PUTTING SEYCHELLES ON THE MAP AND KEEPING IT THERE
(A relaxed looking Alain St. Ange during an interview with this correspondent in May 2011)
The outlook in 2008 was grim for the Seychelles, hit by the global financial and economic crisis and staring at a projected loss of tourist arrivals and related income of over 30 percent, a potential disaster for the country depending, besides fishing and trading, overwhelmingly on the tourism industry.
The old Seychelles Tourist Board had run out of steam and ideas and with the private sector getting increasingly vocal about the need for changes, those changes did come fast and furious.
Along came Alain St. Ange, and one might wonder, who is he his name now on the lips of the who is who in African and global tourism circles, his interviews featured in the top travel magazines and seemingly popping up in several places at once, either cloned or by subjecting himself to a punishing itinerary of appearances in places where it matters and where he then leaves again with all and sundry having but Seychelles on their mind, infected by his enthusiasm about the Creole Island Paradise deep in the Indian Ocean, a thousand miles from anywhere else.
Having known him now for a number of years, let me share what I have found out about Alain St. Ange. Born 57 years ago on the island of La Digue, he did his schooling on the island and then went on to study in Germany and France to attain his degrees. Upon his return home he entered the hospitality industry before also moving abroad to advance his career and gain valuable experience. Over the years, one wonders how in fact, he found the time to author 6 books, first in his clearly political phase which saw him enter the Seychelles parliament, when he wrote Seychelles, What Next, Seychelles in Search of Democracy and Seychelles, the Cry of a People. These books were followed by his tourism phase when he published in rapid succession Seychelles 2010 Regatta and Seychelles enters the World of Carnivals before honouring his late father in his most recent publication Seychelles remembers Karl St. Ange.
From the benches of the opposition where he served first as elected member for the La Digue constituency in the Peoples Assembly in 1979, incidentally as opposite number to the now President James Michel, who according to a private source recalling those days dreaded the exchanges on the parliamentary floor with a fiery Alain St. Ange back then, he then however put country before political alignments and accepted his call up to serve in public office after serving a second spell as an opposition member of parliament for Bel Air / Greater Victoria in 2002.
Alain St. Ange was appointed Director of Tourism Marketing under a restructured board set up which saw the private sector literally take control of the board, inject a new vision and started new initiatives to promote the archipelago abroad and at the end of that crucial year 2009, arrivals had literally drawn at level par with the previous year, albeit at the cost of discounting rates and tariffs. The new tag line Affordable Seychelles was born as another way to promote the archipelago to travelers on a budget, without however neglecting the Seychelles, Another World alongside it. The move paid off, more visitors came to the islands, many of them for the first time, and in particular tourists from mainland Africa saw the new campaign opening the archipelago to them as a new get away.
A major new marketing strategy was drawn up by the board in late 2009, working hand in hand with the all important private sector and the Seychelles Hospitality and Tourism Association, and when the way forward was mutually agreed the outcome was presented in early 2010 to the who is who in the Seychelles, led by none other than President Michel at the time. Subsequent changes at the board were swift and Alain St. Ange was made Chief Executive with Mr. Faure, Secretary of State in the Presidents Office appointed as new board chairman. New Tourism Ambassadors were appointed from amongst the Seychellois expatriate community living abroad, and the tourist offices in key destinations were revamped and Directors appointed looking after the four corners of the world in an effort to not just keep the flow of tourists from the traditional markets coming but to open up new and emerging markets too. Tourism attaches were placed in key embassies and High Commissions to promote tourism to the islands, using their diplomatic status to be able to get on to all platforms, tourism associations, trade fairs and individuals at a phone calls notice. Air access was liberalized by the Seychelles government and there are now 25 weekly frequencies between the Gulf and Mahe by the worlds leading airlines Qatar, Emirates and Etihad, the latter now in fact holding a 40 percent shareholding in Air Seychelles and opening up the European markets through code share arrangements, giving Air Seychelles a substantially wider reach than it ever had before, when operating flights to only a handful of European gateways. Does it need mention that Alain St. Ange is a member of the Board of Directors of Air Seychelles? Probably not!
Since Alains arrival at STB has the tourism industry in the Seychelles been running on full throttle ahead, which saw the crucially important Seychelles Tourism Academy being restructured and funded to create a new purpose built campus to provide training and skills to Seychellois aspiring to enter the industry in a life time career. This, according to Alain, is one of the greatest investments in the future of the country, as it guarantees young Seychellois people the education needed without having to go abroad, and puts their qualifications at level par with expatriates, who while needed still for many years to come will see more and more citizens work alongside them and do their jobs just as well, but with the added enthusiasm of national pride and Creole hospitality and smiles.
I interviewed Alain twice last year, and while in his office at the Bel Ombre headquarters of STB was amazed to see his grown collection of pictures, taken with the likes of the Chinese Premier, President Zuma of South Africa as well as his most prized picture yet, with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at the end of their dream honeymoon to North Island. Tourism is our biggest industry on the islands, the most important economic pillar for us. It is my vision to see every Seychellois have an interest in the sector, have ownership one way or another, be our ambassadors when they meet tourists, stand behind tourism as one he said during one of the many conversation I had with him over the years. His enthusiasm, which in some of his African counterparts I found restricted to the time from 8 5 in the office, was genuine, passionate and seemed in his blood stream, 24 /7 and 365 days a year and one more in leap years. It explains why he could not resist the call up by President Michel and why he managed to take the Seychelles Tourism Board out of the regular box of thinking and doing things, assemble a team of professionals around him in Bel Ombre and in the tourism offices abroad who hold their own against the worlds major tourism destinations and have put small but very beautiful Seychelles on the map way beyond their significance in world tourism in regard to numbers or size. It is not the size which matters but what you do with it were the words of one of his staff at the tourism board and the answer still rings in my ears. The outcome of their dedicated work is of course now the envy and pride of many tourism promotion agencies across Africa, where Alain has become a hero, a trade mark and a beacon of hope that one can put a country on the map, and keep it there in the spotlight, without having super resources available, but just by using all tools at hand, all minds combined and standing together as one.
Alains added advantage is that President James Michel now holds the tourism portfolio directly, which in his past government was held by the Vice President, signaling to all and sundry how government values tourism and that in his capacity as Head of State he is also the countrys main tourism promoter, wherever he goes on official duty or in private visits. President Michels Secretary of State in the Presidents office is also the Chairman of the Seychelles Tourism Board and the creation of Brand Seychelles lends credibility that Seychelles Incorporated has effectively taken roots at the highest level of government and private sector to promote the country as THE tourism destination of the 21st century. Having dedicated more than 50 percent of the Seychelles territory to conservation as protected areas and having two UNESCO World Heritage Sites to her name, with applications for more pending before the Paris based UN organization, only adds to the appeal and underscores the honesty of the Seychelles commitment to conservation and to keeping biodiversity hotspots intact and not under any circumstances tamper with them.
Said Alain in this regard to questions asked: It is a huge advantage to have access to the President, to have him hold the tourism portfolio and to have his Secretary of State in the Presidents Office as Chairman of STB. Tourism is now linked to all important elements in our society, in our public institutions. STB is represented on the Seychelles Civil Aviation Authority, on the Board of Directors of Air Seychelles, represented in the national planning bodies and consulted on all matters of environmental protection. Our President understands tourism like few presidents would do and he has a keen personal interest. Whenever he travels, wherever he goes, he sees opportunities to promote travel to the Seychelles, invites investors in the hospitality industry and other economic sectors, but tourism is always at the forefront. STB is regular part of the state visits of our President and it pays off immensely. Today it is no longer a question where you politically stand but that you do your duty to the nation and work with everyone, EVERYONE to promote the islands abroad and deliver a first rate product. And our staff at Bel Ombre, our staff serving abroad as Marketing Directors, our Tourism Ambassadors, they are a phantastic team. Alain St. Ange has become the Alain St. Ange he is today because of the support of his team, the work they do day in and day out and the support of the hospitality industry on our islands, the DMCs, the conservation societies and NGOs we work with. We are where we are today because we stand together and work together. We believe in open discussions, exchange of views with our key stakeholders, with all stakeholders, to map out a common and broadly agreed way forward and it is for that reason, that wherever a Seychelles delegation now goes to promote, we are so sought after. It is the product we have to sell but also the unity we demonstrate as a people.
This correspondents conclusion is that while Alain St. Ange is no miracle worker he has nevertheless achieved miracles during his time at the helm of STB and there is no indication he is done yet as more ideas are bubbling up in every sentence he starts, inspite of the known challenges the world economy is once again facing in 2012. The creation of a festival calendar, incorporating such traditional events as SUBIOS, the Creole Festival or the Seychelles Regatta have been complemented and taken to another level with the launch of the annual Carnaval de Carnivals in Victoria, which next edition, co-sponsored by fellow Vanilla Island La Reunion this year, is taking place in early March.
If anyone can, it is Alain St. Ange and his team, and I have no doubts they will succeed where others will once again falter.
Seychelles, truly Another World in every way I look at that Creole Paradise.