Unrest may suffocate Madagascar tourism -operators


ANTANANARIVO – Madagascan tourism may collapse if political foes stay locked in a bitter power struggle that has killed around 125 people, the industry warned on Monday.

After weeks of civil unrest, the industry — worth $393 million to the Indian Ocean island last year — has seen nearly all bookings cancelled for the start of 2009, according to a statement by an umbrella group representing tourism companies.

Opposition leader Andry Rajoelina, a former disc jockey turned charismatic politician, accuses president Marc Ravalomanana of transforming Madagascar into a dictatorship and has established a parallel administration.

“We have seen a cancellation rate of close to 100 percent for the first quarter of 2009 and an occupation rate of less than 10 percent at hotels,” the tourism group wrote in a statement.

“The recent dramatic events are the prelude to a catastrophic tourist season if a political solution is not found very soon.”

The operators said the sector was already under pressure because the global economic slowdown has heightened competition between rival tourist destinations — making a political solution all the more urgent.

They said the closure of some hotels was unavoidable while up to half of those employed in the sector risked losing their jobs. It said occupancy rates in 2008 were 30 to 40 percent.

Madagascar had been seen as a tourist safe haven and a sound destination for foreign investment.

The world’s fourth-largest island contains one of the most bio-diverse environments in the world, with scores of endemic animal and plant species.

It has also opened its doors to major foreign companies including Rio Tinto and Sherritt International, which plan to extract nickel, bauxite, cobalt and ilmenite, a major source of titanium.

Analysts say Rajoelina, a firebrand politician nicknamed TGV after the French express train, has tapped into a deep vein of popular frustration at Ravalomanana’s failure to tackle poverty.

The 59-year-old president, a self-made millionaire who started his business empire hawking yoghurt off a bicycle, denies becoming increasingly authoritarian and has called for dialogue with his critics.