- The Chikungunya epidemic in the popular Indian Ocean islands destinations has had an uneven effect. In Réunion, the hardest hit island, the season is described as a disaster and strategies to "reconstruct" the entire sector are being launched. In Mauritius, on the other hand, tourist arrivals increased by six percent in the first quarter of 2006.
According to the Mauritian government, "tourist arrivals in the first quarter of 2006 reached 209,248 compared to 197,351 for the corresponding period in 2005, which represents an increase of 6 percent." Around 91 percent of the tourists had come mainly for holidays, defying the regional Chikungunya epidemic.
Mauritius' tourism sector nevertheless has been hit by the Chikungunya outbreak. Arrivals from France, the island's leading market, had dropped by 5.0 percent to attain 59,845 during this period. French tour operators like Exotismes have confirmed that travellers had shied away from the entire region, with sales to Seychelles, Mauritius and Réunion dropping, while preferring the Caribbean.
The French market had reacted to the large media coverage of the Chikungunya epidemic, covering cases in the entire region. In other markets, media coverage seems to have focused more on the stronghold of the mosquito-borne disease; the French-governed island of La Réunion. Italians, Germans, Britons, South Africans and Asians seem to have changed Réunion travel plans with a trip to Mauritius. Arrival from Italy to Mauritius had even grown by 87 percent in one year.
In Réunion, the hardships of the outbreak resulted in a total disaster for the tourism sector the first half of this year. Many tour operators skipped the popular destination all together. George Colson, leader of the Réunionnaise travel agents' trade union, recently stated that "the situation remains disastrous and the season is spoilt. During the [upcoming] school holidays, parents do not want to run risks with their children," meaning that bookings remain very low.
French Tourism Minister Léon Bertrand has had to announce a large relief programme to "reconstruct" the tourism industry of Réunion. Paris has already approved of a euro 4.5 million programme that mainly is to re-launch and market the destination on lost markets. The Minister reminded the Réunionnaise that "tourism was already in recession before the epidemic," so it would now be a good "occasion to instigate it and diversify it."
The re-branding of Réunion on European markets has already started, and islanders are optimistic they will soon step out of the crisis. Already in May, the Réunionnaise Tourism Commission made sure to have an overwhelming presence at the Paris tourism fair. Commission leader Paul Caro told the Réunionnaise daily 'Témoignages' that among the estimated 400,000 visitors to the Réunion stand, "nobody dared to ask ... about the Chikungunya crisis."
Questioning would however have been appropriate. While the disease never got out of control in Mauritius, the spread of Chikungunya was unheard of in Réunion. According to Minister Bertrand, only in February, some 47.000 cases had been reported. Infection rates are now down at 1,400 a week. "We have not won yet, but the numbers have dropped strongly," the Minister noted when presenting his relief programme for the industry.
In Mauritius, there is no need of a crisis programme. According to the forecast of the Mauritian Central Statistics Office, "tourist arrivals in 2006 are expected to reach 825,000." Tourism receipts are estimated at around Rupees 29,424 million (euro 755 million), remaining the island state's leading economic sector.
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