, the Maldives, the Seychelles, St Lucia and Zanzibar. (Note: there is always a single winner not joint or multiple winners, which surely offers a clue about how a destination is perceived by those in the travel industry.)

The big danger in conceptually linking Mauritius with other locations in the region is that the country’s reputation as a high-end holiday destination will be diluted (note: good and efficient travel connections from Plaisance to nearby countries are a very good idea, but quite different to the promotion of multiple tourist destinations). This is something I discovered some years ago when I, as a sort of proto-Vanilla Islands enthusiast, suggested to some British friends, who were going on holiday to Mauritius for the first time, that they might also want to visit the Seychelles or Reunion while they were in the Indian Ocean region. None of them showed any interest, which as a frequent visitor I found very puzzling.

Eventually the truth dawned on me that the principal reason people, especially first-time visitors, want to holiday in Mauritius is because it is perceived to be a tropical island paradise, which is somehow different from its competitors like the Maldives, Seychelles and Reunion. Put simply, European visitors want to go to the place they perceive to be the island paradise in the Indian Ocean not a combination of paradise destinations in the region — and most certainly not in the same holiday period. It was a very important lesson.

The fact that the Mauritius tourism sector ran into difficulty after 2008 when its main European markets experienced a significant slowdown in economic activity is not surprising – the big surprise is that this eventuality was not planned for.

In fact, it seems best to assume that the global economic cycle — booms and slumps, in other words — will be with us for the near future. No matter how hard our elected representatives and their favourite economic advisers try they just do not seem clever enough to find the key to perpetual growth. So it is best for countries, companies and individuals to recognise the reality of the situation and plan accordingly (the next global slump will probably occur some time between 2017 and 2020).

However, the good news for the Mauritius tourist sector is that the recovery is under way. This means with the right marketing strategy visitor numbers will soon get back to pre-credit crunch levels. Any additional tourists from the new growth economies of China, India and Russia coming to Mauritius will be a bonus.

It has taken Mauritius around 40 years to develop a world-class tourist brand, which is largely based on two interrelated attributes, namely, exclusivity and a relatively isolated geographical location in the Indian Ocean. Weaken either of these factors by, for example, welcoming more cruise ships into Port Louis and two (or more) destination holiday packages as part of a Vanilla Islands strategy and Mauritius will find that much of its appeal for visitors will be diminished — the marketplace in global island destinations is highly competitive, after all.

Conclusion? It is surely that it would be a tragedy for companies and their employees if the Mauritius tourist brand were damaged by the introduction of a poorly thought-out marketing scheme, when the real focus for the country should be on maintaining and enhancing the island’s reputation for exclusive, high-end tourism over the course of the economic cycle. 


Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the Department of Social Sciences, Roehampton University. He has a long-standing interest in brands and marketing.

* Published in print edition on 16 September 2011

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