(Seychelles News Agency) - Seychelles - 115 islands in the western Indian Ocean - is a dream destination with abundant sunshine, powdery white beaches, crystal clear turquoise water, fresh clean air and unique diverse biodiversity. The island nation has for the last five decades been a tourism destination for thousands, an industry that is the main pillar of its economy.
But with the COVID-19 pandemic, countries have closed their borders and leisure travel is now impossible. Even big organizations like the International Air Transport Association (IATA) have predicted that travel will only resume normally in 2023.
SNA met with the nation's former tourism minister, Alain Ste Ange, to get his views on the current situation, reinventing the industry and his new responsibility on the Africa COVID-19 Task Force.
SNA: What do you think of the current situation in Seychelles?
ASA: Our islands are facing an unprecedented situation where a global pandemic has turned our economy upside down and got every Seychellois to appreciate the importance of tourism as an industry. Today tourism, the pillar of the Seychelles economy, is on its knees and businesses affiliated to that vital industry and tourism staff as a whole are in a vulnerable situation. Employment is uncertain and cannot be seen as stable until tourism is relaunched in earnest.
Government has made statements that would have ensured an income for Seychellois households and a lifeline for local businesses. This statement sadly became an obstacle race with conditions and a triage process that left a bad taste in the mouths of so many as Seychellois suffer and a cost of living that is going through the roof. For Seychelles, it is not important to be informed of how many applications for the financial assistance that is received and approved but instead the speed of the assistance being dished out and why so many are not being approved.
SNA: Which sector do you think is the worst hit in tourism?
ASA: For Seychelles, everything became interconnected with tourism as can be better appreciated today. Hotels and guesthouses are closed and Seychelles is at a standstill. The hospitality sector is suffering, but so are the supporting businesses such as DMCs, taxis, car hire companies, ferries and boat charter operators, omnibus operators, delivery truck operators and free independent guides. This is only the front-line operators, then comes the arts and craft dealers, the farmers and fishermen to name but a few.
SNA: How do you think the industry will pick up after COVID-19?
ASA: Seychelles has no option but to work hard to pick up its tourism industry, not after COVID-19, but now. It has been stated by the World Health Organisation that COVID-19 is here to stay for a long time and this with or without a vaccine. Announcing a reopening only sets the ball rolling and the sooner that this is confirmed the faster it will move. It will still take months to see the industry start to perform. But it needs to start and this under the guidance and working alongside the Public Health Authority.
We cannot waste time as a country to say we are opening a debate on if we should or not open. We have to pinpoint our suitable tourism source markets where infections have slowed down and work with airlines to start our tourism industry. But this is subject to necessary screenings and tests preferably even before the visitors set foot in Seychelles.
SNA: What do you think the tourism sector can do to reinvent the industry?
ASA: Seychelles has the capacity and know-how to bounce back. Today we have our backs against the wall. Our survival depends on it and our tourism industry. In this era coined the 'new normal', tourism will also need to reinvent itself. To sit and wait for all to start based on what was done before will be a letdown for the people of our islands. We have to innovate and see what clicks. Seychelles is blessed to have had no deaths from this epidemic. We have a clean destination and a healthy population. Our culture will need to play an even greater part of the relaunch of our tourism.
Fresh produce over battery reared poultry for example. Organic farm products over commercial imports. Tourism will need to move in association and alongside cultural developments. Our culture is us, and we should not be shy about it. To push culture is placing our islanders in the centre of our tourism relaunched because you have no culture without people. Culture needs the government to also believe in its importance and to help develop it. Seychelles needs to appreciate for once and for all that no one has the monopoly on ideas.
SNA: Will tourism ever go back to the top as it was?
ASA: Yes, it will because first we need it and secondly the concept of the holiday will just not die. The challenge is to attract visitors to our shores instead of them going to another holiday destination that is making more noise. Government is the biggest partner of Seychelles' tourism industry and needs to be seen to be investing and reinvesting in that industry. Every tourism destination will be fishing once again from the same fishing bank trying to attract the same tourists to their shores. Visibility is so important for Seychelles if it is to remain in the lineup of potential destinations.
SNA: Do you think there is the need to diversify tourism in Seychelles?
ASA: Yes of course. This has always been so but somehow the successes of tourism just made other industries to be placed on the backburner. Agriculture and fisheries need to be loved as much as we love tourism. Our farmers and fishermen are as dedicated to their chosen careers as tourism industry professionals are. So many islands form the Seychelles archipelago and agriculture and fisheries should be seen being developed on our islands as is seen on Denis Island and Fregate Island. This is not the work for Island Development Company but the private sector. Lease these islands to Seychellois islanders and let them get on with it.
SNA: Talk to us about your new nomination on the COVID-19 task force for Africa?
ASA: The HOPE Project of the African Tourism Board was set up with Dr Taleb Rifai as its Chairperson and me as the Vice-Chair to see how we can prepare Africa for the relaunch of its industry. Many Tourism Ministers are sitting on this body as well as some former Tourism Ministers and tourism experts.
We meet weekly through video-link and we are now finalising training and re-skilling offers for tourism employees for Africa as we look at opportunities through google and major television networks to increase the visibility of Africa and its tourism destinations. Many innovative ideas have surfaced through the lengthy discussions and we are hoping to be able to make a difference for Africa as a whole.