Cruise ships to heaven: Mauritius expands tourist sector

Guest post by Sean Carey

Mark Twain famously quoted a local person 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.”

Anyone 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 central mountain range looks as if it has 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 economy” — the others are sugar, textiles, ICT, offshore banking and luxury property — contributed 7.4 percent of the $10 billion economy in 2009. Significantly, it remains the island’s main source of foreign exchange.

Screensaver worthy: a view of Mauritius. Credit: Tim Parkinson, creative commons licensed on Flickr.

It is nearly 40 years since Indo-Trinidadian writer, V.S. Naipaul, referred to Mauritius as an “overcrowded barracoon” and a “half-made society,” and predicted economic collapse and social mayhem. He was wrong and has since apologized. (In fact, a much better guide to the history and social make up of Mauritius is provided by Norwegian anthropologist, Thomas Hylland Eriksen, in Common Denominators, a brilliant analysis of the island’s polyethnicity, identity politics and nationalism.)

But there can be little doubt that contemporary travel writers 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. 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 fairly 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.”


She adds:

“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.

Last year, bookings from Britain, France and Germany were down and deep discounts had to be offered 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. 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.

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 been announced. If agreement is reached between the different tourism promotion authorities, the region will soon be marketed as the “Vanilla Islands.” While this plan looks promising, will it work? Doubts prompted me to write an article for last week’s 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, may be 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. But the new coalition government has its work cut out 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.

Sean Carey obtained his Ph.D. in social/cultural anthropology from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He is currently research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (Cronem) at Roehampton University. He writes for the Guardian, Mauritius Times, New African and New Statesman.

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