Tourism is one of the main economic pillars of two of Africa’s most beautiful Indian Ocean islands – Mauritius and Seychelles. The sector contributes significantly to the economic growth and overall development of these two islands; 980,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit Mauritius annually and 160,000 go to the Seychelles. Both islands are now keen to double the number of arrivals – with Mauritius aiming to welcome 2m tourists by 2015.
In these much leaner times globally, competition for the tourist dollar is intense and often cut-throat. To not only stay competitive but to be able to expand requires out-of-the-box thinking.
Enter the ‘Vanilla Islands’ concept. The idea is to create a product that combines all the islands of the region in one trip.
The idea was first presented at the Mauritius International Investment Forum by the former Mauritian Tourism Minister Nando Bodha. He said the plan was to position Mauritius and the Indian Ocean islands on the world tourism map and actively seek out new sources of visitors.
Mauritius is on track to become a duty-free island, thereby attracting some of the wealthy people who presently shop in Dubai. “We can attract 50,000 Chinese, 50,000 Indians, 50,000 Russians and 50,000 from other destinations spending $1,000 in shopping malls making $200m annually,” he said.
These tourists would also be invited to visit the other islands of the Indian Ocean to relax. He said that over the next 10 years, millions of tourists coming from Asia to the Indian Ocean will also go to Southern Africa.
Under the Vanilla Islands project, the Indian Ocean islands will not compete among themselves as they do now but will be complementary to each other. Each would offer its own unique speciality – for example, luxurious hotels, sandy beaches and blue lagoons in Mauritius; mountainous landscape in La Réunion; beautiful islets and luxury hotels in Seychelles and, later on, wildlife reserves, handicrafts and vanilla in Madagascar.
With the launch of a new flight schedule between Mauritius and China, the project could capture some of the 57m Chinese who travel abroad every year. In 2015, this number will grow to between 75m and 80m Chinese tourists.
Since July, Air Mauritius has been operating six weekly flights from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
After spending some days in Mauritius, tourists get free connections to different destinations in the region, with Air Mauritius now offering a package that comprises one free ticket between Mauritius and La Réunion or Madagascar. The tourists only have to pay the taxes. This package will soon be extended to European tourists as well.
Didier Robert, chairman of the Regional Council of La Réunion agrees. In order to create a world-class tourist destination in the region, “We should focus on our strengths and particularities of each of the islands,” he says.
Currently, only Mauritius, Seychelles and La Réunion are involved as Madagascar is still mired in political squabbles and the Comoros Islands are not strong enough economically to participate at this stage. The islands of Mayotte and Rodrigues, the latter being a dependency of Mauritius, also want to be part of the project.
At least 15 airlines have shown interest in operating in the extended region. Air access is probably the most critical factor in improving collaboration among the islands. But they insist on a reduction in the taxes that tourists pay so as to make the combined flights attractive and allow for better inter-island traffic.
However, Bodha cautioned that there was still “a lot more to do to make it an ideal product”. This included issues such as visa approvals, flight frequency, new air routes, cost of air tickets, a focused marketing strategy, maintaining quality standards, attracting investment, producing special brochures and the building of combined pavilions to showcase the area’s attractions in international forums.
Another package is being offered to Europeans: those going to La Réunion have only to pay one euro more to go to Mauritius and those from Mauritius can go to La Réunion for only one additional pound sterling.
Meanwhile, Seychelles is fast becoming an event-based destination by diversifying its attractions. These include: the Carnaval International de Victoria; the Eco Healing Marathon, the Seychelles Regatta; the Seychelles Festival of the Sea; and the Creole Festival, a week-long celebration marking the islands’ cultural heritage.