Lindley Thomen: “The current tourism situation is alarming”

11 octobre 2019, 17:19


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Lindley Thomen: “The current tourism situation is alarming”

He is discreet and low key but counts a lifetime in the tourism industry. Lindley Thomen, resort manager, has spent 32 years of his life working for most of the big hotel groups in Mauritius before ending up at Four Seasons Resort Mauritius, one of the most exclusive hotels on the island. We took the opportunity of the International Tourism Day celebrated last Friday to sit with him and seek his views on the tourism industry in Mauritius.

We are celebrating Tourism Day today (Friday) so let’s start with the situation of tourism in Mauritius. Does the decrease in tourist arrivals worry you as a manager of a big resort? 
As a hotelier, you always need to be on the alert. You need to know what is happening, where and why it's happening. The whole world is connected and you never know how events happening globally might affect you locally. I believe that anything can happen unexpectedly and overnight. Who would have expected the collapse of Thomas Cook, for example?

To what extent will that affect us locally?
Thomas Cook was not a small travel agency. We talking about one of the pioneers of global travel agencies in Europe. So its closure will certainly hit Mauritius, maybe not all the resorts but certainly some segments will be hit hard. Now if Condor also has the same kind of burnout, there will be little to smile about.

Besides, I don’t suppose anyone was prepared for this as it was totally unexpected, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was totally unexpected and unexpected things can happen at any time. So even when the situation is good, as I said earlier, we need to be alert. 

And what does the situation in Mauritius currently look like as far as tourism is concerned?
The current tourism situation is alarming. However, we as hoteliers need to join hands in order to save our industry. 

Are all the factors external?
Yes, mostly external. There are some factors which are internal, but we haven’t felt their full force yet. It’s a long-term process. The external factors however, come straight for us and immediately take their toll.  A direct hit could come from Brexit for instance. 

Couldn’t Brexit be a blessing in disguise for us?
Not immediately, it won’t. It might turn out to be a blessing in the long run. For the time being however, people are holding on to their money. They don't want to spend and they don't want to organise a trip. Some do, but most of them don’t which is affecting us now. The result of Brexit, or whether there will be Brexit or not, no one knows. And until there is a stabilisation of the situation, the uncertainty surrounding that is alarming news for us. [Alarming news for us. ]

According to your estimates, how much of the British market have we lost?
We have lost a lot as the British market is the second main market in Mauritius after the French one but it is very hard for me to give a figure as our product differs from that offered by the other resorts around the island.

Is the situation made worse because of the value of the pound that has gone down?
Globally yes. But we tend to compensate that drop by tapping into markets from emerging economies. 

Which other markets? China, India?
The Middle East and China are the two main markets which are emerging. India too but not in big numbers. For our resort, it’s Middle Eastern guests, followed by Chinese guests. 

What unique things do we have to offer the Middle Eastern market that they can’t get in Dubai for example?
They will skip Dubai because of the heat.  Our winter is attractive to them. That’s one thing. But one other main thing we offer them is privacy. In our resort, specifically, we have total privacy. We have the all pool villa concept ranging from one bedroom to five-bedroom residences. And the private villas can be made even more private if the guest so wishes. The concept itself promotes privacy. Having your room as a standalone unit with the terrace, a private pool, a daybed and round-the-clock Four Seasons services. At the same time, our product offering is designed in a way to promote the culture of the country, the craftsmanship of Mauritians and we encourage ourselves to find a connection between them and us.

How do they find our food?
Middle Eastern guests are rather adventurous when it comes to food. Most of the time, they are happy to try different kinds of food. They are keen to discover our gastronomy. Of course, we also offer them some Middle Eastern food, particularly at breakfast buffets. They appreciate that personal attention.

What about the Chinese market? Are the guests satisfied with the food and service on offer?
We adapt to their taste and we really go the extra mile to satisfy our guests. For instance, 1 October is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.  So, we will prepare a nice surprise for our Chinese guests. We want our guests to feel at home in their home away from home.

The Indian market is not picking up so well. What is it that the Indians are looking for that we are unable to give them? 
The Indian market is quite specific. Our Indian guests are perhaps the Italians of Asia. They tend to look for their own food in any resort that they go to. They often travel in big groups. So we have to manage that. However, with the younger generation, the more the world gets smaller. But we do respond to their needs. I'm sure that most of the resorts adapt to them. Something crucial is that we aim to exceed the expectations of the different guests that we welcome at the resort, given that that they come from around the world. We also are mindful about our guests’ customs and norms and aim to deliver an exceptional guest experience.

How do you deal with that in your resort?
We have to have a balance. We cannot, for instance, fill up the resort with only one market, just because that particular market is performing and the others are not. If we did that, we would have an imbalance of people complaining. And the sort of balance we need to have does not concern the room revenue only, but also the extra revenue. It’s known, for example, for the Chinese guests, that it's breakfast in the morning, sightseeing during the day and dinner in the early evening and back to the room. Though this is changing, the Chinese do not normally spend time or money drinking wine. Which leaves space for Europeans who like to spend the evening enjoying a good bottle of wine. For the Arab market, on the other hand, we have to do without the beverage consumption. So we have the food, the room rate and that's it.

And what is the common denominator for all the nationalities you have at the resort?
Nobody likes to feel that they have been swindled. All guests want value for money which we do our best to provide. 

Whichever way we look at it, the European market remains our main market, particularly the UK, France, then Germany. Which means we are still selling the same concept we have been selling for decades: sea, sun, sand. When are we going to diversify? 
It is hard to predict any change in trend. We also thought that we were the best in what we were doing until others caught up with us.  Now we see things in a different perspective and realise that we're not the best but only among the best. 

What are our competitors offering that we are not?
What we were offering in the past. We were offering the personal touch to the guest, which is diminishing now. We now meet the guest’s expectations. Sometime back, we were exceeding expectations. We need to find the irreplaceable Mauritian smile again. You won't be able to replace the legendary smile of Mauritians. You cannot ask someone coming from Bangladesh to smile like a Mauritian. Even asking a Mauritian to smile like a Mauritian is difficult today! Now to get someone else who doesn't have our culture to do so is impossible. That's where I think we should really concentrate our efforts. 

Mauritius, in comparison to some other islands, has more to offer in terms of culture. Are we capitalising on that?
We are but people are less and less interested. In the past, Cavadee was a national event not just for Mauritians but for the tourist too. It was colourful and tourists used to walk and go to the temple. That is lost now. And you should not really blame the hotel industry for that. 

Who is responsible?
Social media. People watch cultural events on television, documentaries, media etc. and they know how things work. They don't really look for that human contact any more. Now, the world is connected and people can travel without being there. So once they are there, they sometimes tend to go and feel it. But it's not a real must for them now.

But isn't it also true that the hotel industry tends to sort of hold the tourists hostage by offering all-inclusive packages? So the tourist has no incentive to go out there to discover the culture and at the same time, you're depriving the small restaurants and other eating places of revenue that they could actually use.
We need to consider two aspects here. The hoteliers should not be blamed for offering the all-inclusive in Mauritius. Just imagine us not applying that. If we didn’t, our hotel industry would not be competitive compared to other islands in the Indian Ocean.  

Why should we?  If you go to France, you'd be lucky to get breakfast.
Mauritius cannot be compared to France. I would compare us to some other islands that do offer all-inclusive like the Maldives and the Seychelles. Despite the fact that we normally offer half board or even bed and breakfast, we must sometimes go with the trend and try to catch that guest that would otherwise go to the Maldives or to the other side of the world, Dominican Republic, Barbados or Mexico. We really did not want to offer all-inclusive but we had to. Then we realised that we should do it in a different way. And that's why certain hotels started to have premium all-inclusive. I was part of a team which launched the real premium all-inclusive when I was working in another resort, and we even offered champagne and spa massages and everything in the package. The trend of all inclusive now has lost some of its attractiveness.

But you are still keeping your guests in the resort, aren’t you? 
No. Of course, I can’t speak for others but as far as we are concerned, we want our guests to know a little bit more about what's happening in our country, so we encourage them to go out, which works out for the taxi drivers, local restaurants, shops and the economy in general. You have to bear in mind however, that no matter how hard you try to promote the local industry and local businesses, it all boils down to the decision of the guest. The guest is going to go out once to discover the island but wants to spend the rest of his time enjoying the resort. So we also offer authenticity in our resorts, particularly through the people we employ, our food, our Mauritian corner, our chef’s table, where guests get to interact with our chef… We also have a small restaurant in Trou d’eau Douce that we recommend to our guests and which does very well with tourists, offering typical Mauritian food.

What about local craft?
The problem is the quality that is available on the island. I’m not blaming anyone but it’s sometimes difficult to sell Mauritian craft. What is Mauritian craft now? Everything is imported. There are families from the village who come and sell their items to the guests here but I can count how many of these items are handmade in Mauritius. Some are bought from Malaysia or elsewhere. I think it’s time the authorities helped these people to produce. It will cost us less than importing things from elsewhere. So I think we would gain and they would also gain, but it requires a big investment from the authorities. 

Are the authorities not doing enough to help first the hotel industry and then the small entrepreneurs whose products feed into the hotel industry?
Whether they’re doing enough or not, I really can't say. But I think there's always room for improvement. 

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