So, the masks are down and we can now breathe again. One might perhaps think it’s too little too late and that there are still some illogical and ludicrous restrictions in place but the fact remains that with the end of most restrictions, a chapter of hope re-opens for the country.
It is no secret to anyone that our forex situation is under stress. In spite of the little game played by the Bank of Mauritius, after having put itself and the country’s finances in dire straits by making generous and not-exactly-above-board ‘donations’ to the government, there is no hiding the fact that the only thing that will save us from a further slide of our currency is lots of euros and dollars streaming into the country very quickly, particularly that the Damocles sword of a catastrophic Moody’s downgrade below investment grade hangs ominously over us. In that sense, putting an end to all the unpleasantness that used to surround a nice trip to Mauritius is a welcome move. Yes, it would have been much more so if the authorities had had some foresight and thought of this a few months ago when tourists from our traditional markets were planning their holidays rather than when the holidays have already started and some tourists may have chosen to go somewhere more welcoming.
Be that as it may, Emirates has doubled its flights to and from the island and our national airline will, in the coming few months, resume its flights to countries like Australia. If the shy bookings so far, which are well short of those hoped for, are a clear indication that achieving the one million target pompously brandished by the minister of tourism will be difficult, we can still count on the diaspora taking the opportunity to come and spend some of their hard-earned foreign currency in the country. That might give us some immediate relief.
Having said that, to bring in tourists, it takes more than just removing restrictions. It takes a deep understanding of what their needs and desires are and why many are opting for our neighbours when we were erstwhile their favourite destination. Once that has been done, we need to come up with a range of measures to respond to those needs.
Sadly, what we are offering is piecemeal soundbites that show how disconnected we are from the reality of holidaymakers. Each of these soundbites is a kneejerk reaction, based more on the minister of finance’s whims and fancies than on an understanding of what it takes to attract foreign currency spending visitors. Anyone in doubt just has to look at the ludicrous ‘incentive’ of a Rs200 (€4) voucher to spend at the duty-free shops. How many of the one million tourists prayed for do you sincerely think that measure will attract? And this is not the first time such inanities have been dreamt about. A couple of budgets ago, the ‘incentive’ offered was increasing the duty-free alcohol allowance from two to five bottles of spirits! Some people must have really been convinced that this brilliant idea would create a rush towards our island because the minister himself spent a long press conference explaining how the ‘scheme’ would work!
So, yes there is a glimmer of hope. But those devising our policies have to understand once and for all that there is no substitute for hard work, coherence, serious and strategic planning. But then again, these are the same people who are convinced that getting money is as easy as dipping their hands into the central bank’s reserves. When they realise that they are no geniuses and that if there were a magical solution to economic and financial stresses and fault lines, someone somewhere would have already thought about it, we might start breathing again. Right now, we have taken off our masks, but we are not breathing fully yet.