Tourism Expertspeak: Mauritius must be visible in EU even as it diversifies to new markets
Mauritius tourism minister Michael Yeung Sik Yuen stressed on the need for the island economy to be visible in its traditional European markets even as it forges ahead with new markets. (Image: Tourism Ministry)
Mauritius tourism minister Michael Yeung Sik Yuen spoke to AfricaMoney on how lack of air connectivity continues to plague the tourism sector of the island economy. Our soft spoken expert stressed on the need for the island economy to be visible in its traditional European markets even as it forges ahead with new markets. Observing that awareness of Mauritius as a preferred tourist destination is key to meeting tourism targets, the minister elaborated on the tourism sector’s twin thrusts on Chinese and Middle East tourists.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
What were the main reasons behind the miss out of the target of 1 million tourists for 2013?
The fact that certain additional flights were under negotiation and failed to materialize, was the main reason responsible for the miss out of the 1 million tourist target for 2013. We had factored in these additional flights, in particular Orenair from Russia, and the increase in incoming traffic on these flights, as the business plan was more or less on track and the flights had even been granted landing rights. For Russia in particular, we are currently not in a position to cater to additional tourists as Russian airlines Transair is not flying to Mauritius regularly. From 1-2 flights in a week a few years ago, the frequency is now down to a mere 10 flights a year. Consequently, footfalls from Russia actually shrank 23.3% in 2013, due to our inability to accommodate extra visitors from the country, and came in the way of achieving the one-million tourist target.
However, even while we missed out on the target, we did quite well if we look at the economy at large and especially our main source market of Europe, which is still recovering from recession. In response to the global recession, Air Mauritius had retreated from as many as seven routes in 2012 covering Milan, Frankfurt, Munich, Geneva, Durban, Melbourne and Sydney, of which only one route, Durban, has been reclaimed in 2013. For instance for Italy, the withdrawal of Air Mauritius meant that only Meridiana Air offers direct connectivity to the island, and even then, certain high-end travelers would prefer Air Mauritius as it is classier. Now, to come to Mauritius, certain high-end tourists from Europe have no option but to either route their journey via Paris on Air Mauritius on or take an Emirates flight via Dubai.
In light of this factor, which severely impaired air connectivity from several countries, the fact that there was only a marginal, 0.7% miss-out on the 1 million target, was still a commendable achievement.
Looking at the positive side, UK is back on the map with 12% increase in tourist arrivals, while we did well in Germany and Switzerland too with 10% and 6.7% increase in footfalls respectively. Overall, despite the hard times, we are well off with an almost 3% growth in tourists over 2012.
According to data from Statistics Mauritius, around 1,025,000 tourist arrivals have been forecast for 2014. How is Mauritius poised to meet its target for this year?
We will try our best to achieve the target. For that, we intend to continue to be visible in the EU even as we diversify to new markets. In the European region, Scandinavian countries form a focus area for Mauritius tourism. As from November, TUI Nordic will run weekly flights to Mauritius. To show our commitment to the European Union, I was the first tourism minister from Mauritius to visit the Czech Republic earlier this year. Last year, 5,500 Czechs visited Mauritius, a growth of 5.5% over 2012, and this year, 1,800 Czechs have already visited Mauritius in January and February, a growth of 26% over 2013! Besides, the UK is another focus market with the Thomson Dreamliner starting flights to London on a weekly basis from end April.
What about new markets?
We are focusing on the Chinese market, which saw 101% growth to 41,913 tourists in 2013. For this year, we have a target of 60,000 Chinese tourists and we hope to pull that up to 70,000-80,000, basis new flights we are negotiating this year with a certain Chinese airline. We are especially bullish on China as studies done on tourist expenditure show that Chinese tourists tend to spend more than European tourists. Thus, greater Chinese footfalls can be expected to result in higher tourism revenues.
Besides China, we are working hard on the Gulf Council Countries (GCC) too. We just did a Middle East roadshow covering Dubai, Riyadh, Jeddah, Doha, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi lately and are already starting to see the numbers. We saw a 50% growth in tourists from GCC countries in 2013 and are targeting another 50% growth this year.
Also, to meet the target, we are looking at special attractions like cruises to rope in more tourists. There are three projects which are currently in various stages of progress. Two projects in particular, from Italy and South Africa, are in an advanced stage. We are targeting Costa Cruises from Genoa from January 2015 onwards. The cruise ship will cover Mauritius, Madagascar, Reunion Island and Seychelles. For the cruise from South Africa, we are working on the routes and have met several times with the service provider. On the conservative side, we are estimating an increase in tourist footfalls from this cruise from 2015 onwards, though we are pegging its launch for October as per current progress. Finally, we have a third project for a cruise targeting Chinese tourists which has been received over the last few weeks and is currently under contemplation.
Could you share with us some major developments for Mauritius from the 2014 ITB Tourism Trade Fair held in Berlin recently?
The leading development from the ITB was the assurance of continued support from Condor which currently runs thrice weekly flights from Frankfurt and once a week from Munich. Further, in view of greater footfalls expected from Germany, they agreed to reschedule the Munich flight so that it falls over the weekend and more visitors can avail the direct service to Mauritius. In addition, the TUI Nordic deal was also finalized at the ITB. Finally, en route to Berlin for the ITB, we also passed by Italy and negotiated the deal for Costa Cruises to start functioning in Mauritius from January 2015 onwards.
Poor air connectivity is often stated as a major obstacle for tourism in the Indian Ocean region. With Emirates deepening its ties with Mauritius, how is the island economy planning to leverage it for increased tourism opportunities?
There are already 14 flights by Emirates to Mauritius, at the rate of 2 flights a day. So, yes, the deepening ties with Emirates are helping us reach out to a lot more destinations than we can independently hope to connect with. From as many as 130 countries, a tourist can connect to Dubai and then come down to Mauritius. Also, our network with Gulf Council Countries is especially at an all-time high on the back of our strengthening relationship with Dubai’s premier airlines. During the recent Middle East roadshow, we met around 100 from each of the six countries visited, with at least 600 tour operators covered in all, and 120 members of the press in these six countries.
How does Mauritius have an edge over other destinations in the Indian Ocean tourism space, such as Seychelles, Maldives and Madagascar?
We have more to offer in one single place than any of the other destinations. If you want to compare Mauritius with Seychelles, Maldives and Madagascar, we offer an array of attractions such as sightseeing, shopping and golf. Maldives for instance, does not offer much by way of shopping, while Mauritius scores over Seychelles and Madagascar with golf-based tourism. Moreover, many people come to Mauritius to get married and the island is famous as a honeymoon destination. Incidentally, Mauritius was awarded the Best Honeymoon Destination in the Indian Ocean for the last three years and followed it up last November with the World’s Best Honeymoon Destination award.
Mauritius was one of the top 3 destinations Indian travelers searched for, according to Google’s Zeitgeist list for 2013. How is Mauritius poised to maintain its position among Indian tourists, especially in the popular wedding and honeymoon segments?
We must be present in India and our visibility must be high. Agent tours for travel agents as well as members of the press are essential to create greater awareness of the offerings of Mauritius in the tourism space. Last year, I visited India and ensured higher visibility for Mauritius as we sponsored an important event – ‘The Lakme India Fashion Week’.
On the wedding and honeymoon segments, we have a scheme under MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and events). We provide Rs 100,000 for a group of 150 visitors travelling to Mauritius and the group gets to decide what to spend it on and where to spend it. The only condition is that the money must be spent in Mauritius itself. This spurs consumption in the island economy as the money is spent within the country and is a further incentive to travel operators to organize large groups of visitors for Mauritius. We have a good pipeline of gala weddings for this year, lined up in May, June and August, and can expect large groups of visitors to Mauritius for these months.
UK is another source market that appears to be focusing on Mauritius, with the island destination making it to the top 10 ‘trending’ travel places for British tourists in Google’s year-in-review list. How is Mauritius planning to leverage the opportunities offered by greater British footfalls?
Liverpool will be coming down to play in Mauritius. It will give us great engagement with UK tourists. The UK-based team is expected to play off against a German team, so it will take care of our visibility on the German circuit as well and will be a great opportunity to bring down the media for these countries to Mauritius. Other than the impact on tourism, the football match will also enthuse the local population as Mauritians love football and they especially follow British teams such as Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United. Besides, to gain visibility in UK, we are also doing a lot of agent tours and joint campaigns.
Japan is one market that is currently untapped. What do you think of the potential of this Asia-Pacific island, given challenges posed by high air fares and language barriers?
Besides Japan, Korea is another market that offers great potential. We did agent tours in these circuits last year and have also invited travel agents and the media to come to Mauritius. In 2013, Korea saw 5% growth to 2,778 tourists while Japanese visitors grew 8% to reach 1,768 footfalls. However, awareness campaigns are key to keeping the numbers coming.
Besides, connectivity is to be taken care of but as of now, the market is not large enough to be considered seriously by airlines.
As for language barriers, our tourism industry can overcome such issues. It is important to remember that a decade ago, there were just a handful of Chinese visitors to Mauritius. But now that the Chinese have started coming to the island in greater numbers, Mauritius tourism industry is fast adapting to them, whether in terms of language or in terms of food. For instance, Chinese cuisine is fast catching on in the Mauritius hospitality circuit. Just to give an idea of its popularity, mini-bars in hotels now stock cup noodles and the staple hotel breakfast buffet is increasingly featuring food from the Asian economy. So, I believe that if Japanese and Korean visitors are to come to Mauritius in greater numbers, our industry is flexible enough to adapt to them.