Seychelles and COVID-19: Future Uncertain
Interview with Chief Executive of Seychelles Tourism Board
The outbreak and spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus are pushing local authorities in Seychelles to assess the economic impact especially on tourism which is the top pillar of the nation’s economy.
The Seychelles News Agency interviewed Sherin Francis, the Chief Executive of the Seychelles Tourism Board, to find out how this is impacting the Seychelles’ tourism industry.
Q: Is coronavirus having an impact on the number of visitors coming to Seychelles?
Sherin Francis (SF): For the time being, I would say not so much. But in view that we are having some uncertainty about what the future holds, we can say that we need to be cautious, because there is a risk that we might experience an impact.
Q: Is the situation affecting Seychelles’ top market?
SF: Yes. The first market which has suffered a direct impact is Italy. The number of visitors from Italy has stumbled down to 17 percent compared to the same period last year. It was a market which had started to flourish, and the tourism industry regained its confidence following economic setbacks. After that, Seychelles became a favored travel destination for the Italians.
Not only are we losing visitors, but we had to also cancel some activities on the ground such as our trade fairs in Italy. Any activities that involve grouping a huge crowd has been cancelled. Again, we are losing on our revenue.
Q: How is the Seychelles Tourism Board dealing with the present situation?
SF: We are monitoring the situation, and we have seen that there are two other markets that are being affected by the virus — Germany and France. Already there are countries such as Israel which has banned the entry of Germans and French from entering their territory. For the time being, there is no announcement made from the two countries; if this happens, it will have an impact on our country.
Q: Do you think that Seychelles would be able to get back those markets if the situation improves?
SF: It is difficult to say when you have a lot of uncertainties. For the time being, tourist arrivals in Seychelles remains positive, and local operators are saying that they are not really feeling the effect. Perhaps if in the next three months the situation is put under control especially in the markets important to Seychelles, maybe in the big European holiday break, which is normally summer, we can catch up on the figures. This would mean that when the virus is scaled down, we would need to be more aggressive on our marketing strategy.
Q: What is it like for the agents working in the countries affected by the virus?
SF: This is difficult for them. It is their livelihood. They are saying that there a lot of cancellations, and they are not being refunded their money which they have used to book for hotels. People are scared to travel. We are asking operators to become a little bit more flexible with their decisions not to refund as people might be reluctant to book their hotel in advance. A major setback is that if we are living in uncertainty, hotels might be forced to lower their rates.
Q: What effect is the situation having on the local tourism operators?
SF: The same way that the hotels are being affected, I believe that all ground tourism operators are being affected. When visitors cancel their holiday, the flights, hotels, and all the services are also cancelled. Henceforth they lose the revenue that was supposed to be collected. If this outbreak deteriorates as per figures from the Seychelles Central Bank, we would lose $1,500 on average per tourist. But we should not lose faith as it not the first time that we faced and overcome a situation like this.
Q: Are there any negotiations being done to refund tourists who had to cancel their bookings with hotels?
SF: We cannot really go directly into this. As the Seychelles Tourism Board, we are encouraging tourism establishments to be more flexible with their policies. This is a worldwide situation and not every country is cooperating. For example, we had a delegation going to ITB (tourism fair in Berlin), but we cancelled it, and most of the hotels are not prepared to do a refund.
Q: What about flight cancellations?
SF: Again, this works the same way. It depends on the cancellation policy of the airline. There are airlines that are more flexible than others. They are maybe not refunding the money but are offering clients to postpone their flights at no cost. Some have given clients the chance to also change their destination.
As for Air Seychelles, which has just cancelled two flights, this will not have a major impact on its operation. For example, the cancellation of flights to South Africa will not have a huge impact as they are not in their traveling peak season. However, it is important to stress that although we are losing on the international market, we also have a domestic market which has to strategize to compensate for the lost.
Q: France is not yet on the list of countries where travelers are banned to and from Seychelles; what effect would this have if it comes to that?
SF: We do not know what might happen. Everyday information is coming in. Today, we might be okay, but next day things might not be. The number of infections continues to rise in France as well. I hope that Seychelles doesn’t reach a point whereby it has to ban France nationals from traveling to Seychelles. Let’s hope not.
The tourism industry is very fragile. It is a sustainable industry if we know how to manage and develop it. As it involves travel, whichever problems arise, be it health, financial, or political stability, it will destabilize the industry.
Q: What marketing strategies are being adopted to counter the negative impact of the outbreak?
SF: We are very limited in terms of marketing strategies because of the uncertainty that exists. At present, all the visitors coming to our country will pose a risk. We need to continuously look for ways to attract visitors as it is our principle industry that motors the economy.
Our major strategy is that we are targeting countries where we have direct flights and are not affected by the outbreak. Right now, people do not want to transit in other hubs as they are being exposed with greater risk of contracting the virus. On the other hand, we are thinking of ways to rebound as soon as the virus goes on a downward trend. We will be more aggressive in our communication.
Q: If the virus takes a downward trend, would Seychelles recuperate financially?
SF: At this point in time, the financial situation of the country is a bit under stress. For the time being, we need to prioritize ourselves internally. We would look at our expenses. We would dig into our own resources first. Where we feel we would require help, we would seek the support of the Ministry of Finance.