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We Love Mauritius posed a number of questions to Xavier Duval, Minister of Tourism and Leisure, about his strategy for the sector. Our purpose was to ascertain its compatibility with the Prime Minister’s vision of Maurice Ile Durable. He delegated the Ministry’s response to Sunil Kowlessur, Principle Tourism Planner. Here is what he had to say along with our assessments.

Question 1: On what basis did you over-turn national policy since the 1990s to have a green ceiling on tourism? (Refer to the National Long Term Perspective Study: Vision 2020)

Question 2: By what analysis did you determine that Mauritius has a carrying capacity of 2 million plus tourists per year?

MoT&L: This Ministry has maintained the same policy as regards to our selective tourism market target since the last three decades. According to market investigation, Mauritius is not constrained in terms of tourist numbers. Due to the declined registered in agricultural and textile sector, Government has placed tourism on top of its agenda to provide the country with the much needed FDI.

According to the Tourism Development Plan (TDP), the target of 2m tourists could be attained before 2020. Overall, the actual number of tourists is not a problem, neither in terms of getting visitors to come to Mauritius nor in terms of their being here in such numbers as to represent a burden upon the country.

WLM: Clearly you and your ministry are not aware of the contents of the National Long Term Perspective Study which has been the basis of Government policy since the 1990’s. Here is an extract from the summary document pertinent to tourism:

Quality tourism – the “green ceiling” Mauritius combination of beautiful beaches, well run hotels and friendly people has enabled tourism to grow from nothing to become one of the three main industries. Mauritius popularity is such that the number of tourists, which rose 4-fold between 1975 and 1992, could, in theory, rise a further 4-fold by 2020. However, Mauritius appeal is as a quality destination, exotic, safe, beautiful and peaceful. An equally appealing feature is the harmonious coexistence of diverse cultures which make up the Mauritian nation. Over-development would destroy this appeal, threaten the ecology of the lagoons, and deprive Mauritians of a proper share of their own beaches. Accordingly it has been estimated that total capacity can be increased from the present 5,300 hotel rooms only to a maximum of 9,000 rooms. Beyond this ’green ceiling’, increased earnings will have to come, not from higher numbers, but from higher spending per visitor, with still higher standards of provision and a wider range of activities, including, perhaps, inland and eco-tourism. National Long Term Perspective Study: Vision 2020

We could debate the selective policy of your ministry (especially since you have started targeting Europeans who don’t even have passports), and the short-term prospects for growth, given the current economic climate. However, what concerns us most are the consequences of unconstrained growth identified by Vision 2020. As shown in the chart below (data from the Central Statistics Office), it will require a doubling of the current number of hotel rooms to about two and a half times the “Green Ceiling”. Do you remember Aesop’s fable about the goose that laid golden eggs? Its owner cut her open because he wanted all the gold at once. Do you not recognise that your policy risks killing the goose?

It is now generally accepted that even eco-tourism projects have a negative environmental impact. Our coral reefs are extremely sensitive ecosystems and tourism activities are contributing to their degradation. Your argument about Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is fallacious since it does not take account of the enormous economic implications of the loss of environmental services that our reefs supply. What is the point of accepting foreign financial capital if it leads to the destruction of local natural capital?

Please provide the Tourism Development Plan. With respect to the impact of 2 million tourists on the country, it seems to be inconsistent with the conclusions of the National Long Term Perspective Study, international research and common sense.

Question 3: Given the depletion of fossil fuels and global concern about climate change, for how long do you believe a massive tourism industry is sustainable in Mauritius? (Refer to the Global Oil Depletion Report by the UK Energy Research Council)

MoT&L: It is obvious that there is a direct link between energy consumption and any development, including the growth of tourism. At the national level, Government has taken the following measures:

(i) Impose the use of solar energy for hot water in all new hotels;

(ii) Encouraging photo voltaic cells for street lighting;

(iii) Maximise the use of hydro powered generators; and

(iv) Tap new sources of energy from bagasse, wind energy and from ocean waves. (A wind farm is being established at Bigara)

It is to be noted that Government has decided since April 2008 that with a view to maintain the attractiveness of our destination and to ensure sustainable tourism development, promoters of new hotel and bungalow complex projects should make provision for energy-saving devices and should also adopt eco-friendly practices. These should include use of low energy bulbs, recycling plants, use of renewable energy, e.g. solar, wind, etc.

WLM: The measures you list are commendable, however you are ignoring the largest consumer of fossil fuel in the tourist sector – air travel.

Question 4: Please explain how it will ever be possible for the tourist industry in Mauritius to offer zero-carbon-footprint holidays. (Refer to the Long Term Energy Strategy 2009-2025)

MoT&L: At this point in time, there is no certainty that we may offer a zero carbon footprint holiday in the foreseeable future. Innovation in the field of technology is carried out of uncertainty, which provides possibilities for research and new discoveries. As any other industry, tourism will have to adapt to future environmental conditions.

Another factor is that Mauritius has no expertise in aeronautics technology and is heavily dependent on foreign know-how. It is common knowledge that foreign airlines are piloting the use of bio-fuels in order to reduce carbon footprint and Mauritius will surely implement these practices should they prove to be successful. Moreover, Mauritius also is in favour for the reduction of carbon footprint by airlines.

WLM: We have already produced a simplified analysis to determine the land area required grow enough bio-fuel producing algae to fly 2 million tourists to and from Mauritius per year using current aircraft. The answer is four times the total land area currently under sugar cane cultivation in Mauritius. The only possible way that people will be able to travel to Mauritius with a zero carbon footprint is to use solar powered air balloons or sailing ships. Of course travel time would take up most of a two week holiday.

Question 5: Given the above, why does the country need to spend Rs.10,000 per person on a new airport?

MoT&L: As a forward looking Government and for obvious reasons that most carriers will be bigger in the future such as the A380, Mauritius cannot wait until facing the problem of limitation of its infrastructure to start looking for probable solution. With the increase in the standard of living of the Mauritian, there has been considerable increase in travel by the local population and there is no indication that air travel will slow down.

WLM: When one considers the road congestion problem that has been with us for at least two decades, how can you boast about the Government’s ability to successfully pre-empt infrastructure problems? What evidence is there that any airline wishes to fly super jumbos to Mauritius? Granted they are more efficient per passenger kilometre, but that is only true if they are full.

How far forwards do you look? There is no historical precedent for the times we are living in. Change is becoming increasingly non-linear and hence more difficult to predict. Future drivers for change include fossil fuel depletion and price increases, global warming and sea level rise and financial crises and economic insecurity. Are these all taken into account in your analyses?

Perhaps you should broaden your sources of predictions of future trends in the tourist industry. Here is an extract from an article in the Geographical:

As the cost of flying increases (whether it’s due to increases in the cost of aviation fuel, tax rises or the imposition of emissions trading) and ‘carbon guilt’ sets in – meaning we no longer feel entirely comfortable boasting about our overseas holidays – the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of travel will surely become more important. When we travel in the future, it will be with more of a purpose, with not only our own needs in mind, but also those of the destination…

…Given the reality of climate change, destinations need to actively plan ahead to ensure that they attract the right kind of visitors to the right areas of their country in a way that maximises sustainability. For too long, tourism ministers have single-mindedly pursued increased tourist numbers without fully understanding either the local economic benefits of different types of tourists or the true cost of tourism to local cultures and the environment.

Smart destinations will no longer just pursue more tourists per se. Instead, they will focus more on the types of tourists they need and matching these to the most suitable areas and communities within their country. As a result, economic benefits will be maximised, while social and environmental costs are kept to a minimum. Full article.

For an exploration of future scenarios for air travel by 2035-40, consult a study by the Institution of Civil Engineers and a technical report for the Second International Conference on Climate Change and Tourism. Tourist numbers could be seriously reduced, either by governments intervening to prevent climate change or by environmental concerns amongst the public. In “business as usual” cases, severe climate change becomes a significant risk, possibly leading to global economic turmoil. If global temperatures continue to rise, Mauritius’ attractiveness as a destination will be devastated, our corals dead and our beaches washed away.

You mention demand for air travel by the local population. In Mauritius the majority of Government revenue comes from VAT. This is a very unfair tax as it takes no account of ability to pay. Only the wealthier in Mauritius can afford to fly, therefore the poor will be subsidising the rich. If you insist on a new airport, please increase the tax on air tickets so that only those who use the airport pay for it.

Question 6: Why, when our Prime Minister is advocating democratising the economy, do you insist on privatising our patrimony: selling or leasing our islets and even more of our coastal land for the benefit of foreigners? (Refer to actions/plans for Ilot Gabriel, Flat Island, Balaclava, Palmar, etc)

MoT&L: We acknowledge the fact that the present Government has introduced a new policy in our business environment, that of the democratization of the economy, with a view to encourage the local population to participate, invest and also to share the benefits of any commercial and industrial sector.

As far as, the tourism sector is concerned, Mauritius has limited resources and finds itself with the choice of either renting or converting idle resources that are not generating any revenue, to realize their touristic potential in a balanced way, thus creating employment and generating revenue.

WLM: Foreign Direct Investment is a measure of the foreign ownership of productive local assets. Wherever money is invested from overseas, a return is expected that is inevitably expropriated. Obviously it is much better to have local investment. A good analogy is external public debt where interest is paid overseas and lost from the country. Contrast this with locally owned public debt where interest paid remains within the country. Hence, FDI is not compatible with democratising the economy.

FDI may be necessary at the start of the development of a new sector if there is a shortage of local capital, but only to the extent that it kick-starts local businesses. Local businesses must take over any mature sector or we are simply giving away the value created by exploiting our resources, both human and environmental. Consider IBM’s laptop manufacturing division (ThinkPad) that moved into China and was later taken over by the Chinese firm Lenovo. Surely the tourist sector is now mature? So why aren’t more of our hotels under Mauritian ownership? From an economic point of view, it would be much better for local companies to take over foreign-owned hotels than encourage foreigners to build new ones.

Why can you think of nothing better to do with “idle” assets than covering them with concrete which is almost as expensive to remove as it is to put there in the first place? Most jobs in hotels and servants in villas earn a pathetic salary in Mauritius. How does this sector help them to improve their standard of living? Why not preserve the environment and empower the poor by providing sustainable farming opportunities that help Mauritius on its path to food security?

We have already spoken to you about creating new leisure opportunities like developing Grand Baie into an international watersports centre and providing sailing facilities in Midlands dam. Such facilities would be available to tourists and locals alike. There is a dearth of leisure opportunities for local people so why devote more of our land to foreigners, simultaneously denying access to most Mauritians?

It is said that when the people of Paris complained of a lack of basic necessities like bread, the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette replied “Let them eat cake”. Do you not see a parallel between this and the policy of your Ministry to throw parties rather than build sustainable leisure facilities for the population?

Question 7: How can our island support more resource hungry tourists and foreign elites when, for example, there is insufficient water to properly supply the local population?

MoT&L: Although the increase in water demand from the tourism sector could pose a challenge during dry season or during some peak periods, it is acknowledged that the demand for water from tourism sector is less than 10% of the total water consumption of the island. This is of a smaller order of magnitude than the actual network losses.

The following projects are in the pipeline:

(i) Expansion of water treatment capacity of La Nicoliere;

(ii) Construction of Bagatelle Dam; and

(iii) Construction of a dam in the South (South Mauritius Water Supply Project)

Water will always remain a scarce commodity throughout the world, the question is how to manage it so as to provide each and everyone with a fair share.

WLM: The issue with water, as with any public utility, is not the percentage that the tourist sector uses but the increment in demand created by new hotels and villas. Consider this parallel: it is not the total amount of water in the oceans that threatens our beaches but the incremental rise that results from melting glaciers. Foreigners and expatriates are notoriously more profligate consumers and, since they are invariably given priority, ensuring they are supplied will reduce services to Mauritians.

There are other major developments that will put strain on our utilities. Not least of these is the Jing Fei project in Riche Terre. Are foreign investors paying directly for the infrastructure improvements that their presence requires or is it another case of the majority of poorer Mauritians subsidising the rich and privileged?

In 1968, when we gained independence, all the coastal land was transferred from the British Crown to the Mauritian people. Today, while wealthy foreigners enjoy the best of it, we are treated like trespassers in our own country. In our opinion, Mr Duval, your tourism strategy is neither ecologically sustainable, nor socially just. Therefore, how can it be compatible with Maurice Ile Durable?