AfricaMoney spoke to Dr Karl Mootoosamy, Director, Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority (MTPA), on Mauritius’ near-miss of the 2013 target of 1 million tourists. Dismissing it as a psychological construct rather than a meaningful number, our no-nonsense expert took us on a journey behind the numbers to understand what tourism in Mauritius is actually about. Insisting that the best marketing is a form of storytelling, the head of the island economy’s premier tourism promotion authority gave us exclusive insights into how the stunning sun-and-sand destination can best sell itself to the world at large.
Edited excerpts from an animated discussion:
Mauritius tourism has missed the 1 million mark for 2013. Any reasons you can identify for the same, and any steps that can be taken to attract greater footfalls, going forward?
Well, the choice of the ‘1 million mark’ as target was grounded more in psychological appeal than pure scientific forecast in any case. However, while the target figure itself may or may not be scientifically significant, the reasons behind why the target could not be achieved continue to be important. If you look at the underachievement, comparing the figure of 993,106 tourists that visited Mauritius in 2013 to the target of 1000,000 tourists for the year, the shortfall was a little over 6,000 tourists a year, or 500 tourists per month. To carry 500 more tourists to the island nation every month, you would need not more than 2 extra flights serving Mauritius. It may not sound too much to ask for, but air connectivity is a critical issue plaguing Mauritius for some years now, and sorting out this issue will take time.
Can you elaborate on the air connectivity issues plaguing Mauritius? Isn’t the commercial agreement between Air Mauritius and Emirates expected to ensure that the island is better served by more flight routes?
Air connectivity is an issue because of the high capital investment that long haul flights involve. Certain Asian countries, situated at a distance of over 5 hours from Mauritius, have promised us time and again that they are willing to start direct flights to the island. However, if they do not see an economic rationale to starting flights to Mauritius which will justify the capital expenditure by carrying a high load of passengers, it is not possible to rule out air connectivity as a dampening factor for island tourism.
And, regarding the commercial agreement between Air Mauritius and Emirates, it is targeted more at ensuring that tourist footfalls from Gulf countries step in to compensate for low visitor volumes in the off-season.
Talking of Asian countries, the latest data from Statistics Mauritius shows that 2013 closed at 41,913 Chinese tourists. With China showing as much as 100.7% growth in tourists to Mauritius, are there any strategies in place to keep Chinese tourists coming?
Chinese tourists, and even Indian tourists, for that matter, are more interested in experience tourism rather than resort hospitality. Unlike European tourists, who tend to spend more inside the hotel, Asian tourists prefer to spend on sightseeing and shopping outside the hotel. To elaborate, if a European visitor comes to stay in Mauritius, he is likely indulge himself with a pre-dinner drink, check his wife into the spa and pamper his family with fine dining inside the environs of a luxury resort. However, a Chinese tourist is much more likely to save on hotel frills and spend an equivalent amount on travelling to experience the major sights and sounds, besides shopping on souvenirs – and not inexpensive ones, mark you. A well-heeled Chinese traveler will ensure he carries back mementos for his professional circle and his personal circle, in strict order of hierarchy. Let us assume he buys a typical Mauritian souvenir such as ship models – straddling different sizes and price ranges – for his boss, colleagues, family and friends; it would translate into a sizeable purchase overall. Thus, it is important to understand the psychology of Chinese tourists to better cater to them with outdoors, experience tourism rather than indoors, hospitality tourism.
European travelers have traditionally been significant to the island economy both in terms of volume of tourist footfalls and average value of spend. With Europe’s share dwindling in terms of absolute volume of tourists, and in fact showing a decline of 1.5% over previous year’s figures, is the average spend of European travelers also suffering a setback?
Not really. It may sound counterintuitive, but, even as the economic downturn has impacted the number of tourists visiting Mauritius from Europe, its impact on average spend per tourist appears to be negligible. Again, it is important to understand the thought process of the average European tourist to better appreciate my reasoning. Once a European traveler does plan a vacation to a destination of choice, he makes sure that he lives in utmost comfort in a select accommodation and spends his vacation in the indulgent style that he is accustomed to, recession or no recession. At the same time, it cannot be denied that an element of austerity has crept into the average European’s itinerary planning when it comes to booking flights. A European tourist today is much more likely to compare different flight offerings and make an informed decision on a value-for-money fare, than the tourist of yesteryears.
Overall, European tourists continue to be a critical pillar of resort-based tourism in Mauritius, given that they are much more likely to avail of luxury hospitality facilities. Conversely, Asian tourists are much more likely to spend outdoors than within the four walls of the resort. This is not to say that one category of tourists is better than the other. In fact, both together give a boost to different sectors of the economy – the European travelers to the hospitality segment and the Asian tourists to the retail segment. It is in balancing the demands of different cultures that Mauritian tourism will truly realize its destiny.
What, in your views, sets Mauritius apart from other Indian Ocean islands, like Seychelles, for instance?
In my view, Mauritius has an edge over other Indian Ocean islands like Seychelles as, unlike them, our island offers something for everyone. We not only provide basic beach tourism but also diving, kite-surfing, undersea walk, para-sailing, zip-lining and other adventure sports, apart from leisurely activities such as golf and hiking, among others. Besides, we are a naturally hospitable nation and truly care for the visitors coming to our shores.
Finally, since you feel storytelling is the best form of marketing, how would you tell the story of tourism in Mauritius?
(Laughs) To really get the attention of the audience, I would like to start with a story which involves an elephant in Mauritius. Think of it, the incongruous idea of a heavy mammoth from the continental mainland coming down all the way to the tiny island shelf of Mauritius. But even without the embellishments, the story of tourism in Mauritius is inspiring enough. Tourism on the island started out small, as a beach package for family vacationers and a wedding/honeymoon destination at best. And, just look at Mauritius tourism as it stands today – the sheer variety on offer ranging from world-class golf fairways to rich diving grounds to high-end business conference venues and exotic film locales – you name it, and Mauritius has already been there, done that. It was hard to imagine a few decades ago that Mauritius would one day attract the attention of French catamarans, coming down all the way to the island for a luxurious experience for its high-flying passengers, or that it would net the interest of a close-cultured Asian economy to the extent of not one but three Chinese movies lined up for shooting in Mauritius this year. But the island tourism sector has achieved all this, and more.
So, what is the next surprise under Mauritius’ hat? That is what we need to ask ourselves, and deliver on the promise of always being a step ahead of what tourists expect from us. As all good stories go, the story of tourism in Mauritius must always have the edge of surprise.
Caption: Karl Mootoosamy (centre) picking up the Best design of stand award at the Spain international fair in 2010. (photo courtesy of MTPA).