VANILLA ISLANDS IS FOR SURE A REALITY WHICH RAISES THE QUESTION: IS THE MAURITIUS TOURISM MINISTER MISLEADING HIS PARLIAMENT?
(Posted 06th April 2014)
Reports coming from Mauritius tell an extraordinary story of in part denial and in part almost deliberate misinformation given, and to no other entity but the Mauritius parliament where questions were asked about the Vanilla Islands Organization. Tourism Minister Michael Sik Yuen, when asked in parliament in Port Louis on the 01st of April about the Indian Ocean Vanilla Island Organization, gave according to the official record of parliament, the Hansard, the following account:
(No. B/75) Ms S. Anquetil (Fourth Member for Vacoas & Floreal) asked the Minister of Tourism and Leisure whether, in regard to the Iles Vanilles concept, he will state if the implementation thereof has been beneficial since 2011 and, if so, give details thereof and, if not, why not.
Mr Yeung Sik Yuen: Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, I wish to inform the House that it is only in July 2012 that a structure has been put in place to steer the “Iles Vanilles” concept. For all intents and purposes, the project is still at development stage.
Also, it would be pertinent for me to highlight that the “Iles Vanilles” concept represents a framework of cooperation among the tourist destinations of the region. In the same spirit, I am informed that the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority has, in collaboration with the Vanilla Islands, involving inter alia Madagascar, Seychelles and Reunion, undertaken several joint actions in major fairs in source markets such as the ITB in Germany, Top Resa in France, Indaba in South Africa and the World Travel Market in UK with a view to generating exposure on and promoting the tourism product of the region.
From this perspective, the complementary of our product offer along with those of the other destinations of the region has enhanced the product portfolio of Mauritius.
Also, the “Iles Vanilles” concept has afforded an opportunity to market the destination as part of twin and multi-destination packages to tourists on the look-out of such products.
Moreover, the inter-island tourism will help to develop the cruise segment from Mauritius.
Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, there is no doubt that benefits will be reaped under the “Iles Vanilles” concept, in time to come.
The Deputy Speaker: Hon. Leader of the Opposition!
Mr Bérenger: I think I heard the hon. Minister saying that this Iles Vanilles Concept Project is at an experimental stage. I think it is the word used. That is, at an early stage. But is it not a fact – and I understand that even Cabinet has not been informed – that this Iles Vanilles organisation is now a registered organisation? It has office bearers. It has a Chair, which is Seychelles for the second year running. Mauritius and others are paying membership fees. We have ministerial meetings of that registered organisation. Ministerial meeting – the last one Mauritius was absent; all the other Ministers were present. This organisation which is registered by now has even sought membership of the World Tourism Organisation and is obtaining financial help from the European Union. Is that not the case? We have evidence of that.
Mr Yeung Sik Yuen: Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, as I said, the project is still at development stage. In fact, the Vanilla Islands Project did not have any funds to finance its structure. It is only in last December that the organisation has got funds and they have got funds from Fonds de Développement Économique Régional (FEDER) and Région Réunion to the tune of almost €500,000.
Mr Bérenger: Is the Minister saying that there is no registered organisation under that name with ministerial meetings, as I said, officially registered and receiving contribution as a registered organisation? Is the Minister saying that my information is wrong?
Mr Yeung Sik Yuen: In fact, Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, there was no fund to run the structure. It is only in December 2013 that this organisation has good fund, but during all this time, we were doing joint advertising campaign in many countries such as Du Presa, ITB and so on. His information is wrong.
The Deputy Speaker: Hon. Ms Anquetil!
Ms Anquetil: Merci, M. le président. Tous les articles dans les journaux et magazines parlent du concept Iles Vanilles comme étant à la dérive, comme étant un concept au détriment de Maurice. Selon le rapport de la Cour des Comptes Françaises, le concept Iles Vanilles qui a nécessité des investissements colossaux ne bénéficie, il semblerait, qu’aux Seychelles. Est-ce que le ministre peut indiquer à la Chambre si ce concept qui est en place depuis qu’il a été lancé officiellement en 2011, est-ce que ce concept a redynamisé le secteur du tourisme mauricien en fonction à la demande internationale ?
Mr Yeung Sik Yuen: Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, first of all, many of the presses around these islands are saying that other islands are benefiting from this project. You are saying Seychelles; in Reunion Island, they are saying that Mauritius is benefiting from this concept, but, as I have said, it is too early to do this assessment. It needs time. As I have said, it is only in last December that we have got fund to run the structure. So, give it some time!
To this regular follower of tourism affairs across the Indian Ocean islands, and in particular following the Indian Ocean Vanilla Islands Organization and its launch at the World Travel Market 2013 in London, where the UNWTO Secretary General officiated at the ceremony – in the presence of a full complement of officials from Mauritius to be precise – is it to put it mildly bewildering that the Minister does not have his facts right. By the look of it, unless Minister Sik Yuen suffers of selective memory loss, he did therefore probably mislead his parliament as several elements of his response are found wanting:
The official announcement of the launch of the Indian Ocean Vanilla Island Organization, after at least two years of prior consultations and preparations, was made last year in the Reunion capital of St. Denis a day before the opening of the UNWTO Conference on Sustainable Tourism Developments for small island countries. During that announcement was Minister Sik Yuen present and in fact announced to the guests and media assembled in the room, that as a measure of support towards the Vanilla Island Organization, Air Mauritius had launched a scheme whereby all long haul passengers on the Air Mauritius network, coming to Mauritius, would be able to fly on to Reunion on a zero fare and only had to pay for the relevant taxes and fees. Minister Sik Yuen was in the room when the announcement was made that funds had been secured to run the organization and begin a marketing and branding campaign and was well aware that the formal launch would be at the London WTM 2013 a few weeks later.
To therefore state, now that the organization has a Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Pascal Viroleau and a Director of Marketing, Mr. Derek Savy, in place, that a logo has been launched and that after their presence and participation at the recent ITB 2014 in Berlin, that the Vanilla Island is in a development stage, is either grossly understating the current status or else deliberately mis-stating the facts.
A number of ministerial meetings have in fact been held, including meetings to elect a President of the Organization in 2012, and re-elect him a year ago (that being the Seychelles’ Minister of Tourism and Culture Alain St. Ange) and another general meeting of the organization will be held on April 23rd when a new President from among the now 7 member islands will be elected. In between these high level meetings other regular Vanilla Island Organization meetings have taken place, at tourism trade fairs attended by all the members and alongside annual calendar events like the International Tourism Fair on the island of Madagascar.
To further quote an article written by eTN publisher Thomas Steinmetz on 10th September last year, and filed from on site, yet more doubts on Minister Sik Yuen’s account to his parliament arise:
The Indian Ocean region is slowly developing to be one of the major global players in the travel and tourism industry, this was the key message at the ongoing re-birth of the Vanilla Island Tourism Organization (VITO) that is currently being held in the Reunion Islands this week.
UN Secretary General Taleb Rifai said, “Reunion has taken his heart from the minute he stepped of the plane yesterday and strongly announced his support to the Vanilla Island Tourism Organization.”
According to Mr. Rifai, VITO has joined the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) as an affiliated member will then be introduced to the global media in the upcoming World Travel Market in London this November.
A special greeting will be sent to the Maldives, host of UNWTO’s World Tourism Day (WTD) (on September 27), which is being held this year is in support of United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation. The UNWTO event is to be held under the theme, “Tourism and Water: Protecting our Common Future.”
The Maldives, as of September 10, 2013, has joined VITO as well. Other current members include the Comoro Islands, Reunion (France), Madagascar, Mauritius, Mayotte, Seychelles.
VITO president Alain St. Ange, who is also the minister of tourism for the Seychelles, explained a ten-point plan for the new organization. This was announced on Tuesday in La Reunion in the presence of other ministers and officials from member regions including Reunion, French Indian Ocean.
According to Mr. St. Ange, the 10 points are: 1) Assistance to small hotels and accommodation companies, restaurants in form of financial opportunities 2) Bringing transportation ministers from all member regions together to commit to work on expanding air travel links 3) Establishing an online presence and market this worldwide 4) Finalizing a logo and announcing a decision within the next two weeks 5) Reaching out to the cruise market and establish a presence in cooperation with the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) 6) Establishing an action plan that promotes the region as one without eliminating or replacing the need of local tourism boards. 7) Inviting other potential member regions to join, including Zanzibar, Sri Lanka or Mozambique/ 8) Joining UNWTO as an affiliated member 9) Announcing the organization officially at the UN WorldTourism Day in the Maldives on September 27. 10) Recognizing this was the first meeting for UN Secretary General after his re-election in Zambia and realizing the importance UNWTO puts on working with the new Vanilla Island Tourist Organization
Significantly, it was announced by VITO president that a budget of US$650,000 has been allocated for the new organization. However, he was quick to note that “no budget is ever enough, and we’re already working on the 2014 budget. But this is a start allowing us to operate.”
Mr. St. Ange explained that all member region contributed to the budget with the major contribution of the European Union.
Michael Sik Yuen, minister of tourism for Mauritius, said he thinks VITO “is a win-win for every participating country to join this initiative.” Yuen mentioned thatAir Mauritius can now offer a free extension flights to Reunion for arriving overseas passengers. (subject to paying taxes and regulatory fees)
The lukewarm and uncertain attitude shown by Minister Sik Yuen also reflects the more outspoken behaviour of the CEO of the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority, one Karl Mootoosamy, who hardly lets an opportunity pass him without making gestures or niggly comments about the Vanilla Island Organisation, expressing between the lines that Mauritius can and perhaps should go it alone, that the Vanilla Islands Organization is a grouping benefitting others more, perhaps because the main drive to develop, advance and implement it came from other islands and not from Mauritius itself.
It is not yet clear if Mauritius, considering these developments, will be represented, and if so at what level, at the meeting of the 23rd as after all Mauritius had decided not to participate with an official delegation at the forthcoming Carnival International de Victoria, which is another calendar event of the Indian Ocean Vanilla Islands.
Time will tell, and so will this correspondent who will be in the Seychelles at that time and has all intention to cover the Vanilla Island Organization meeting, or at least the public parts of it.
As the saying goes, watch this space for future updates on this simmering, if not festering saga.