As tropical beach locales across the world battle for the attention of the massive and increasingly important outbound Chinese tourist market, one small island off the coast of Africa has been amping up marketing efforts and using historical ties with China to gain an edge in the competition.
On March 12, Shanghai’s Lark Hill Restaurant in the French Concession was host to a major celebration of the independence day of the nation of Mauritius—an event that brought together 180 people to promote Mauritian culture, lifestyle, and—of course—tourism.
Competing with Indian Ocean getaways the Maldives and the Seychelles, Mauritius has been working hard to attract more Chinese visitors to offset a drop in European visitors to the region. Since the 2008 financial crisis, tourist numbers from Europe have been in decline while the number of Chinese visitors has grown rapidly. Arrivals from Europe fell 1.5 percent in 2013, but Chinese visitor numbers grew by a staggering 100.7 percent in 2013, according to figures from Mauritius’ official tourism authority. This amounted to a total of 41,913 Chinese visitors for the year, up from 20,885 in 2012. Chinese visitor growth has been massive in 2014, with 298.7 percent year-on-year growth for the month of January.
The stakes are high for Mauritius, the Maldives, and the Seychelles, where tourism accounts for between 10 and 30 percent of each island’s GDP. According to the president of Veranda Leisure and Hospitality in a September Financial Times interview, Mauritius “desperately” needs Chinese tourists as a result of lagging European numbers. However, the average Chinese vacation period is only half that of Europeans’, which means that for every European tourist lost, Mauritius needs at least two Chinese visitors to recoup the loss.
As a result, Chinese travelers have been the focus of intense promotional efforts by Mauritius’ tourism authority, official airline, and tour guides. Efforts have included advertising, workshops, press trips, and familiarization trips for tour operators. However, the Maldives gained a head start by promoting in China before 2008, making catching up a challenge.
Mauritius has several things going for it in China, however. The island has a significant population of Mauritians of Chinese descent, after their ancestors migrated to the island from China between the 17th and 19th centuries. The number of direct flights between Mauritius and China has been on the rise—there have been two direct flights a week from Shanghai since January 2013, and one a week from Beijing since last July. Chinese investments have also been heavy in Mauritius, with a Sino-Mauritian Jin Fei Trade and Economic Zone project estimated to be worth around $798 million. The zone is one of several Chinese Special Economic Zones set up in African countries, which have been a matter of debate among experts regarding how much they can benefit the region.
At Mauritius’ Shanghai independence day celebration, Mauritian-Chinese organizer Jean Paul Lam worked to promote Mauritius as not only a beach getaway, but also as a cultural destination. Attended by Mauritius’ Ambassador to China, Consul Generals from other nations, and members of Shanghai’s Mauritian community, the event showcased Mauritian food, music, artwork, and even fashion design. “I have heard many complaints about the lack of Mauritian events here and this is why, as an entrepreneur, I decided to organize the celebration of the Independence Day,” said Lam.