(eTN) – Hot of the press, published here is an interview held with the Seychelles Minister for Tourism and Culture, Alain St.Ange, at his offices in Victoria, the capital of Seychelles.
eTurboNews: Minister St.Ange, good day and congratulations on a job superbly done at the recent “Carnival of Carnivals” in Victoria, and thank you for taking the time so shortly before ITB in Berlin, to answer our questions.
It is now nearly a year since Seychelles President Michel appointed you as Minister for Tourism and Culture. Tell us about the successes and challenges you have faced during the nearly past 12 months.
ALAIN ST.ANGE: One year has gone by fast, and I can say that I am satisfied with my achievements to date. My first challenge was to put into place a mechanism to work with the Tourism Board to continue to consolidate the Seychelles tourism industry. We needed to work together to remain innovative, to continue to act with intelligence, and to continue to use all the resources at our disposal. We needed to ensure that the annual marketing meeting, where the public and private sectors meet to pan out the strategy for the following year, was maintained and strengthened. We needed to accommodate the creation of a ministry whilst having a semi-autonomous Tourism Board. Twelve months later, all is working, and the proof of the pudding which is in the eating, is showing continued growth in visitor arrival numbers when other destinations are feeling the pinch and losing ground.
ETN: The Seychelles has for 2012 once again established a new visitor record in the face of your core markets in Europe going softer. What is the secret of Seychelles’ success?
ST.ANGE: Seychelles has been proactive, and Seychelles continues to look at its tourism industry with a fresh pair of eyes. This has helped us to continuously reposition our country, and it has kept us relevant as a tourism destination. We had lost ground in our core markets of Europe, but we diversified fast, finding new potential markets as we worked harder on our core markets to find a solution to the challenges we faced since losing direct [and] non-stop flights. Our success is due to us winning the battle of relevance.
ETN: What new initiatives have you planned for 2013 and beyond, considering you held a marketing strategy conference in January? What new ideas will the team around Elsia Grandcourt at the Seychelles Tourism Board (STB) come up with?
ST.ANGE: The tourism industry for long-haul destinations is facing strong challenges. It is like being in a sail boat with strong head winds. Seychelles is realistic that it cannot change the prevailing wind, and that at the same time it cannot fight the wind. But we also know that we cannot ignore the wind of the day, so we become responsive to change. As economies converge, we realize that a greater variety of people will travel. This gets us to look continuously at probabilities of potential markets, instead of dreaming of the possibilities that existed in the past. We have embarked on determining what motivates and what impresses the market, and at the same time be updated on what confuses, what disappoints, and what frustrates the markets. As we remain practical and innovative, we know that we need to get onboard faster in the existing and needed shift in technology. We will leave no stones unturned as we work our markets, and claim our fair share of these markets. Seychelles will nevertheless maintain its personalized tourism approach, and will continue to say no to mass tourism. This is the Seychelles Brand of Tourism that President James Michel launched some two years ago. This is the base of our industry, and this we shall defend as it is the only way to implicate our people into the industry, and they then feel part of it. Only then will they continue to defend our tourism industry in the same way we do it at the ministry level.
ETN: Since your appointment as Minister there have been allegations of “green washing” in sections of the local media. What is the truth about the Seychelles commitment to remaining green and meeting global best standards?
ST.ANGE: Seychelles is not green washing. We know that we need to be good custodians of what was handed to us as unique selling points. The commitment is displayed by us putting our money where our mouth is. As a small country we have now declared over 50% of our total land area as protected natural reserves. Our chosen path is not new; we have been going down the path of protecting our natural assets way before the buzz word of eco came about. We are an example, and one we are happy for the world at large to visit and appreciate.
ETN: The recent freak weather has done some significant damage to roads, and beaches I visited showed signs of erosion. Tell us what the Seychelles government is doing to help affected people whose houses have suffered damage or were destroyed and how beach conservation and restoration is being handled.
ST.ANGE: The change in weather patterns is a direct result of the climate change phenomenon. In January we were hit by a freak torrential rain fall. We were not equipped to deal with such an extraordinary situation, and some of our districts got affected with flooding, landslides, and other associated difficulties. The government of Seychelles immediately moved to assist its people. A Relief Disaster Fund was immediately set up to raise funds to assist those most affected. Seychelles is happy to say that many a friendly country of ours have come forward with different forms of assistance. [Adds this correspondent – the Seychelles tourism private sector has also generously given cash and in-kind donations to the relief fund.]
ETN: The Seychelles Tourism Academy (STA) is building a new campus, and while a little behind schedule, it is clearly set to become Africa’s top-rated hospitality and tourism training institute. STA has been signing MOUs with Shanghai, Oman, and Malta. Where do you want to see this institution go and what role is it to play to get every willing young Seychellois started with a career in tourism?
ST.ANGE: Yes, the Seychelles Tourism Academy is being rebuilt as new. It will be a purpose-built academy to train firstly the young people of our country to enter the workforce in the pillar of our economy – tourism. This was an important step that needed to be done. The long-term success of our tourism industry is to have our people trained to be better prepared to play their part in their industry. We are today working with many hospitality and tourism training institutions in different parts of the world, and this increases staff and student exchange programs. We know that this Tourism Academy in Seychelles will be a great institution. We shall open our doors to take students from Africa, Asia, and the Indian Ocean islands wanting to study in French and English languages, and to do their practical training in a country dependent on tourism.
ETN: The Vanilla Islands initiative has been given a boost by the EU with funding to expand the concept of inter-island cooperation. What are your main challenges, as after all you were and remain the driving spirit behind the Vanilla islands?
ST.ANGE: The Indian Ocean Vanilla Islands Regional Organization is a grouping of those islands of the Indian Ocean wanting to work together for the consolidation of their own, and for the region’s tourism industry. We are having the support from the European Union as this is a regional organization working for the wellbeing of a group of islands with a rich cultural heritage, and one vulnerable to climate change. The main challenge facing the organization remains the commitment by all the 6 islands to be 100% behind the Vanilla Islands partnership. This grouping makes the strengths [of one] become the strengths of the rest, and it dilutes the weaknesses of individual members of the alliance. The region needs to be more visible and to be better known. This will ensure that all the islands are then seen as being close together, and this will increase the possibilities for twin- or 3-island holidays for our visitors. In the longer term it will also become an inviting region for cruise ship tourism, because the diversity of this region is unrivaled. The Indian Ocean region could also be home for smaller cruise ships which are today having difficulty in finding not only an adequate, but also a suitable region in which to be based.
ETN: You, once upon a time, were nominated by the Seychelles Hospitality & Tourism Association (SHTA) to become the Director of Tourism Marketing, the private sector “implant” into the “old” STB and then transformed the institution to what STB is today. How are your relations today with your erstwhile colleagues in the private sector, now that you have “crossed the lines” and are now a government minister?
ST.ANGE: The Seychelles tourism industry, this is the private sector component of our country’s tourism players, remain the backbone of this vital industry that is today more than ever before regarded as the pillar of the Seychelles economy. Some two years ago it was indeed the private sector body that nominated me to head the Marketing Department of the old Tourism Board. They are the front-line team of our industry, and they need more than any civil servant for the industry to work. I have maintained an open line of communication with the private sector association, and I make it a point to attend personally their general meetings. I would say without any reservations that I have a good relationship with the Seychelles private sector.
ETN: There was talk sometime last year, opposed by key stakeholders in the private sector, that the STB overseas offices were to move together with Air Seychelles/Etihad. That partnership, while turning the airline around, has raised concerns among private sector stakeholders over the lack of nonstop flights from for instance Paris. How do you in government reconcile such demands with the airline’s dictates on reaching profitability again and keeping an eye on their bottom line?
ST.ANGE: The positioning of the Tourism Board’s Overseas Offices in joint Offices with Air Seychelles and Etihad was but a proposition that had come up to help in streamlining of our operation. This proposition was contested by the private sector, and it did not take place because government heard the reasoning being put forward. The airline side of your question is more complex. Air Seychelles, as every other small regional airline, faced economic difficulties and needed to find a strategic partner. Air Seychelles and Etihad joined forces together, and today Air Seychelles is seeing the benefits of this approach. But it is important to note that Air Seychelles is today being managed as an airline and as such needs to be profitable. The doors of Seychelles remain open for other airlines to come forward and operate flights to the region or nonstop direct services to Europe. Seychelles is operating an open sky policy, and with this policy as the modus operandi, the doors are wide open.
ETN: You are literally everywhere, making it appear at times to have a clone or 2 out there. How do you manage to fly on overdrive all the time, and how do you relax, where as there seems not a week over the past year you were not out in the wide world promoting the new Brand Seychelles?
ST.ANGE: When I joined government some three years ago this month, I was mandated to turn the industry around. Then as CEO of Seychelles Tourism I was expected to consolidate the achievements made by the Tourism Board. Now as Minister, I have the overall responsibility to ensure that we have a tourism industry that is managed on a secured footing for the long term. Key to our success is visibility, and this I cannot achieve by sitting in an office. I need to find opportunities to be present at, and then turn these opportunities into avenues to work with the press. Seychelles has no budget to buy space in the press in the four corners of the world, but meeting the press is free, and this you can only do when you know the press, and when you have a message to give to the press. So far it has worked for me as the head of Seychelles Tourism. Yes this approach makes me travel, but I can assure you that each of the trips I undertake, I bring positive results for Seychelles. The second area that gets us coverage is to be accepted as a speaker on the tourism industry’s circuit. Today I am invited to address many tourism forums, and in so doing I am able to spread in the most positive means possible, the word Seychelles. I do relax, of course I do, I enjoy writing, and I am working on a few books to document the history of our islands. This is relaxation for me…
ETN: When ITB kicks off you will mark your first full year in office – what are your plans, and challenges, for the second year? I know Seychelles is lobbying to be elected a member of the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Executive Council, and you have applied to UNESCO to grant the Mission Lodge WHS status. What else of notable importance is on your agenda?
ST.ANGE: Yes it was at ITB last year that news about my appointment as Minister for Tourism and Culture broke. It will be a year soon, and the time to consolidate the achievements to date is now upon me. The Ministry of Tourism is now being remodeled to be more in line with what the private sector trade has requested, and at the same time to ensure that marketing of Seychelles remains a key function we need to be concentrating on. We have the product, because Seychelles is a destination that still rings the holiday of a lifetime note. But we need to increase ways and means to be more visible still, because as times get harder in the market place, we need to be present, we need to be seen, and we need to remain relevant as a tourism destination. We need to increase the visibility of our region and of our continent, because today we get but a pitiful number of visitor arrival on a global scale. This is one of the reasons that has prompted us to put Seychelles as a candidate for the Executive Council Member of the UNWTO. We need to work to get Africa greater visibility, and then to be more in demand for the would-be traveler. For this bid we count on Africa to support us, because we are a serious player in the field of tourism, and I hope that it is accepted that what will be good for Seychelles tourism will be good for Africa as a whole.
On the question of trying to get our Slave Ruins of Mission Lodge to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we are doing that because we believe in protecting where we come from for us to know as a nation, where we are, and where we are going. Seychelles has shown that it is a serious partner of the UNESCO because we have invested and continue to invest in our existing two UNESCO sites, the Vallee de Mai of Praslin and the Aldabra Atoll. But often the procedures are procedures instead of jumping to grab a proposal and protect, like in our case, what Africa is trying and what Africa needs to protect from its history. This slave ruins site is unique as it is the remains where young slaves lived as they were liberated. It is a project with real meaning, and with deep historical values.
What else is on our agenda, well firstly to work with South Africa, the Kingdom of Swaziland, and Mozambique on their East 3 Route project; secondly to get the region to be the cruise destination where Africa, Asia, India, and the Vanilla Islands all pull together to offer a cruise route that stands out by itself. After that it is just wait and see…
ETN: And in closing, cruise tourism, will it come back to the archipelago in the former big way?
ST.ANGE: Yes, with the Somali bandits falling into line because of the overwhelming support of the Community of Nations, the sea routes off the coast of Africa are becoming safe again. We will now be working together, all the countries of the region, to reposition ourselves at cruise ship fairs as a region that wants cruise ship business, and that will work with cruise ship companies to get our region included on their routes.
ETN: Thank you for your time Minister and for speaking with eTurboNews.