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Exclusive Interview

New Seychelles Tourism Board CEO speaks with eTurboNews

Wolfgang H. Thome, eTN  Jul 15, 2010

(eTN) ETurboNews managed to catch up last week with Mr. Alan St.Ange who was recently appointed as the new chief executive officer of the Seychelles Tourism Board. We had the opportunity to get his perspective on tourism developments across the archipelago.

eTN: You have now been with the Seychelles Tourism Board (STB) for just over a year. Can you tell us what challenges you found waiting for you back then in 2009?

ALAIN ST.ANGE: When I was mandated to head the marketing of Seychelles in March 2009, I found an organization stuck a bit in the past with one or two strong personalities and allowing the known attributes of Seychelles to work by themselves to promote the islands. With the support of the industry's private sector, we moved to empower the team in the marketing department of the Tourism Board, thus moving from having a strong personality to a strong team. We then moved to reposition Seychelles to break the perception that we were but a destination for the rich and famous. We had to tell the world of the “Affordable Seychelles” - the Seychelles that offered a dream holiday with accommodation establishments for every budget, and this we did through a series of press conferences right round the world at the same time as we used our unique selling points to help us showcase our islands. We then worked with our tour operators to get them to believe in our destination and bring that much-needed confidence back.

eTN: That sounds like a Mt. Everest to climb; how did you go about meeting these challenges; what new ideas did you bring to STB to recapture your traditional markets, to work new and emerging markets?

ST.ANGE: Yes, it was a challenge, but one that the industry's private sector believed could be overcome if attacked from the concerted efforts by the government and the industry. The move by President James Michel to bring about this first in Africa, where the government hands over the main pillar of its economy to the private sector, paved the way to redress the shortfalls of the past. The board of the industry's private sector, under the chairmanship of Louis D'Offay, worked alongside the Tourism Board's marketing department. Their CEO, Jenifer Sinon, supported my team's new drive, and it was this new spirit of togetherness that helped Seychelles Tourism re-launch itself. Seychelles needed to knock on the doors of its traditional main markets, and it needed to open new markets. We knew that tourism was a people's industry, and that it would be strong when the team managing it was strong.

Early, in the pace, we launched the target to have Seychellois sell Seychelles, because they do that with their heart. We then gave our main regions a Seychellois director of tourism to work alongside our tour operators, travel agents, and the press. We appointed Bernadette Willemin to head Europe, David Germain for Africa and the Americas, and Myrna Michel for Asia, Australasia inclusive of India. The rest we oversaw from our head office in Seychelles. We then looked at what we had as promotional collateral and revamped them to be more eye catching with pictures used, because they would be selling Seychelles. We knew that we had one of the world's prettiest islands, and we moved to let our pictures do the talking for us. We believed in the saying that “pictures speak a thousand words,” so we decided to let pictures of the world's most beautiful islands speak to all our potential visitors.

This is what we used to help us move to offer new ideas and new partnerships including the launching of regional twin center packages with mainland Africa and with our neighboring islands destinations.

eTN: What support did you get for all these innovations and activities, from government, from the private sector, from corporate bodies like Air Seychelles, other airlines flying to Mahe, the ferry company, the Seychelles Island Foundation, Nature Seychelles, Seychelles National Parks, etc.?

ST.ANGE: Support for the tourism industry surpassed everything previously seen in Seychelles. The government moved every barrier to support our re-launch drive. The President of the Republic, Mr. James Michel, personally addressed the opening ceremony of the 2010 Tourism Marketing Meeting in January. This was itself a first for Seychelles to see the head of state move to address the industry and present his government's vision at such a public forum. The private sector's support was also so needed to consolidate the Tourism Board's new-found successes. Initially they supported financially, then they brought to us their own respective services to support our marketing campaigns. We benefited with complimentary accommodation, transfers, etc., for our visiting press, travel agents and tour operators. But the private sector also worked hard on the marketing board, the corporate body that oversees our new marketing drive. They also participated, and continue to participate with the Tourism Board at key tourism trade fairs the world over. Without their support and participation, we could not and would not have been present at so many tourism trade fairs in the four corners of the world.

Air Seychelles and other airlines flying to Seychelles have all worked with the Tourism Board to support the efforts of the marketing of Seychelles. For example, we benefit from a block number of seats from Air Seychelles for our marketing and sales needs. They also offer the Tourism Board staff and the private sector stakeholders specially-reduced airfares for attending trade fairs or workshops, etc. This type of support is much needed and we are presently appealing to other airlines to also come forward, because the more we are supported in our drive, the more we can support their own commercial efforts. The same can be said for our fast inter-island ferries. Both Cat Cocos on their Mahe to Praslin run and Cat Roses on their Praslin to La Digue run have been so supportive and provided us with complimentary tickets for our marketing needs.

For the bodies managing our marine and terrestrial national parks here, we discussed at length and we are happy with some and less happy with others. We have always said that if we do not get visiting press and tour operators to see these natural assets and attractions, these respective organizations will be the losers in the long term, because the Tourism Board will not be paying entrance fees at these facilities only for them to get more publicity out of our efforts if they do not equitably share in the expense. We have told these operators over and over again, that when they are not seen anymore, and when they are not spoken about everywhere, they will be moved out of the main tourism runs, and they will be the ones to suffer financially. New attractions are always being introduced, and we shall work and push those who are supportive of the Seychelles marketing drive.

One partner that we owe a lot to for our successes is the press, both local and international. The local media kept the industry informed of the Tourism Board's actions, and the people of Seychelles were, on their part, kept informed on the new developments in their country's main industry. This has given us a positive momentum, and this has helped us rally the country behind our efforts, unite behind our new drive. The foreign press, including your very own eTurboNews, have visited Seychelles in great numbers, and as we have always said, Seychelles has nothing to hide. Visiting press have become true ambassadors for Seychelles when they return to their own base countries. This has also brought Seychelles into the limelight, because it was that visibility we were after, and that is what we get from all our press friends around the world.

eTN: Sounds very impressive indeed - a strong coalition all in support of tourism. How then did you end your first year in charge, in terms of arrivals and in terms of revenues - the latter quite important as surely you had to make concessions on pricing?

ST.ANGE: The restructured Seychelles Tourism Board ended its first year of operation on a high. A forecast of minus 25 percent in visitor arrival numbers on the 2008 figures had been spoken about and predicted. The final results from the new structure at the Tourism Board, and from its revised marketing drive, brought this drop in visitor arrival numbers to a small minus of just under 1 percent over the 2008 figures. Important to place on record is that by the month of March 2009, at the time the Tourism Board's restructuring by President James Michel was announced, Seychelles had been experiencing an 18 percent drop in its visitor arrival numbers. In terms of revenue, Seychelles as well has been affected, because we are dependent on tourists coming mainly from countries today being affected by economic difficulties. We had to relook at our costs to bring down our packages for a Seychelles Holiday. We finished 2009 with a drop in revenue, but one that was not as drastic that it could have been had we not redressed the visitor arrival numbers.

eTN: Earlier this year, the STB started appointing tourism ambassadors; recently you added some more - how is this initiative paying off for the Seychelles to have “your own” involved in marketing abroad?

ST.ANGE: The Seychelles tourism ambassadors program was an initiative to get our people empowered to work for Seychelles anywhere in the world they were now living and working. We initiated a program known as “Once a Seychellois... always a Seychellois,” and we have rallied some 98 Seychellois in 27 countries so far to defend our country's tourism industry. How is that initiative paying off you ask, well we at STB were overtaken by their enthusiasm, commitment, and ability. Most have today moved “mountains” and are working hard for their country. We see articles in newspapers from as far as Michigan in the USA and in Nantes in France about Seychelles following interviews with our tourism ambassadors. We see tourism workshops from as far as Perth in Australia, in La Reunion, in Cape Town in South Africa, in Kampala in Uganda, and in different cities in Tanzania. We have seen many such positive involvements from our tourism ambassadors, and we have seen new drives in different USA cities, in the UK, in France, etc. Most of the 90 plus accredited tourism ambassadors are on the move, and Seychelles is benefiting. Earlier we spoke about tourism being a people's industry, this tourism ambassador's program is working because of that fundamental principle.

eTN: You also redrew the “map” of responsibilities for your STB staff dealing with overseas markets – will you explain what rationale you used to geographically restructure sales and marketing focus?

ST.ANGE: We assessed our staff and we re-evaluated our markets based on their existing or potential importance. After appointing three tourism directors to cover Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and Asia and Australasia, we looked at our work distributions at our head office to better coordinate the work in each of our markets. We, today, have a structure that reflects the markets we have, and in place we have capable marketing executives at work to further develop these markets. We can say that “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and our marketing style and approach is working because the visitor arrival numbers is showing positive growth.

eTN: What new products are you working on besides the “traditional” sun and sand, fishing, sailing? There seems untapped potential as far as the terrestrial national park on Mahe is concerned - any plans for that?

ST.ANGE: After our January marketing meeting, we knew we had to bring out our niche markets. Seychelles is more than the “sun, sea, and sand” holiday even though we know that we have the best in this holiday category. And we continue to win “best beach” awards, because we simply have the world's best beaches. We have the clearest and cleanest turquoise blue seas because, with our small population of only 86,000, we do not know pollution and yes, we have sun year round and have NO winter, which has given us the tag line of “the land of perpetual summer.”

These great attributes are yet surpassed by other attractions which make Seychelles unique. We know that we have been shy in telling the world all the assets of our country. This is why we coined recently "From the Big Five... to the Best Five." This followed the Big Five Marketing Campaign for Africa, and it reaffirmed our twin center drive with Africa that says that after an African safari, photographing the Big Five a short flight away takes you to the Best Five of the World: 1. The diversity of islands, because Seychelles offers two island destinations, the only mid-ocean granitic islands and a large group of very tropical coral islands; 2. The best white sandy beaches; 3. The land of perpetual summer with no winter, no cyclones, etc.; 4. The clear turquoise blue seas offering unrivaled swimming and home of a living aquarium; and 5. The diversity of our people, because Seychelles has a unique blend of people called “Seychellois” where color plays no part in daily life. Seychelles lives the rainbow nation appeal launched by South Africa.

Over and above that we have uniqueness in nature from our magical largest nut of the world, the “Coco de Mer,” to the largest colony of giant tortoises, to the world's smallest frog, to the gentle giant - the whale shark. We are a haven for ornithologists with many endemic birds; a paradise for fishing enthusiasts - both big game fishing experts and bone fishing specialists; walks in tropical forests right up to the 3,000-foot summit of our highest mountain, the Morne Seychellois; to our food, the result of a unique blend of people, etc.

But above all, Seychelles is what it is, picturesque. We remain one destination where when you land you say that the pictures do not do justice to the natural beauty of the islands, unlike so many other destinations you cannot but say after landing that the country does not do justice to the pictures you had seen.

eTN: How important is Air Seychelles to the marketing campaigns of STB? There were some public arguments over foreign airlines, their landing slots at Mahe... and Air Seychelles had to drop Frankfurt as a route stop due to aggressive pricing by other airlines trying to pick up traffic via their hubs; yet in times of economic crisis, it is only Air Seychelles you can really rely on to continue flying.

ST.ANGE: Our country's national airline, Air Seychelles, has a special place in the heart of every Seychellois. We are all proud of it, and we all want to see it consolidate its operation. Air Seychelles was conceived to be the insurance of the country's tourism industry. That mission is so important, and we need to ensure it can remain so. They are very supportive of our marketing drive, and they have their place in all our activities. As a country, we protect our national airline, [but] we also need to see more openness to air access to ensure we have tourist numbers arriving from the four corners of the world. Seychelles needs to diversify its markets to keep us progressing even when a main market closes down, as was the case during this year's “ash crisis.” This is why the tourism industry as a whole, and the Tourism Board, are open to the idea of more flights serving Seychelles. We need air access, because as a small mid-ocean country, we shall become the ideal destination when we are accessible from everywhere at anytime. Daily flights by Emirates was supported by us, because it gave us the possibility of saying “land at any day in Seychelles by Emirates from anywhere in the world.” The same support we offer to Air Seychelles for their Paris connection, because they are the only airline we have that offers a direct “nonstop” service between Seychelles and French capital.

eTN: You were recently elevated from director of tourism marketing to chief executive officer of the Seychelles Tourism Board, which got a new board chairman, too. How do you rate this move by government (still to be confirmed by parliament it is understood) towards your work to promote the islands, and the partnership between government and private sector? Was this not a demand made by Seychelles Hospitality and Tourism Association (SHTA) earlier in the year during the marketing conference, when President Michel presided over the opening?

ST.ANGE: My promotion to the position of chief executive officer of the Seychelles Tourism Board was a positive step for me personally. It was, I believe, a recognition on how I successfully led the country's marketing team and for the success we have achieved for Seychelles. In that recent restructure, the Seychelles Tourism Board also got a new chairman in the person of Mr. Barry Faure, the secretary of state in the President's Office, and the country's President, Mr. James Michel, has kept the tourism portfolio under his own responsibility. This showed the importance being accorded to the Seychelles tourism industry.

This move will send the positive to the trade that their industry is receiving the personal attention of the head of state. A positive trade works closer with their Tourism Board and the marketing of Seychelles can only benefit as a result. My appointment as CEO of the Tourism Board will help consolidate the existing partnership between the government and the private sector, because it was the trade that initially moved to have me appointed to head the marketing of the islands. Today it is their man who has been promoted to head the Tourism Board and that move by the government will reassure the private sector. The demand of the private sector was not for me to be appointed as the industry's CEO, they were after giving more autonomy to the marketing department of the Tourism Board to keep bureaucracy out of selling Seychelles. Today, we can work to keep bureaucracy out of the administration of the tourism industry and bring about a lean and efficient tourism administration.

eTN: Jobs for Seychellois - an understandable slogan - how is the Seychelles Tourism Academy coping with the demand for well-trained citizens, refresher courses for staff already working, in view of ever more resorts and hotels being built and opened? Can they deliver the numbers of skilled personnel the hospitality industry needs, or will the Seychelles remain an importer of labor for some time to come?

ST.ANGE: Training our young Seychellois is an important part of the work of the Tourism Board, because we need to have our people in positions in the hospitality trade. Seychellois must benefit from their industry, and capable Seychellois must be introduced to this fun industry. We also need our people in the forefront of our hotels otherwise our visitors will not know which country they are in upon check-in. We have to remain realistic that we are but a small country with a very small population, so we will always need foreign employees to supplement our shortfalls. But we need to be training, and training to ensure that our people have an equal chance to be employed in the industry that remains the pillar of the country's economy.

eTN: Some man-made island developments, like Eden Island, have now neared completion; how do such new concepts of owned apartments, residences, and villas fit into promoting the Seychelles abroad, and are there more such developments coming up?

ST.ANGE: Villa developments are a new niche that was previously untapped. They will need to be managed and adequate legislation looked at to ensure they do not become just de facto hotels because of owners renting them on to friends, and the country benefits nothing from it as licensed hotels lose potential clients. It is a fine line we have to walk, but a walk we need to take, because we want to see these developments consolidate themselves, but not at the detriment of existing businesses. They would need to be licensed and then pay their appropriate taxes if they want to develop a rental business. This is needed to help move forward with this concept of owned apartments, residences, and villas.

Do they fit into our promotion you ask - yes they do. Every good property fits in, and these villa developments can play a part in the “affordable Seychelles” promotion. But to have such an immediate increase in available rooms in our accommodation block will push us to look for increased airline seats to Seychelles. We need to work fast to grow the tourism cake so that every establishment can get their required share of the business, and the key in growing the tourism cake is air access. This is why the Seychelles Tourism Board will be working hard to bring to Seychelles more flights and also flights from new countries.

eTN: How many new resorts are presently under construction across the archipelago, and where do you reach a saturation point? After all, resources are finite - water, locations, supplies, skilled labor - tell us about the ceiling you have set on maximum arrival numbers of what I understand are about twice as many as presently visiting per year.

ST.ANGE: Today, we have a number of Seychellois small establishments on the drawing board and under construction, but we also have a couple of known branded hotel resorts coming up. As these get ready for opening, yes the Tourism Board, with the various authorities responsible for the different government services, need to ensure that needed services are adequately supplied. It is not just approving hotels for construction but working in close collaboration with the different government bodies to ensure we are ready and able as a country to provide the required services and these include sufficient airline seats serving Seychelles.

Today, we have visitor arrival numbers that have reached about the double of our population. This sounds a lot, but we have a very small population (86,000), and tourism, the main industry we have, needs to be developed, managed, and consolidated to remain the viable industry needed for years to come. This is why the protection of our environment is so important and why we have to include this aspect in our development strategies.

eTN: When you reach this ceiling, will demand and supply be simply regulated over pricing mechanisms? After all, from that point onward there will only be refurbishments, maybe complete re-buildings at sites already occupied by hotels and resorts but no more additional beds.

ST.ANGE: Seychelles will look and relook at its target in visitor arrival numbers. Seychelles will need to ensure that our accommodation network is continuously upgraded so that we do not have a “bad apple in our basket” that rots the whole basket. More hotels that will suit Seychelles and hotels that will help open up more of our islands, today still uninhabited, are needed and are welcomed. Pricing in Seychelles is crucial and will always remain so. We are a destination known as a dream destination, but we cannot just take it for granted and price ourselves out of the market, because we are not delivering value for money. We are lucky because we are one of the few destinations able to offer personalized tourism because of the number of tourists we welcome. We are not a mass market tourism destination and will never be so, this will keep our destination as one that will be sought after for years to come, but we need to be us, Seychellois.

eTN: There are elections coming up soon; do you expect this to have any influence on the performance of the tourism industry?

ST.ANGE: Elections are trying moments in any tourism destinations. Seychelles is very politicized, but everyone in Seychelles is aware, and everyone remains conscious that our country depends on tourism, and I do not believe that anyone will try to do any campaigning that will disrupt the tourism growth we are today experiencing. I have always appealed for not politicizing our tourism industry. If we continue to leave politics out of tourism, we should ride the next election wave whenever that arrives.

eTN: On a more personal basis, what is your industry background in tourism; what were you doing before you joined STB?

ST.ANGE: I have had a long career in the tourism industry of my country. I studied hotel management in Germany and tourism management in France, and I have worked in hotels and resorts in Seychelles, Channel Islands, and Australia. In the early 1980s, I was in the government employment and was then the assistant director of tourism.

I have also been very involved in the industry's Seychelles Hospitality and Tourism Association holding various positions including that of chairman and vice chairman, the latter position I was only re-elected to earlier this year. I have also had a political involvement in the development of the Seychelles. In 1979, I was elected as member of the People's Assembly to represent the La Digue Island Constituency, and in 2002, I was again elected a member of the National Assembly to represent the Bel Air Constituency, this time on the island of Mahe.

eTN: Have you had any vacation since you started, and if so, where would you spend your time off?

ST.ANGE: Not since I took office at the Tourism Board in March 2009. I have not had the time to take a break. It was the first year and so much needed to be done. Later on this year, after we have completed the reorganization of the Seychelles Tourism Board, I intend to take a break and join my wife to be with my two daughters who are residing in Queensland, Australia.

eTN: Any renewed political ambitions when you hand over the baton of leadership in a couple of years?

ST.ANGE: Politics, if done well, is a calling to help your people. The call to participate often happens when one least expects. There are different ways in which you can also help your people. Today, I have been mandated to consolidate the tourism industry of Seychelles, the industry that remains the pillar of the Seychelles economy. It is a responsibility I intend to discharge with the help and support of my core team at the Tourism Board. Do I have any political ambition you ask - well I can tell you that I have been there and done that. Very early in age I was already in our country's parliament, a seat I regained in 2002. I love politics and believed I was a good member of Parliament representing the two constituencies were I was elected from. For the future, I need to do what is on my plate first.

eTN: What legacy do you want to leave behind for STB, for Seychelles tourism over all?

ST.ANGE: This question is often raised at the Tourism Board by my core team. I am hoping to be instrumental to build a team that will do Seychelles proud by being the ones who delivered on the mandate given to us. The legacy is to have a team that is empowered to deliver and that will be strong to continue to deliver way after I am gone. For the country's tourism industry, I wish to be part of maneuvring to get Seychellois to claim ownership of their tourism industry. This is so important if we are to have a long-lasting tourism industry. We need to get Seychellois involved at all levels of the Seychelles tourism industry.

I am saying that as much as the country needs foreign investments for our continued development, for a healthier future of Seychelles, we also need get more of our people involved in the industry. We also need side industries developed and these reserved for Seychellois nationals. We need to work to bring amendments to encourage our young people to get directly involved in the tourism industry by making it easy for them. This would ensure that the whole country stands behind the Seychelles tourism industry. This would be the best and most rewarding legacy I could leave behind for Seychelles tourism.

eTN: Thank you for your time, Alain.

New Seychelles Tourism Board CEO speaks with eTurboNews
Alain St.Ange, CEO of Seychelles Tourism Board / Image via

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