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The Big Interview with Sybille Cardon

The Big Interview with Sybille Cardon

“Government should allow the private sector to do more”

In this interview the new chairperson of the Seychelles Hospitality and Tourism Association (SHTA) and manager of Les Lauriers Eco Hotel on Praslin opens up about the shortcomings of the tourism industry. She discusses how it can be improved, from the relationship between small and big hotels to government’s reluctance to give them enough leeway to start positive initiatives and the country’s drug problem which is causing concerns for tourist safety.

As new chairperson of the SHTA, what does your role comprise of?

I make sure that whatever the SHTA wants to do, gets done. If I take something on, I go on until it’s solved. We have some problems that have been going on for ages, on all the minutes detailing our meetings you can see it. So I said, let’s cross them out of the list for once and for all. Sand flies plaguing tourists on the beach, public toilets… How long have we been discussing these issues and nothing is really done? Instead let’s have a meeting, discuss some points, not everything, and move on only once these are resolved. That’s really something I want to do as chairperson. There are just too many meetings, too many minutes taken, too many things being talked about and then nothing is done about it.

How does the SHTA accomplish all this?

We have a board with eight members. Then we have an administration manager and a liaison on Praslin who has direct contact with all our members on Praslin and La Digue. This is something we really needed to do so that our members do not feel left out. We also have a lot of hotels and small establishments there so that needs attention. The SHTA plays a big role in the tourism industry, and it will more and more.

The previous chairperson, Freddy Karkaria, explained that the SHTA needed to professionalize the association. Kate Carolus was then appointed executive director but her contract was terminated when the association decided that it couldn’t afford the high costs associated with the position. One of the reasons behind the SHTA’s continued budgetary constraints was the fact that many of its members were reluctant to go along with the increase in membership fees required to fund its professionalization. Why was this the case and is this issue still ongoing?

We had to readjust the fees because we realized that not everybody can pay a huge fee. But in any case, we had to be more visible. Sometimes people didn’t know what was happening with the SHTA. You were just paying a fee and not really seeing anything.

There was a lack of communication. SHTA had an office somewhere awful in town where there was loud music playing in the vicinity, so one of my first priorities was to move the offices. Now it is more visible at the Espace building with the logo on the front, and the website has also been updated. It is more colorful and attractive. The fact that we have moved closer to the Seychelles Tourism Board is very important too.

We are slowly making progress. We do have some kind of budget and while it could be bigger, we should not talk about that. Let’s make the maximum of what we have at the moment, and slowly we will get there. Maybe those who were at the SHTA before were too high up and not really down to reality and I think Seychelles needs more of its small problems being solved first. It’s not always about big things with the people in government, sometimes it’s about the small daily issues of life. Sometimes you must come down to reality and solve the smaller issues like public toilets for instance before you move up to bigger ones.

Do you feel that enough is being done at the moment to build a sustainable tourism industry?

One of the problems the many small hotels in Seychelles face at the moment is the increasing power of the bigger hotels. They take a bigger percentage of tourists, and websites pick up on those big hotels and promote them, especially if the smaller hotels do not have their own websites. With this pressure the small hotels think that they have to compromise. Whereas if all the hotels, big and small, stick together and agree on certain issues, I’m sure more could be done. Seychelles is small enough, we all know each other. It’s like a small family so if all the members of the family sit together and say “okay, now we all agree”, I think it would be so positive for the country.

Maybe it’s not in everyone’s mind to work together. Businesses are doing well, they don’t care about the others, this is mine and that is yours. But I don’t think you are winning by doing that. Even though we have big hotels and competition, we are all different. One tourist may like a hotel because it is close to the beach, while another may like another hotel because it is more Creole. Big hotels are usually run by foreigners and foreign companies and that’s where the problem lies. Those people don’t really care, they just need to have the best return on their investment and that’s a bit of a shame. But those that are run by Seychellois or by people who care about the country – with them something can be done. Then it’s just a matter of imposing certain measures towards sustainability.

Speaking of which, people complain about the number of foreigners in the industry but the fact of the matter is that without them, the industry would struggle to survive. Do you think that enough is being done to train Seychellois?

There was a group of students who received certificates recently for their hospitality studies and the ceremony was aired on TV. I remember one of the heads of the programme saying that those students had done well but that they wouldn’t be general managers for another 20 years.

These things take time. We always have students going overseas so slowly the generation in their twenties and thirties are coming back with good degrees. But it’s going to take another ten years to get the quality we are looking for. We have to be careful not to criticize the foreigners that come here because without them we wouldn’t have these fancy hotels that we need. We need to treat them well but maybe help them to understand the country better. Instead of sitting in their offices they should come out and see what is happening around with the trash on the beach and other issues. Their clients also go outside of the hotel. So when they complain about the environment, it reflects badly on all of us – not just the small hotels. So we all need to work together.

It was interesting to see that Minister St. Ange had a meeting with the big hotels first then the normal and smaller sized hotels. Then he said that the comments, views, and problems were completely different from what the smaller hotels were talking about, and what the general managers of big hotels were talking about! Later I found out that their concerns were rather about GOP issues and running costs whereas the smaller hotels were concerned about the beaches and trails; the country itself.

What could be done to improve communication between all these stakeholders and, by extension, improve the tourism industry?

On the board, we have members from big hotels such as Constance and then we have others like me who run smaller establishments. It’s a tricky relationship to see how both big and small establishments can cooperate. I know that some hotels already do a lot, such as Constance which sponsors a lot of nongovernmental organizations. They also work on the conservation of the area where they are situated. I don’t know about the others, I can’t say.

But in your opinion, what kind of tangible strategies can be implemented or changed to improve the relationship amongst hotels and to improve the industry?

I hear that there are many issues on the promenade where the Bazar Labrin is located in Beau Vallon. That’s something that you could say to Savoy and Berjaya because they are right there. Let’s see what can be done. It’s always the same problems: the collection of bins, drunk people at Bazar Labrin, people selling food which they have stolen. Let’s do something, take them onboard because it’s just in front of their hotels, as it might be a burden for them as well. So we could create a board to manage that piece of land and have La Plage Restaurant join as well because they have been complaining that there’s an abandoned house just behind them which taints the surrounding area. We need a budget of let’s say SCR100 000; everybody chips in and we could put proper bins and proper signage, clean the area, and then it’s done! Okay, you have to pay a certain price to get that done but that can be taken out of the CSR budget. There is always a way. You need to put somebody in charge of that and not talk about anything else until it is done.

On Praslin, we have a problem with masses of seaweed on the shore, especially on the Grand Anse side. Before, when we had no internet or global market we could get away with it, but now they just arrive on the beach, take a picture and post it online and the whole world knows about it! There are groups in the private sector that are ready to buy the machinery to clean the beach. They would clean one side of the beach for six months then move to the other side. Then all hotels can chip in a bit of money and make it sustainable. But then the ministry of Environment says the machine is too small, or too big, too this, too that – and at the end of the day nothing is being done. I really believe that the government should allow the private sector to do more. If you have an investor who wants to buy the machine, let him buy the machine and then let’s work together and communicate about concerns such as the turtles when they lay the eggs. We will understand. We don’t have to harm the turtles, we can just clean areas where tourists sunbathe. At least that way you’ll have happy clients.

Most of the hotels on that side of the beach where masses of seaweed wash up on shore are small hotels. For six months of the year they have to invent ways to cut down on prices and their budget to attract the clients because everybody knows seaweed means sand flies. If you eliminate all the seaweed you’ll have less sand flies. It seems stupid this subject of seaweed, but for them it’s a real burden because I’m talking about up to a metre-high of seaweed washing up onshore. You don’t want to come to Seychelles and have seaweed right where you are sunbathing.

According to the IMF, “the reported average length of stay has declined to 9.3 days in the first quarter of 2015 from 10.6 days a year ago”. What can be done other than the seaweed situation to get tourists to stay longer?

Activities! We all know that when tourists come to Seychelles or any other island, they do not want to just lay on the beach. You have many young people, the new generation, who would like to start a business – let’s say kitesurfing for example. For them to take a loan from the bank is very expensive. So maybe, again, we could put a budget together to develop those activities and say, “Okay, I will lend you SCR100 000 which you give back as you can”. At least they don’t have to take a loan from the bank, which is too heavy for them. Let’s find a solution. Let’s have a marketing budget for that. It does not have to be millions. Just to help you to buy surfboards or to empower you to get more knowledge on the trade.

Get tourists to hike up the mountains, I know on Mahé you have many, and a couple more on Praslin and La Digue. We need to offer them sports to do, or cooking lessons, just something so that they come back.

Even the souvenirs! Look at the souvenirs that we have in Seychelles. I would say 95% of them are coming from overseas. We have some very talented local artists as well who would like to make crafts. I’m thinking of a shop on La Digue which is very nice and authentic. That is the kind of thing that they want. Let’s develop that. Tourists are not stupid, when they go to a souvenir shop and see an item with the word Seychelles written with Tipp-ex on it, it doesn’t really resonate with them. Someone told me once that at the departure lounge at the airport that they still had money left over from what they had budgeted for shopping. So they buy silly things at the airport to make up for it. It’s a bit of a shame.

Do you believe that is why, despite an increase in arrivals in 2015, the industry doesn’t seem to be seeing an increase in revenues?

The running costs are still very high, they haven’t decreased. And in contrast to that people are spending less in the local economy, that’s for sure. Then the running costs for hotels and businesses went up: electricity, water, salaries, and such. There is no increase because tourists are spending less, and the running costs have come up. We keep saying that we have to reduce the running costs where we can, there must be a way – definitely not by cutting down on salaries but through other means.

Do you feel enough is being done in terms of marketing the destination?

We’ve had meetings about changing the image of Seychelles as a destination, because it’s been there for a long time so maybe people don’t see it anymore. I know the Seychelles Tourism Board and the ministry of Tourism work a lot towards attending all the global fairs. There are more and more destinations coming up. The other day I was watching the news and I saw that many French tour operators are taking Turkey out of their brochures, which is crazy! If it was your country you would cry! While it is due to safety reasons, it is an opportunity for Seychelles to go even bigger on those brochures. We are so lucky to be away from any terrorist threats. There is nothing really bad happening here at the moment. We must use this to our advantage at the moment.
Italian honeymooners used to come to Seychelles for a duration of two weeks for many years. But for the last two years, they’ve been spending ten days in South Africa doing a safari and then they finish with just a week in Seychelles to recover from their vacation in Africa. So that is also where we have lost our numbers. People want something new, they want an adventure! We could have something exciting to offer as well.

Take the parties in Seychelles for instance. People say there is nothing to do in Seychelles but the party scene can grow. Parties on the beach would be nice for a change, special ones where the young can dance and mingle with the others. I’m talking about something well organized, well prepared, where there aren’t too many drunkards or disorderly behavior. That’s always the problem here. Often we want to organize fairs and events, but you always have a few who disrupt the activities.

Is this why tourists do not contribute to the local economy, because everything they spend is being injected into foreign hotels and companies rather than local events? If this is true, what can be done to remediate to this situation?

If you go to a fair, what can you do? There’s beer, burgers, and that’s it. So people drink and drink, and by 6am they’re completely finished. If you had those fairs where there are games and competitions, it would be more interesting than just sitting and drinking. It is possible to host street parties where you take people, local artists, jugglers and dancers and serve proper food. No burgers! I’ve never seen proper Creole food represented by burgers. Let’s have proper, clean areas where you can buy food and something different than just beers. It doesn’t have to be more expensive, just better organized and cleaner.

After my interview with you I have a meeting with some local artists because they are saying that they cannot live based solely on their art because hotels tend to not hire them anymore for entertainment nights. It’s also interesting to see that besides the Carnival and Creole Festival, there is not much else. And that’s a shame. On one side. you have the tourists saying that there is nothing happening at night, and on the other there are the artists saying they would like to perform more. Why not create some sort of open communication and compromise on when artists can play and at what rates? It should not be exorbitant, but at the end of the day artists need to eat as well so a compromise should be possible.

Seychelles is quite expensive to visit as well. Do you think tourists are getting value for their money?

Not always. A coffee is a coffee, an espresso is an espresso but it’s all about the way you present the espresso, it’s the smile that comes with it and the cleanliness in your service. Service is still something that we really have to work on. We have meetings with the Seychelles Tourism Academy to put together something between them and our association some kind of training on an ongoing basis for Praslin, La Digue, and Mahé.

Mahé is easier because most organizations are located here. However there should be a set up so that I can send an employee from my hotel on Praslin to Mahé so that he or she can learn certain skills, how to smile as they serve, and so forth. Maybe the education does not make them aware of the importance of service. They should learn to be more open with the clients, to talk and joke with them. It’s really one of my priorities to see how we can work together in the restaurant, front desk, all areas to improve on service.

Seychellois also have this notion that there are good and bad hotels to work for, and that if you work in a smaller hotel it is a bad thing. Everybody wants to work in the big hotels now, because of status. It’s all “Look at me, I’m working at Lemuria”, but if you work at a self-catering or smaller hotel it’s not so good. No! At the end of the day you’re making a client happy, and if anything you have better contact with clients in smaller establishments.

There have been concerns over the safety of tourists with ongoing instances of thefts in hotels. Kate Carolus, the former executive director, wrote to the Police Commissioner about the number of attacks and robberies on tourists, and there have been allegations of a rape on a tourist on Praslin. How have matters progressed since to improve the situation?

I think the main problem here is drugs, and whatever accompanies that issue. There is not real theft just for the sake of stealing; it’s always connected with something. For me, the drug situation in Seychelles is such a shame. But why do they resort to drugs? Because there is a lack of things to do, there is a lack of support. So when you feel a little sad in your head and start talking to certain people, you tend to go to that. It really goes back to education, to make Seychellois aware that there is so much more out there for them to do.

On Praslin, there are a lot of people on the beach disturbing tourists to go on excursions. But they don’t do it for the sake of making the tourists happy; it’s to get the money to get their fix. We need to make them proud of their job and empower them in that way. Give them an official t-shirt, emblazoned with the STB’s logo or whatever you want written on there, a proper table, and then the clients will come to them and pay them for their services. They are really disturbing the clients on the beach at the moment because they come and say “do you want an excursion?” and they turn them down. Five minutes later, another comes around asking the same thing. That’s about safety as well because clients get upset, you see? Ladies who are alone especially get scared of all these people coming and then they move and go to other beaches. So that is also about security. It all goes together.

I’ve heard that there is a centre that just opened on Praslin that is completely free. So you go there for a couple of weeks and once you get better they release you. But apparently very few people are going. For me the main thing is, come on, we have one airport and one port. It should be easy to police.

There also seems to be issues between taxi drivers and hotels, whereby both have difficulty cooperating. Why do you think this issue persists and what can be done?

I’ve seen the minutes of a cross sectorial meeting which was held last year. Cross sectorial means you have all the ministries and officials, and they said that by December 1, all taxis will have to install a taxi meter in order to operate legally and control prices based on the time of travel. Where are the meters now? I’m speechless, because either you do it, or you don’t. It’s simple. Look at the airport, if a taxi doesn’t have a meter, fine them until they get one. Every single Seychellois should do that. If the taxi doesn’t have a meter or his meter is not working, don’t go with them. I’ve just come from the airport to come to our offices at Espace, it took less than fifteen minutes but I had to pay SCR500! Of course tourists and clients will get upset. Taxis prices are abusive.

I don’t want to disrespect them. I know they provide a good service and some are really helpful and talk to their clients to inform them about Seychelles. What they fail to see is that you are a key person at the airport. When you take a person you are their first contact on the ground and if they like you they will keep you for the rest of their stay because the contact is nice. Instead of taking advantage of that, they overcharge them. Give them your card instead, and be nice to them. If they were cheaper even Seychellois would use taxis more. Sometimes at the jetty you see a lot of taxis, some official and some illegal. All the Seychellois will go to the illegal taxis, and the tourists go to the real taxis and all the while the police are there and they say nothing about it. You even have illegal taxis dropping off tourists at hotels and everyone sees them opening the door for them, collecting their money, and everyone sees it but say nothing. It’s a very frustrating situation.

What is your stance on the moratorium on hotels?

I think it’s very good. People are coming to Seychelles for the beauty of it, and there are some beaches where you can still be totally alone even during the peak season. It’s beautiful!

Somehow we still have to be a bit “sauvage” in terms of the natural environment and landscape of things. If you carry on with the building then what is the point, why should I travel 10 000km to see buildings and hotels? I could travel some place closer than Seychelles to see that. So that has to be the focus. The Creole style has to be put back into the construction. Things are much more standard now. You have a lot of places now that could be found anywhere else in the world, and that’s a shame. Within the upgrades and refurbishing of hotels we need to return to the Creole style, the local product. Tourists want to see shells, coconuts, that sort of thing. Like at Grand Anse on La Digue, they have these simple restaurants on the beach with wooden chairs, wooden roof, and feet in the sand… all that is good. Even five star clients go there and locals enjoy it too. That is something that could be more developed.

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