The paradise island of Mauritius has been taking a cautious approach to the reanimation of the tourism sector in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak.
While life has somewhat returned to normal for citizens, with shops, schools and bars reopening, borders remain closed to international travellers.
Prime minister, Pravind Jugnauth, is expected to confirm when they will reopen to holidaymakers in the coming weeks, with the first guests likely to arrive in August.
In the meantime, a series of new hygiene protocols have been announced, designed to keep everybody safe from the virus.
As Arvind Bundhun, director of the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority, explains: “The lockdown is over, almost all activities have resumed on the market, but we continue to work gradually.
“Since the start of July, all schools have reopened, and in terms of business, everything is back to normal, be that bars, discotheques or restaurants.
“We have seen some hotels begin to reopen to Mauritian guests.
“The work has been done in phases, and the missing link is the opening of the borders, in terms of the airports and ports, to facilitate inbound tourism.”
The new safety measures - which are available for all tourism partners to download online - form a key part of Mauritius’ recovery strategy.
They include recommendations on cleaning and disinfection, social distancing, providing contactless options and protocols to follow for suspected cases of Covid-19.
Speaking to Breaking Travel News editor, Chris O’Toole, Bundhun continues: “The further opening of the territory is being led by the prime minister.
“A series of sanitary protocols have to be observed before entering Mauritius, starting with a test three days before you board a plane.
“We are in the process of constructing a laboratory at the airport itself, so on arrival you pass through immigration, head to this facility and carry out a test.
“Only then you are permitted to go to your hotel.
“There is an app you must download in order to receive the result, which we hope to provide within three-to-six hours.”
Measures have been taken to mitigate the impact on the tourism sector as the market slowly reopens, explains the director.
“Mauritius has an environmental tax, whereby each guest pays per day on the territory – this was waived.
“Many hotels on the island are built on state land, with the land then leased to hoteliers – these leases will also be waived for another two years.
“Some 125,000 people are employed directly or indirectly in the tourism sector, and these employees have been supported through a wage assistance scheme.
“This scheme is still being offered, assisting tourism stakeholders to maintain employment.”
However, even when the island destination does reopen, the experience is likely to remain restricted for travellers, with trips inland off the agenda initially.
“When we do reopen it will only be to allow guests to reside in hotels – there will not be any outside excursions early on,” adds Bundhun.
“If you are staying for more than seven days, you will be asked to take another test.
“We have seen cases, on arrival guests test negative, but test positive after eight days – we have seen three cases like this.
“In order to avoid this, we will be carrying out the second test.”
In some ways, the reopening is out of Mauritius’ hands, with source markets around the world closed.
While the country was on the list of safe destinations released by the department for transport in England earlier this month, it is expected to be many weeks before guests are in a position to travel.
This is contributing to the cautious approach, explains Bundhun.
“Mauritius is extremely dependant on the tourism market, but all of our key source markets are currently closed.
“We feel this gives us an opportunity to take the reopening slowly, to get the measures in place before we can reopen safely.
“Take the example of the UK, if we opened tomorrow, we would not see many guests, because the UK is still closed.
“But once the borders start reopening, demand will return,” he adds.
Flag-carrier Air Mauritius also entered administration in April, creating further confusion.
The airline will, however, return to operations, confirms Bundhun: “Air Mauritius has begun flying again, to Rodrigues, one of the small islands next to Mauritius – the first destination which has opened up.
“But the whole airline industry has suffered around the world – and Air Mauritius is no different.
“Currently the liquidators are working on a plan, and the state, as the main shareholder, will inject funds to safeguard the future.
“Air Mauritius is instrumental to the tourism sector – the carrier alone brings 700,000 tourists each year, nearly half of the total.
“It is vital the airline takes off again – it is the pride of Mauritius.”
Looking further ahead, there is optimism Mauritius will be able to overcome the worst impacts of Covid-19 and return to something like normality moving into 2021.
“We are now very well versed in how to slow the spread of Covid-19 – with physical distancing, wearing masks.
“Once we open, from our observations, we will be able to streamline the tourism process,” explains Bundhun.
“The first two months will be an experiment, and based on what we learn, we will be able to become more tourism friendly.”
He adds: “Ours is very resilient as an industry, and there is demand from international travellers to come to Mauritius.
“But we are realistic, obtaining our target of 1.4 million arrivals each year is going to be much more challenging now.
“Our research shows demand remains for island destinations like Mauritius, Seychelles and the Maldives.
“We started the year very well, with arrivals up by 11 per cent in January, which is big for Mauritius.
“We are hoping to be back to normal by November, and I would be happy if we welcomed 400,000 travellers this year.”
The World Travel & Tourism Organisation has endorsed efforts to reopen, awarding Mauritius a Safe Travels designation, while the country has been doing its best to keep travellers informed.
“We were one of the first island destinations to be recognised by the WTTC,” continues Bundhun.
“Mauritius crushed the curve of Covid-19, and this will be a unique selling point as we come back to market.
“We only had ten deaths, a very small impact – the government was bold in taking measures.”
He concludes: “During the lockdown, people were prohibited from going on the beach, people were asked to remain in their houses.
“Our new Mauritius Unwavering campaign aims to highlight that this is now over, showcasing the natural beauty of Mauritius, and offering a chance to reflect on the healing ability of nature.
“The campaign was well received by stakeholders, it kept Mauritius in the minds of travellers.
“I am very confident we will reap the fruits of this campaign once we reopen.”
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