Marketing Mauritius as a Vanilla Island is not a recipe for success

By Sean Carey

With around 18 million passengers expected to take to the high seas on over 300 vessels in 2010 cruising is big business. In fact, the latest figures reveal that the cruise sector is adding one million passengers each year, which makes it one of the tourism industry’s fastest-growing categories.

Little wonder, then, that Mauritius, which has been hit hard by a reduction in visitors from the Eurozone, wants a piece of the action. To that end, the country has teamed up with Madagascar, Reunion and the Seychelles to promote both cruise and regional tourism.

The CEO of the Seychelles Tourism Board, Alain St. Ange, was very optimistic after a recent meeting in Saint-Denis with his colleagues from the other countries. “We all need to be proud of our region and then to push that region to ensure that the strengths and unique selling points of each of our islands are put forward in our bid to bring the Indian Ocean Islands to the minds of potential visitors,” he said on returning to his homeland. “Together we are strong, and together we are not an island but part of a whole destination.” St. Ange then announced that Mauritius, Reunion, and the Seychelles and, later on, Madagascar would be marketed as the “Vanilla Islands”.

But is this a good idea? Using the concept of the Vanilla Islands would be a smart move if there was a group of small vanilla-producing islands which was virtually unknown or if a region had a poor image and this was part of a rebranding exercise. But given the fact that Mauritius and the Seychelles both have excellent worldwide reputations as high-end tourist destinations, the likelihood is that the imposition of this new brand identity will have a negative effect – the countries might be perceived as Vanilla Islands rather than as unique destinations with different histories and different attractions.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the concept would work to the advantage of Reunion and Madagascar — at least in the short term – as neither location is on the radar of most mainstream European and other international tourist visitors. Being known as a Vanilla Island will provide at least some publicity (and will almost certainly increase sales of vanilla pods). Nevertheless, from an economic point of view both islands would be much better off if they targeted traditional package holidaymakers rather than cruise tourists because the rewards are so much greater.

Indeed, evidence from around the world suggests that the effect of cruise ships on local economies is often far from positive. The high hopes of a “trickle-down” effect on businesses anticipated by tourist chiefs when they sign agreements with cruise ship operators often never materialise because they want their passengers to spend as much of their time and money on board and cleverly regulate the amount of free time available for visits in order to minimise any loss of revenue. Consequently, the land-based sectors most likely to be boosted by cruise visitors are small-spend operations like local cafes, nightclubs, taxis and souvenir shops (and it is very revealing from research carried out in the US that a third of cruise passengers never bother to come ashore).

Of course, the argument often put forward by cruise ship operators is that once people have visited a country, even for a day, they will want to return. But the evidence that this ever happens is scant. On the other hand, there is some good research carried out in the Caribbean island of Aruba and elsewhere to suggest that cruise operators often cannibalize existing land-based tourism – a fact which ought to set alarm bells ringing for the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority.

There is a further point. An obvious danger for Mauritius is that a significant increase in the number of cruise ship visitors into the capital, Port Louis, and other hotspots like Grand Baie and Flic en Flac, will diminish the island’s attractiveness for stay tourists. Queuing could become a common feature at popular attractions – not a very good attribute for an Indian Ocean destination which rightly prides itself on exclusivity and a premium service.

There is also the impact on the environment to be considered. Cruise ships generate vast quantities of waste. For example, every day the world’s largest cruise ship, the Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, which can accommodate 8,500 people, produces around 40,000 gallons of sewage, 19 tons of solid waste, 4000 gallons of oily bilge water and 450,000 gallons of gray water, the discharge from sinks and laundries containing grease, detergents and other chemicals. Medium and small-sized vessels will obviously produce proportionately smaller but still significant amounts of rubbish. Although it’s fair to say that the cruise industry has got better in recent years in treating these by-products, a lot of it is still dumped at sea with unknown consequences for marine habitats and the food chain.

It’s also worth noting that cruise ships use the same dirty, heavy fuel oil used by other ocean-going vessels. With the engines permanently running this produces significant quantities of soot (and noise) as they lie in a dock. Indeed, according to a 2009 report from Friends of the Earth on average a cruise ship produces three times the carbon emissions of other forms of transport like aircraft, trains and passenger ferries. How all this will fit with Mauritius’ eco-friendly image flagged up by the ‘Maurice Ile Durable’ (Mauritius – Sustainable Island) concept is anyone’s guess.

Simply put, it would be a much better strategy for Mauritius if tourists from Europe and those from new markets like China and India were encouraged to arrive at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport in the conventional way. After all, unlike the here today, gone tomorrow cruise visitors the stay tourists contributed 7.5 per cent of the $10 billion Mauritius economy in 2009, and are the island’s main source of foreign exchange. An additional benefit is that they also provide invaluable word-of-mouth marketing on their return to their home countries if they have had a positive holiday experience.

So, the big lesson is that if the Mauritius wants to leverage more growth from its tourist sector an increase in the number of cruise ships sailing into Port Louis is not the best way to go about it. And as for marketing Mauritius as a Vanilla Island — no thanks, it might leave a bitter taste.

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at Roehampton University

* Published in print edition on 20 August 2010

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