Taxi driver George Lepoigner says he can’t wait for the tourists to start flocking back to the sun-soaked beaches of Mauritius. The Indian Ocean island nation opened up its doors to international travel on Thursday, after long months of isolation because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But there is a catch — only vaccinated holidaymakers with a negative PCR test will be allowed in, and even then they will have to be confined to “resort bubbles” for a 14-day quarantine. “Without tourists in the country, we do not have foreign currencies flowing in. We do not have the funds to keep us going,” Lepoigner, 55, said. “It is a tragedy,” the father of two added.
The global coronavirus crisis has battered the economy in Mauritius, a paradise holiday destination known for its pristine beaches, turquoise waters, and coral reefs. Before the pandemic hit in March 2020, the tourism and hospitality industry raked in about 24 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and employed nearly a quarter of the workforce.
But in the last financial year, the Mauritian economy shrank by 15 percent, so the country is desperate for tourists to return. “We are preparing for a gradual and sustained recovery of the sector, aiming at 650,000 tourists over the next 12 months,” Finance Minister Renganaden Padayachy said in June.
He said the government would give the tourism authority 420 million Mauritian rupees (8.3 million euros, $9.7 million) to promote the island in key markets such as China, Europe and South Africa. But with a full reopening to international travellers only planned from October 1, hoteliers will have to wait for business to bounce back.
Le Mauricien newspaper reported that 600 tourists were expected to land on Thursday on three flights from Europe and Dubai. They’ll be able to use their resort’s facilities and beach — but not the spa, and cannot explore the islands until after the two-week quarantine.
Immense economic shock
Gilbert Espitalier-Noel, CEO of New Mauritius Hotels, which owns a string of resorts, says glumly that he doesn’t expect a recovery until the last quarter of the year. The hotel group’s revenue plunged in the nine months to March 2021 to 940 million rupees from 7.6 billion a year earlier.
“While we have taken steps to minimise expenses, through pay cuts, voluntary retirements and keeping capital and operating expenditure at a minimum, the upkeep of the hotels remains significant,” he said, adding that the company had applied for a state-funded subsidy to stay afloat.
The effects of the pandemic have not been limited to the tourism sector, spilling out into other areas of the economy including transport, agriculture, retail and support services.
“Mauritius has not escaped this immediate and immense economic shock and destruction with ripple effects beyond the sector itself,” economist Rama Sithanen told AFP.
And Mauritius, like other nations across the world, is continuing to battle more virulent strains of the virus.
The nation of 1.2 million people has reported about 2,190 Covid infections and 20 deaths, although the figures may not reflect the true situation because of limited testing.
But for Lepoigner, the return of tourists cannot come soon enough.
“Even though there is a risk of contamination with the new variant, either we die of hunger, or we die of Covid. I’ll pick Covid since 99.9 percent of Mauritians have survived the virus since last year,” he said.
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