Not So Haut-De-Gamme!

 Ramesh Beeharry — 

 

Thirty years ago, an English colleague came on her honeymoon to Mauritius. With an all-inclusive package costing USD 2500, this is what in local parlance we call Haut-de-Gamme (HDG). Posh in English! But with some hotels costing as little as USD 1300 today for a package holiday, it is obvious that we have diversified in the last 25 years.

Anyway back to my colleague. When she returned to the office, I was curious to know what she thought of Mauritius, thinking she would make me proud by saying how marvellous it all was. So imagine my shock when she told me that she had remained in the hotel for the whole fortnight, because she was warned by the hotel staff that it was dangerous to venture out of the 5-star perimeter!

Well, blow me down with a feather, I thought! I instantly had this outlandish vision of a bunch of Fakawis waiting in the long grass—spears at the ready—to skirmish any hapless tourist for their roast dinner. Mauritius, and dangerous, what absolute rot! The sad part is that this was probably the poor girl’s once-in-a-lifetime visit to Paradise Island, and she saw none of it. If HDG means keeping visitors prisoner in a 5-star, then I am sorry that is not what most tourists come here for.

La Rencontre

Whilst on attachment in Paris in the 1980s, I once managed to take a short break in the French Riviera. Arriving in Nice on a balmy spring afternoon during Easter weekend, I was struck by the sheer length of the soft sandy beach which apparently stretches for 10km in the form of a crescent, like a necklace from the foot of Mont Boron in the East to Nice airport in the West. With the Promenade des Anglais underlining the beach for a 7km stretch, it would be difficult to find a more romantic setting.

So I wondered what the French saw in our bucket-size beaches that they are prepared to spend a small fortune and 12 hours seated uncomfortably in a plane to get here. “La rencontre de l’autre, chez lui” with the emphasis on the chez lui, my friend and colleague Charles explained. Well Chez nous may not be HDG, but it is genuine; and that’s what the visitor is after. He wants genuine living people who smile genuine living smiles spontaneously and not put on a standardized plastic corporate grin even when none is called for. He wants a taste of our culture, eat of our food; he wants to dance to the sega beat; and maybe even learn a smattering of Creole!

Pompous

The term Haut-de-Gamme was probably foisted upon us by snooty hotel owners but, whoever invented it, it is high time we got rid of it. Apart from sounding oldie-worldie, it does nothing to attract the genuine visitor. The impression the label creates is that anything outside of the hotel establishment is rubbish at best, or downright dangerous at worst. Thus it designed not only to keep the locals out, but also to keep the (rich HDG?) visitors in.

But here is the rub. If most tourists ever stuck to the hotels in the 1980s, it was not so much for their pompous HDG label, but more due to the lack of alternatives. However the situation has changed drastically over the last 25 years, with the result that only 17.5% of tourists stayed in hotels in 2015. Thus out of 1.27m, only 0.22m actually bothered to experience the so-called HDG. These probably came for the sun, sea and sand; and did not mind paying drink and food prices at European rates. It is a pity that the waiter serving them does not get paid at European rates, but perhaps that’s another story.

With an occupancy rate of 63%, some of our hotel rooms can cost more than one in the centre of Paris. This is hardly surprising; imagine earning interest on only R63k of your of R100k deposit, and you have an idea why. The corollary would be, in order to make up for the loss of interest on your R37k, you would demand a higher interest rate on the R63k from your bank manager—if only you had the same choice as the hotel owner! But more importantly the billions worth of assets represented by the idle 37% could possibly have been employed in more lucrative activity.

Gearing

Notwithstanding hoteliers continue to covet the few public beaches that are still left. I would have thought that we would by now have learnt a few lessons from Reunion. And put hotels on the far side of the costal road; and leave the beaches free to be enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. But no, we carry on as if the Mauritian citizen does not deserve any sandy beaches to enjoy. The time-bomb ticks away, but who cares so long as the few continue to make good money on borrowed money.

Yes Depositors’ money. Not much is (deliberately?) said about this aspect of our hotel industry. The one comprehensive report I could find was a paper published in Sep-2013*; and boy does it make for some interesting reading! Inter alia it talks of “Dishonest creative financial accounting piling up loans through incorrect gearing ratios” and “Debts exceeding revenues and equity levels by several times.” And it goes on to warn that “Such unsustainable debt levels=serious risks to our hotels industry, banking sector, and may cause systemic financial crisis if unchecked.” Serious hair-raising stuff!

One can only hope that the appropriate steps have been taken in the last 3.50+ years to deal with hair-raising situations. Notwithstanding my friend Keshraj thinks that the current gearing ratio of some hotel groups may still be giving sleepless nights to the prudent bank manager.

Where do they go

Now the reader may well wonder where do the remaining 1.05m tourists go. Logically, for the most part they stay at the 150 licensed guesthouses and 900 tourist residences. Not only are these cheaper and homelier, but they also provide for the kind of autonomy that the strict hotel routine does not. The majority of the 150k visitors from Reunion—many of whom come almost every year—opt for these. Most French repeaters from the Metropole and first-timers who accompany them also tend to go for these or for self-catering apartments and bungalows. Some Italians and Germans also favour the smaller establishments. Only the British tend to stick to the hotels generally.

With mixed marriages and meeting of the Twains through travel by, intimate relationships have been forged between foreigners and Mauritians. Thus quite a number of visitors stay with friends and relations; or under their aegis. For example, my late Belgian friend Joe and his wife used to come over every two years for a duration of 2-3 months. Every time they stayed in the same comfortable flat in Flic-en-Flac for half the time, and the rest in Rodrigues. We used to see each other frequently and, on the last occasion when we thought it might be their last visit due to Joe’s failing health, we made sure to spend some quality time together in Rodrigues.

SMEs the Future?

The figures speak eloquently enough for themselves; the era of the SME is in full swing. So long as the place is clean and safe, it is obvious that the majority of tourists prefer the small and friendly establishment to the impersonal multiple star-rated establishments. Because in the SME they are more likely to succeed in their quest for the genuine Rencontre avec Nous, Chez Nous!

Thus the time has come to abandon all plans to build any more inefficient hotels on ever-dwindling public beaches. Notwithstanding the strong leverage that the large hotel groups may be able to exercise, Government should help consolidate the SME sector with equivalent (if not better) incentives that are given to the so-called HDG. Maintaining the relative high cost of air access will do the rest to ensure that we always get quality tourists.

 * ‘Mauritian Tourism Sector. Issues, Prospects and Challenges’ by Dr S Lallchand

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