Tourism Dynamics, Coastal land issues and the Mauritian Public, what interactions for the future?

 

 

Tourism is a very important economic sector for Mauritius as in 2015 it contributed up to 6.7% to the Gross Domestic Product at basic prices, employed 29,000 persons, welcomed 1,150,000 tourists and generated Rs 44 billion as revenue (Statistics Mauritius). For 2016 tourism arrivals numbers and revenue are expected to tick upwards.

 

The future appears bright for the sector and Government fully expects this sector to contribute even more to the economic well being of the country. It is time to examine tourism from the angle of coastal land uses and interactions with the Mauritian public. For that purpose let’s examine tourism arrivals and coastal land use statistics published by Government.

 

 

Coastal land use (km)

1975

1990

1996

1998

2015

Public beaches

(km)

18

19

27

39

 

45

Hotel sites

(km)

10

29

42

44

 

92 (estimate)

Campement sites (km)

51

52

52

Not published

Not published

Others (km)

244

222

201

Not published

Not published

Coastal lands (km)

322

322

322

322

322

 

Tourism arrivals

 

74,597

291,550

486,867

558,195

1,151,723

Km of beaches for hotels sites per 100,000 tourists

 

13

 

10

 

8.60

 

8

 

8

(estimate)

Population of Mauritius

 

890,000

 

1,056,000

 

1,129,000

 

1,154,000

 

1,263,000

Km of public beaches per 100,000 inhabitants

 

2.0

 

1.8

 

2.55

 

3.4

 

4.0 (estimate)

 

 

As far as we know, since 1998 Government has not published updated coastal land use statistics. However, from the above, it is clear that for each 100,000 tourist arrivals the hotel industry requires about 8 km of beach frontage. Hence give that in 2015, the country received 1,150,000 tourists, we can estimate that close to 92 km of beach frontage are currently occupied by beach hotels which represents 28% of the total coastal lands of Mauritius.

 

Given the current trajectory of the hotel industry, increases in arrivals will inevitably lead to greater pressures from promoters for even more coastal lands for hotel development. Indeed, should arrivals top 1.5 million tourists; we can expect hotels to require 120 km of coastal lands (37% of coastal lands), and the mythical target of 2 million tourists will push up coastal land requirements to 160 km representing 50% of all coastal lands in Mauritius.

 

The potential for conflict is obvious and the environmental impacts of tourism can only but get out of control. Indeed the past 25 years has but seen continual conflicts between the public, environmentalists, hotel promoters and Government with the latter siding with one or the other party depending on immediate political gains to be had from the situation.

 

Current examples of conflicts are the hotel project at La Cambuse. The legal battle now unfolding is interesting as the public and local environmental organizations have shifted the nature of their opposition to the project initially from the protection of a partially degraded marine park in Blue Bay, to the conservation of sand dunes, to public access to the beach, and now to the preservation of Dodo fossils at Mare aux Songes. This lack of focus from the public opposition to this project may turn out to be a fatal weakness. From information available we are led to believe that this hotel project does not constitute a significant threat to social welfare of the public or to the environment.

 

The same cannot be said of the latest intent by Government to de-proclaim large tracts of public beaches in the Bel Ombre / St Felix area for future hotel projects. If this were to be the case it would be a flagrant and unacceptable disregard by Government for the welfare of the population. We strongly condemn this move and urge Government to reconsider its position as we believe that there ought to be more public beaches proclaimed.

 

Although the linear extent of public beaches has increased over the years going from a mere 18 km in 1975 to 45 km in 2015, we note that per 100,000 inhabitants, the ratio is only 4.0 whilst it’s 8.0 per 100,000 tourists. Clearly, tourists are favoured over the local population. This is a situation that can only breed some resentment and may not be in the best interests of everyone (hotel developers included) over the medium term. The question that needs to be answered is what is the minimum beach frontage that ought to be devoted to public beaches? Let us assume that both the hotel sector and inhabitants should have the same equal beach frontage ratio of 8 per 100,000 of tourists or inhabitants. It follows that the public beach frontage should therefore be around 100 km compared to the current 45 km. We are not there yet. Hence the proposed de-proclamation of public beaches in St Felix goes against any sense of fairness, justice and equity towards the Mauritian public.

 

It is clear that the current trajectory of the hotel sector in Mauritius is becoming increasingly detrimental to the general well being of the population, country and even to that of the tourism sector itself. We need to know how to address this obvious imbalance in a manner that will generate goodwill to all.

 

For that we need to understand how the hotel sector has developed in Mauritius. The basic model is of beach hotels for tourists that have come to enjoy the sea and the sun. Hence nearly all promoters have done their level best to rent from a willing Government prime coastal land at cheap prices. Once built, the underlying assumption and unwritten rule would be that the local public and non-hotel tourists would not have easy access to the hotel beach frontage and would instead remain on whatever public beaches available. Unwittingly, this unwritten rule, tolerated by Government, has created a mild form of segregation between hotel guests and the local public and non-hotel tourists. It is ironic that in a fully functional parliamentary and democratic regime like ours, a mild form of segregationism was allowed to remain more or less intact. As long as there were few hotels, this basic mode of functioning was barely noticed by most.

 

However, over the past 25 years, this has no longer been the case. The population rightly resents the segregationist and invasive nature of this mode of hotel development giving rise to conflict. A responsible and democratic Government cannot let this situation degrade further. Alas, the hotel and tourism sector is quite unable to address the situation from which they have benefitted most and Government is quite content in letting things run its present course.

 

A different approach is called for. In an ideal situation, coastal lands, the majority of which are Pas Geometriques State lands, ought to remain un-built and vegetated. This vast swathe of land would then be transformed into a green belt, declared as public beaches to which all inhabitants and tourists would have access. Hotels, restaurants, bungalows, shops and access roads would be situated more that 80 metres inland.

 

The social and environmental benefits would be immense; the resilience of the coastal zones to climate changes and natural hazards like increased flooding, intense cyclones and precipitation would have been greatly increased. Environmental impacts due to urbanization would be diminished. Conflicts between hotel developers and the public would have been greatly reduced. Our capacity to welcome tourists would not be limited by the extent of prime coastal lands left available. Some tourist operators would surely have objected for they tend to prefer that their clients do not have to share the same stretch of beach with other tourists or with the general public. But this is not an attitude that is commendable and it should not be encouraged in an open society like ours.

 

Currently, the above approach cannot be implemented; it is far too late for this. Yet, on a few stretches of coastline, it is just possible, and the St Felix / Bel Ombre area is one of them. We strongly urge Government to encourage would-be hotel promoters to buy land just off the Pas Geometriques which would then be declared as public beaches. And then for Government to install amenities like jetties, boat houses, kiosks, benches, cycle lanes, promenades all along the coastline whilst all hotels, restaurants, cafés or shops would be built more inland, but still within easy access of the beach and having an un-spoilt view of the vast sea. Interestingly enough it might also be possible to implement the above approach at Les Salines on the west coast where promoters are interested in building half a dozen hotels there. In the vicinity there is a Tour Martello and other stone buildings that could be used as the local focus for a Heritage site or a museum along side a public beach.

 

It is high time for this country to rethink the way it uses its coastal zones in order to conserve its natural and cultural heritage and enable its citizens and tourists to enjoy those assets in a non discriminatory manner whilst generating revenue. It might be a dream, but the future always belonged to dreamers for they shape the minds of tomorrow. Be wary of dreamers.

 

Karim Jaufeerally

 

Le Mauricien – 20 September 2016