A series of meetings between the tourism private and public sector, taking place over coming days on Mahe, Praslin and La Digue islands, is expected to raise a number of issues, where according to information received while on the archipelago have concern levels have climbed into the red zone.
One of the key issues, air access, was highlighted to this correspondent when interacting with private sector stakeholders by phone and in person, and strong sentiments were expressed by leading individuals over a range of issues concerning their national airline Air Seychelles.
Let me be candid with you Wolfgang, cutting the nonstop flights of Air Seychelles from Paris and substituting them with Etihad flights via Abu Dhabi has caused us a lot of problems in France. France is a very very important market for us and we are struggling to explain to our tour operators and travel agents, why flights which operated on very high occupancies, which were code shared with Air France, have been dropped. Tourists prefer nonstop, direct flights to those requiring a change of planes and a stopover at another airport. We believe we lost market share in France because we now force potential visitors to fly via Abu Dhabi. That is a pressing issue and it should be seen in the context of our national interest, our national agenda and not giving the partner in Air Seychelles preference over our own vital interests. We appreciate that Etihad has joined hands with Air Seychelles, but we are Seychellois and must see the interest of our own people, of our own country first. The second issue has come from another of your recent articles. We were expecting to have a nonstop flight from China to Mahe. The aircraft Air Seychelles uses can do that. It does not really matter if it is Beijing or Hong Kong, both would be a great opening for us to sell Seychelles holidays. The Chinese market as you rightly said many times, has grown in leaps and bounds over the past years. Our campaign by the STB obviously works to open up that market. But we need a nonstop flight, not again flying via Abu Dhabi. I think this requires a strategic rethinking at the top level of Air Seychelles because they need to learn to think Seychelles, not Etihad. Etihad does not fly to Hong Kong but would code share with Air Seychelles on that route, but what we need is a direct flight to Mahe, not the long detour via the Gulf which benefits the partner more than us.
These sentiments were echoed in discussions with several senior industry captains, and though the Chairman of SHTA, Louis DOffay was unavailable for a meeting due to other commitments on the available days, others were swift to step up and comment, on condition of anonymity that is. And in the process another rising controversy appears to shape up, when news gradually filtered into the private sector that the overseas offices of the Seychelles Tourist Board were to be shifted to the respective Etihad offices. On the face of it done for cost saving measures there seems to be an altogether more selfish interest emerging, namely that Etihad would like to get a full handle on the promotion of the Seychelles in their European and other market places on an exclusive basis. Said one source to these plans: If that is true it is not right. STB needs to be an independent body and operate independently. If Etihad would take over that function, what about our other partners we are working with. How would for instance Condor react in Germany, which is in direct competition with Air Berlin in which Etihad took a major stake. Would they even touch anything coming from a competitor, do any joint efforts which might mean giving hard facts of plans, capacity, fares and tariffs maybe and their main competitor would know it all? I see a big problem there in terms of split loyalties and conflict of interest. And in other markets, would Emirates which is a strong partner of Seychelles tourism, accept having to deal in special deal coordination, special promotion coordination with an Etihad office. Or Qatar Airways, do you think that is possible, do you think that is wise really?
Another source added to it when saying that already the inflight announcement given, as reportedly experienced on a flight to Mahe very recently, was all about Etihad, including their frequent flyer programme, and little if anything came across the announcements about Air Seychelles. I think that battle lines are now being drawn. Etihad has their own agenda and it is not all good news for Seychelles. They were happy to hear that Blue Panorama was pulling out of Seychelles because they now try to capture that traffic via Abu Dhabi. And here is some disturbing aspect of it. Blue Panorama representatives have complained about the cost of handling at Mahe. They say it is several times the price of such services in other of their long haul airports. The interesting thing is that it is Air Seychelles doing the handling. It is a monopoly and Etihad has found a cash cow. Other airlines have raised the issue too. So was Blue Panorama pushed to the limit to then absorb their Italian market for the Seychelles? They invested quite a bit but it seems some elements in the equation were not really as supportive as should be. Perhaps it is time to think of lifting the monopoly and let an international airport handling company come in to lower the cost of flying to the Seychelles? And then there is the open question on Air Austral. They had put ticket prices on the market for their launch of Paris to Mahe to La Reunion flights. It was never fully explained why they pulled out of that, was it objections about flying from Paris to Mahe by someone? Someone we both may suspect behind it to protect their own market? If so, is this in the interest of the Seychelles or of just one party? I think that in the past years Seychelles has created a big brand recognition in the world. The media have helped a lot to achieve that but let us not forget, the work done by our tourist board offices overseas has been just very good too. Why now change a winning formula. What interests are coming into play here? And are the boards of Air Seychelles and of STB really putting us first, Seychelles first, or is there pressure from the partner airline, pressure from somewhere above? It is something which has to come out in the open and you are a friend to us in many ways, so maybe you look into those aspects I have mentioned.
Tourist Board sources were tightlipped over the issue, but as so often, NOT saying something is already part of the answer, and it is expected that the meetings of the public and private sector stakeholders will openly address such concerns and ask, as I did, if some of the proposals are not like shooting oneself in the foot?
Efforts to discuss some of these issues in an open interview with Air Seychelles CEO Cramer Bell were not possible due to his travelling schedule, and as he is the only one who can go on record with the media for the airline, it was impossible to get an authoritative quote on the record. A chat with the airlines General Manager Commercial, Mr. Robin Middleton, while open and friendly, could therefore not cover such crucial elements, but was appreciated nevertheless to provide background on domestic operations as well as covering some gaps on the airlines recent developments and future plans.
Considering the flagging fortunes of Indian Ocean neighbour and Vanilla Islands partner Mauritius, some sections of the private sector are already anxious to maintain the winning formula Seychelles tourism has introduced in recent years and not let any selfish interests spoil it for the many in favour of just one and sink back into oblivion as one regular contributor put it, tongue in cheek of course as the Seychelles remains on course to reach 200.000 visitors this year for the first time ever. True, we are on target right now, but we must strive to do better, use all our available tools to promote Seychelles and not let selfish interests derail us said yet another source while also echoing the opinions expressed by others before.
Hard questions need to be asked it seems and putting the facts on the table during stakeholder meetings will be hugely important to maintain the level of trusted cooperation between STB, the ministry and the private sector, and issues concerning transport, crucially important for an island nation, must not be spared. Seychelles, truly Another World? Lets keep it that way by having common sense prevail. Watch this space as sparks will surely fly.