At a time when government and the private sector are embarking on the path of regenerating the tourism sector, the time is right for the tourism industry to look back in the rearview mirror before advancing in the so-called “new normal”. The Mauritius tourism industry has shown signs of a crisis before the Covid-19 pandemic as stagnation of tourist arrivals was already observed. In an academic paper, the ‘tourism area life cycle’ was applied to Mauritius and it was found that the destination had gained considerable financial benefits from the tourism industry – however, it is now experiencing stagnation (Carlsen and Butler, 2011). Despite different measures such as market diversification, product differentiation and other marketing efforts, the sector is still in need of an overall review before moving forward.
One important question which needs to be asked is whether Mauritius should be trying to recreate the past for the future or should Mauritius be focusing on ensuring there is a future by carrying out appropriate interventions while maintaining past attributes? If the destination still has its visibility and attractiveness, has it reached its carrying capacity or does it need a new tourism strategy? Likewise, as tourism itself is interrelated and also multi-sectorial, much effort is needed immediately by the government to solve the Air Mauritius crisis. The aviation sector, as many others, desperately wants things to get back to “normal’’ once travel restrictions are lifted. But does the tourism sector really want to go back to business as before? That old reality of stagnant tourism revenue, uncontrolled development in the informal accommodation sector, ecological damages to the environment, scant regards for the needs of its people, manpower and other issues that the stakeholders discussed in the last “Assises du Tourisme”? The task of rebuilding tourism gives Mauritius a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebalance and rethink itself.
So, what does this mean in practice? Should the private sector and the government continue with their “koz-kozé” or is there a need for the setting-up of a proper destination management and marketing organisation to shape the industry going forward? What is also more importantly needed is a broader vision which serves first and foremost the interest of its residents and enables real collaboration among all stakeholders, the communities and NGO’s on a shared agenda. A proper tourism organisation that will allow shared ownership of the management of tourism, marketing and financing of the sector and the creation of a “knowledge network” with a mandate to develop the destination in its entirety. The sector needs a long term and pro-active view, for a more sustainable reason than mere nostalgia. Change itself is implicit in tourism and tends to be of two types, evolutionary or revolutionary.
Market tastes and preferences and agents of change are both endogenous and exogenous to a destination. However, each destination has its own control of endogenous forces affecting its tourism sector. Clearly, endogenous forces are easier for a destination to modify than exogenous ones such as Covid-19 has shown. In Mauritius, after more than 60 years of tourism activities and when AI, Big Data, Blockchain, Tourism Satellite Account are regularly mentioned, the question that needs also to be asked is whether the published tourism statistics give Mauritius a foolproof measure of the health of the destination.
In terms of the perceived quality of the destination, of the quality of the visitor experience (perhaps measured in terms of the proportion of repeated visitors), a decline in investment in tourism-related infrastructure, clearly all of those are related to each other. Technological innovation has created many new opportunities in terms of marketing, promotion and purchasing of holidays. There’s a lot of work to do and much uncertainty remains like a future pandemic, geopolitical uncertainty, changes in customer preferences and, of course, climate change. Dealing with the symptoms of stagnation in the Mauritian tourism sector rather than the causes of the problem is rarely effective in the long term and simply delays the inevitable decline. One key issue that needs to be resolved is the identification of the triggers of stagnation.
However, what might appear initially to be a relatively simple task is, in reality, fraught with many difficulties. The rebranding of the destination, as announced in the Budget, cannot be easily done and requires a more holistic approach through the collaboration of all stakeholders, community support and an element of timing. Rebranding should not just be changing the wrapping paper around the same product. The hospitality sector itself is financially tied to continuing the operation of its premises beyond what might be expected to be its normal lifespan. Trying to appear more sustainable and ecological, are not new forms of tourism. They have existed on a small scale that made them not viable as an alternative market. Even if sustainability is a praise-worthy concept, it is flawed in many destinations, with the travel element, carbon footprint among others, being ignored. There is also little evidence that the claims to be sustainable do attract more tourists.
While Mauritius has established itself in the up-market segments, upmarket tourists tend to want upmarket facilities and services, also consume resources such as energy and water at higher levels. Simply having a new brand is not necessarily enough to attract more tourists, and much depends on the image generated. Before any rebranding exercise is taken, it is necessary to define and obtain agreement on intended and desired outcomes among stakeholders and most importantly its residents, as the success of tourism in Mauritius can be attributed to the hospitality of its people. The future mission statement of Mauritian tourism should be: “To develop and champion tourism activities so as to build the sector into a key engine of growth for the benefits of its inhabitants”.